TWO KINDS OF FACTS: A commenter’s wish for the public schools!

MONDAY, JUNE 17, 2013

Part 5—One commenter wants information: On June 9, in the Sunday Review, the New York Times featured a piece by Hacker and Dreifus about the public schools.

For part 1 in our series, click this.

In extremely fuzzy prose, Hacker and Dreifus asked a good question about the effects of the Common Core standards which will soon take effect in the schools. But alas! Along the way, they included a familiar type of bogus claim about the performance of American students on international tests.

How well do American students perform on international tests? It seems to be against the law to answer that basic question. In comments to the New York Times piece, one reader from Ann Arbor dreamed a very great dream:
COMMENTER FROM ANN ARBOR (6/9/13): To understand the important subject of this article, we need to understand in some detail how the findings of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment were developed. We also need to understand the relevance of these findings to the enviable economic success of nations like South Korea.

The New York Times can help by publishing a thoroughly researched series of articles or at least by providing links to reliable sources.
In Ann Arbor, this reader dreamed of reading “a thoroughly researched series of articles” about international testing.

In the New York Times!

Reader, dream on! It’s extremely unlikely that such a series will ever appear in the New York Times, or in any other major American paper. For reasons we can’t explain, it seems to be against the law to provide “thoroughly researched” information about public schools to the American reader.

Instead, we receive highly familiar, fanciful tales about our students’ pitiful failures. These highly familiar, inaccurate tales are built upon two kinds of facts—invented and withheld.

The invention of such novelized tales lies at the heart of the process we still refer to as journalism. That process produced the inaccurate claim authored by Hacker and Dreifus:
HACKER AND DREIFUS (6/9/13): It is widely known that American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math, an alarming shortfall in a competitive era. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment [PISA], the United States ranks 24th out of 34 countries in “mathematics literacy,” trailing Sweden and the Czech Republic, and 11th in “reading literacy,” behind Estonia and Poland. (South Korea ranks first in both categories.)
In fact, American students do not “score well below their European peers in reading and math” on international tests. Even on the tests the authors cherry-picked for maximum gloomy effect, American students outscored their peers in the major European nations in reading.

American students did not score well below their European peers! In fact, American students outscored their peers in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.

(On other international tests, American students outscore their European counterparts in math as well. The PISA produces the gloomiest outcomes, so it is constantly cited.)

In a very high-profile piece, Hacker and Dreifus made an obvious misstatement of fact. Pedants will also challenge their logic. If American students ranked 11th out of 34 nations in reading on the PISA, as the professors said, how could they be “scoring well below” their peers?

They couldn’t be—but whatever! Again and again, the pattern obtains: In service to our society’s Standard Stories, fact and logic are thrown away. Highly familiar novelized bullroar remains.

Alas! That reader from Ann Arbor dreams of journalistic behavior from the New York Times. He is very unlikely to see his dream fulfilled.

There will be no “thoroughly researched series of articles” explaining the way American students perform on the various international tests. Nor will there be a series of articles showing the remarkable score gains of the past twenty years on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP). Within American pseudo-journalism, the rules of this game are well known:

Everybody praises the NAEP—but no one describes the NAEP data! Instead, we keep getting handed standardized claims by scriveners like the aptly named Hacker.

It’s astonishing to see the way these misstatements just keep getting churned. It’s astounding to see the way the progressive world has sat around in recent decades and let this process occur in various policy areas.

Sadly, when we progressives do fight back, we tend to invent pseudo-facts of our own! In comments to the Hacker/Dreifus piece, readers cited various forms of a very shaky pseudo-fact the progressive world has adopted:
COMMENTER FROM WESTCHESTER, NEW YORK: The authors state that it is well known that on standard tests of English and math American middle and high school students score much below their counterparts in Europe and Asia. According to the national expert on these matters, Professor Diane Ravitch at NYU, this conclusion does not state the facts. It does not account for the differences in economic class among American students. Essentially, schools with more than 25 percent poverty level kids score lower on average that European and Asian schools. Schools with 75 percent or better student population above poverty line achieve scores that are on par with their European and Asian counterparts.

COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK CITY: Why is it that every article I read points out that our students do poorly in international comparisons, but fails to mention as Diane Ravitch points out repeatedly, that if you drop the lowest 10 percent of our students living in poverty the remaining students outscore students on international comparisons?

COMMENTER FROM TUCSON: When test scores from the affluent zip codes in America are compared to test scores internationally, there is no problem with American education. When you add in students from all zip codes, that's where the gap occurs.

