Part 5—The public will never be told: For obvious reasons, we should state the obvious.
Presumably, Harvard assistant professor Jal Mehta is a perfectly decent person—a person who is kind to his family, to his students, to his neighbors and friends.
It’s also true that Mehta made some sensible points in his lengthy op-ed column in Saturday’s New York Times.
How might we improve our public schools? Mehta noted that charter schools aren’t some sort of magic solution. Neither Michelle Rhee nor Diane Ravitch has a magic solution, he said.
That said, much of what Mehta said in his column just wasn’t gigantically sharp.
Mehta wants public school teachers to teach many fewer hours—and he wants public school students to have a longer school year.
He wants “rookie teachers” to be “carefully overseen by experts as they move from apprenticeship to proficiency, and then mastery.” But uh-oh! Having trashed the teaching profession within an inch of its life, our brilliant professor fails to explain where all those “experts” will come from.
He wants teachers to be drawn from the top thirty percent of college graduates. (This is one of the most familiar of all standard “reform” proposals.) Presumably, this will require substantial increases in teacher pay, even as we keep laying off teachers because we can’t afford them.
In fairness, Mehta includes a catchy hook. He says our schools are working from an outmoded “industrial-factory model.” In his mind, good teaching “requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields.”
This fuzzy construction is hard to parse. But pleasingly, it makes it sound like this professor has a Big Idea.
Might we borrow a mocking construction which has been making the rounds of late? In many ways, Mehta’s extremely long column represents a dumb person’s idea of a smart person’s proposal. (This may explain why it appealed to the suits at the New York Times.)
We don’t see a lot in that column. But whatever one thinks of Mehta’s proposals, however nice he may be as a person, there is one aspect of this column which is simply disgraceful—a fraud. That is the cherry-picking in which he engages, giving his readers a bogus idea of the state of play in our schools.
Again, we’ll ask you to consider the start of Mehta’s column. As he starts, he paints a very gloomy picture of the state of the public schools.
This is the way Mehta’s column began. Below, we will consider two basic ways he deceives his readers in this disgraceful passage:
MEHTA (4/13/13): In April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, “A Nation at Risk,” that American education was a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The alarm it sounded about declining competitiveness touched off a tidal wave of reforms: state standards, charter schools, alternative teacher-certification programs, more money, more test-based “accountability” and, since 2001, two big federal programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.Yesterday, we reviewed some of the ways Mehta cherry-picks his data from those international and domestic testing programs. In fairness, this cherry-picking is thoroughly standard among our “educational experts” and our education journalists.
But while there have been pockets of improvement, particularly among children in elementary school, America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre.
In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, which compares student performance across advanced industrialized countries, ranked American 15-year-olds 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math—trailing their counterparts in Belgium, Estonia and Poland. One-third of entering college students need remedial education. Huge gaps by race and class persist: the average black high school senior’s reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be at the level of the average white eighth grader’s. Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971.
As the education scholar Charles M. Payne of the University of Chicago has put it: “So much reform, so little change.”
By now, it almost seems that Mehta’s cherry-picked deceptions are somehow required.
That said, Mehta is baldly deceiving the public, like so many others before him. Let’s consider two of the ways he does this:
Reporting the gaps while hiding the gains: It’s true! Large “gaps by race and class” do persist in the data which emerge from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised federal testing program Mehta selects as his source.
It’s true! Black students still score well behind their white counterparts. It would be a much better world if this were not the case.
But Mehta engages in ugly cherry-picking when he hands his readers that fact without alerting them to another:
Today’s black students are scoring much better than black students scored in the past! In math and in reading, scores by black students are way up on the NAEP.
The same is true for Hispanic students, although you’d never guess such a thing from Mehta’s cherry-picked work.
On their face, those score gains by black kids are tremendous. For good or for ill, those “gaps in race and class persist” because white students are scoring better on the NAEP too.
But in his passage about “gaps by race,” Mehta does an ugly thing, an ugly thing which is cruel and deceptive:
He tells us black kids are still behind without telling us that they’re doing much better! He reports the gaps but hides the gains.
The public gets deceived in the process.
In fairness, this cherry-picking is totally standard within the class from which Mehta emerges. That said, the practice is grossly deceptive—especially when Mehta quotes an alleged educational expert moaning about “so little change.”
This conduct is an open disgrace. In reporting the gaps while hiding the gains, Mehta has conducted a fraud against the Times’ misused readers
Refusing to break up those test scores: “Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971,” Mehta sadly moans.
That isn’t quite accurate. If we adjust for a minor change in testing procedure adopted in 2004, 17-year-old students gained four points in reading on the NAEP scale from 1971 to 2008, the most recent year for which relevant data exist.
Still, that represents a very small gain. Why aren’t these statistics a sign of “so little change?”
For now, let’s ignore the problem with cherry-picking by age—with citing the scores of 17-year old students while ignoring the scores of younger students. Let’s consider something much simpler: Mehta’s refusal to “disaggregate” those test scores.
“Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971!” When Mehta offers that observation, he is discussing the average score in reading for all American students. But if we’re trying to evaluate the performance of our teachers and schools, we have to adjust for demographic changes those teachers and schools have faced.
Everyone understands this fact. Until they try to please Bloomberg types by telling the mandated tale of woe you see in Mehta's column.
What has happened to the student population in the past forty years? In the hope of restraining people like Mehta, the NAEP includes highly relevant warning passages early in its reports.
The passage which follows appears in the most recent report on the NAEP’s Long Term Trends Assessment, the very report Mehta uses. In this passage, the NAEP explains one major way things have changed in our public schools. Click here, scroll down to page 4:
NAEP MANUAL: Changes in the student population over time show a decrease in the percentages of White students in 2008 compared to 1971 at all three ages. In contrast, the percentages of Hispanic students increased in 2008 compared to 1975 at all three ages. For example, the percentage of White 9-year-olds decreased from 80 percent in 1975 to 56 percent in 2008, and the percentage of Hispanic 9-year-olds increased from 5 to 20 percent over the same period (see appendix table A-1). The percentage of Black students did not show a signiﬁcant change from 14 percent of 9-year-olds in 1971 to 16 percent in 2008.Alas! Due to our brutal racial history, our student population contains three large groups which are still quite distinct as populations. As Mehta notes, black students still don’t score nearly as well as white students (although the gaps have narrowed).
Hispanic students also score well below the level of whites, in part because many of these deserving students arrived in the country sometime last week, coming from low-income, low-literacy, non-English speaking backgrounds.
Those beautiful kids are here for two reasons: So their parents can serve our needs for low pay. And so their own educational challenges can be used to beat up on our unionized teachers.
By far, white students remain the highest-scoring group among these three major cohorts. But their portion of the student population has massively dropped over the period Mehta pretends to survey.
In 1975, this highest-scoring of these three groups comprised 80 percent of the student population. By 2008, the percentage had dropped all the way down to 56 percent.
Obviously, this change in demographics will tend to depress overall average scores. Everybody understands this blindingly obvious fact.
But because he wants to deceive you, Mehta gives the overall average scores for 17-year-old students, then gasps when he sees that there has been "so little change" in that overall score.
In truth, “no change” in the overall average is pretty good when you consider the challenge involved in our changed demographics. But guess what happens when you consider the scores of each large student group on its own?
What do we see when we “disaggregate” scores? We see black and Hispanic students making large gains in both reading and math! From 1971 through 2008, these are the (mammoth) score gains recorded by our black students. Again, we’re adjusting for that minor change in procedure in 2004:
Score gains in reading, black students only, NAEP Long-Term Trends Assessment, 1971-2008:As we explained yesterday, those are gigantic score gains. Among black students, the large gains exist even among 17-year-old students, where there is a further potential statistical problem (see yesterday’s post).
9-year-old students: 37 points
13-year-old students: 30 points
17-year-old students: 29 points
It’s hard to look at score gains like these and moan about “so little change.” For that reason, Mehta didn’t show you these data. Even though everyone knows you must, he didn’t disaggregate scores!
This is ugly conduct. It keeps Times readers from understanding the shape of their world. It keeps them from drawing hope from those large score gains. It keeps them from admiring black kids and their public school teachers.
In fairness to Mehta, modern “educational experts” all engage in this type of deception. That said, the “change” displayed by those disaggregated test scores is simply astounding. For that reason, those disaggregated scores are constantly being deep-sixed.
When the Times puts garbage like this into print, it commits a vast fraud on the public. Mehta should be ashamed of himself for hiding the data we have just shown you, while quoting an “expert” who sadly moans about “so little change.”
Let’s offer three final points about this horrible column:
Mehta’s deception of the public is completely conventional: When it comes to matters like this, overt deception of the public is the familiar norm.
Citizens are constantly handed some version of that pitiful cry: “So much reform, so little change.” The NAEP is constantly cited, with its data cherry-picked.
Mehta is distressed by the mediocrity of our teachers. As an academic, his own work in this column is completely incompetent.
His academic performance is a disgrace—but this is completely the norm. The American public is constantly played in precisely this manner.
Our fiery liberals show no sign of caring about these deceptions: Whatever liberal precinct you may inhabit, you haven’t seen a single word about Mehta’s column this week. Nor have you ever seen your liberal heroes push back against these standard deceptions.
Pushback from liberals doesn’t exist. The liberal world doesn’t care.
Rachel and Lawrence have never helped you with this, and you can feel sure that they never will. We liberals quit on black kids (and on public school teachers) a very long time ago.
None of this will change: No one you know will say a word about this deception of the public, or about the denigration of black students and their public school teachers.
In its towering incompetence, the Times will keep printing this type of material. These scripted deceptions are quite overt, but they will surely persist.
Alas! In our current form, we Americans are a poorly-functioning people. And when it comes to the lives of black kids, the liberal world just doesn’t care.
Black kids have made a shitload of progress on this, the gold standard of educational testing. On their face, their score gains are remarkable.
But Rachel and Lawrence don’t care for black kids. The public will never be told.