COMMMENTER FROM CHICAGO: As noted researcher Linda Darling-Hammond found, students in the United States score better on tests than their European/Asian counterparts IF you factor out poverty and low socio-economic students. Why don't we ever look at that salient point?
In response to that commenter from Chicago, a New York City reader said this: “In fact, that's not true. When factored out, even our best schools were hovering around the 18th. Please look through the NYTimes archive for the exact numbers.”

In a more rational word, a newspaper like the New York Times would examine this hodgepodge of claims in that “thoroughly researched series of articles.” But you don’t live in any such world. Nor is there any sign that anyone at the Times would know how to produce such a series, even if they wanted to.

Our world isn’t like that.

Our world is not journalistic. Our world is built around novelized tales which are crafted from two types of facts—invented and withheld. With that in mind, let’s state the obvious: The novelized tale about Finland’s great schools appears in the comments to the Hacker-Dreifus article too. Within our prevailing culture, there is no tale so silly or false that it won’t become part of the narrative.

No, Virginia: American students do not “score well below their European peers in reading and math.” Explain the following points and you will have cracked the code which has made a joke of our discourse:

How is it that the New York Times just keeps printing bogus claims of this type? How is it that the progressive world just sits back and lets this occur?

When you have explained these two basic points, you will have explained our pseudo-journalistic world. In the meantime, one reader dreams of “a thoroughly researched series of articles” about the way American students perform on international tests.

Those articles will not appear. Culturally, the New York Times is all about getting along in the Hamptons. Truthfully, the New York Times doesn’t care how students perform on tests.

No fact could be more clear. This fact has not been invented.

Two topics for extra credit: For extra credit, explain these points:

For the past forty years, the American public was told that Social Security would be going bankrupt. The liberal world made no attempt to challenge this grossly deceptive claim.


Remarkable score gains have been achieved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But even as public school teachers get demonized, their professional organizations fail to explain this fact.


Go ahead—answer those questions. You will have explained a major part of our rapidly failing world.


  1. "For the past forty years, the American public was told that Social Security would be going bankrupt. The liberal world made no attempt to challenge this grossly deceptive claim.



    The "liberal world," as you call it, is actually a neo-liberal world. Democratic politicians and their financial backers, neo-liberals all, do not actually support Social Security -- expecting them to defend it is absurd.

    What we call the Democratic party is a thoroughly neo-liberal institution. Yes, it contains many liberals in its voting base -- because they have nowhere else to go! -- but in its economic thinking the party is entirely dominated by the same market illusions as the GOP.

    So there have actually been challenges to this consenus, but this pushback hasn't come from where you're looking for it.

    The people who have challenged the false bankruptcy consensus (Dean Baker and others) haven't been able to get a real hearing because they do not represent the liberal establishment (which is really a neo-liberal establishment).

    Their critique of economics, like your own critique of media, remains marginalized because no one who owns a megaphone (TV, print, electronic) is going to give it over to the dirty f*cking hippies who don't support and apologize for the God of The Market.

    On education however, it's a different story!!

    On economics the "liberals" are very nearly as awful as the GOP, because they actually do care: they care about keeping wealth and privilege concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest (themselves and their patrons).

    On education though, the story is exactly as you've written it, Bob: They just don't give a shi!t about education and "the poors."

  2. Anon 11:41 pounds the nail in nicely. I might add, you won't get an attentive and combative liberal establishment, in or out of the media, without an actual liberal political party in public life. Here the analysts note that Bill Clinton sold out the remnants of actual liberalism years ago to Wall Street and has been profiting enormously ever since. Even in Arkansas, the Clintons were famous for talking progressive, and governing center right; that reputation preceded Willie to Washington, where, during a widely reported meeting, Alan Greenspan instantly talked Bill out of his progressive campaign promises, by insisting the bond market wouldn't like liberal governance.

    The education fail is, however, a bit different. Hacker, who's an actual liberal, is usually pretty thorough in his areas of actual expertise. He appears, in this instance, to have blindly accepted the prevailing narrative line (note his passive construction in his assessments of the performance of American kids).

    Of course, Hacker is hardly alone in succumbing to myth. For example, the analysts at TDH simply can't accept that their "liberal" heroes sold out liberal governance years ago, and that there will be no media advocacy for policy positions no major promoting is actually promoting.

    1. Could you re-type your last sentence, thanks.

  3. Kind of off topic, but a ray of hope all the same... Maybe TDH is getting results, I don't know, but I invite you all to check out the comments thread on Maureen Dowd's Sunday column. She was basically shouted down in the comments section, dismissed as "the queen of snark" and told again and again that her schtick is getting old.