Part 2—Who is Professor Gordon: Adults don’t stand a chance with the New York Times.
Consider what happened in this week’s Sunday Review. Eventually, the bright young couples you see in those Times TV ads glanced at Professor Robert J. Gordon’s piece about the public schools.
They may not have actually read what he wrote. But they saw the gloomy headline, and they saw the gloomy visual. You can see the headline and visual just by clicking this.
The headline tells a gloomy tale, a story that’s very familiar. “The Great Stagnation of American Education,” it says.
The visual drives home the tale. It shows a big yellow school bus, the highly familiar type which takes children to school every day.
But uh-oh! A STOP sign bars children from entering the bus, which has broken down. The hood on the engine has been propped open. Black smoke pours up from under the hood.
Adults who read the New York Times are constantly handed this story. In this case, the gloom is spread by Professor Gordon, who rattles a set of easily memorized talking points in his actual piece.
Many of these points are extremely familiar. Some will perhaps be less familiar, but they all spread the gloom.
What does Professor Gordon say about the great stagnation of our K-12 education? He starts with a gloomy claim which may seem to echo a highly familiar point, the one about the first generation to do less well than their parents:
GORDON (9/8/13): For most of American history, parents could expect that their children would, on average, be much better educated than they were. But that is no longer true. This development has serious consequences for the economy.You'll note that Gordon doesn't say that these kids will do less well than their parents; it just maybe sounds like he does. As he continues, Professor Gordon advances a gloomy claim about “educational attainment,” a rather murky term:
GORDON (continuing directly): The epochal achievements of American economic growth have gone hand in hand with rising educational attainment, as the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have shown. From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year—enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.According to Professor Gordon, the growth in “educational attainment” has slowed to a crawl since 1990. The gloomy language may keep us from seeing what this means: whatever “educational attainment” is, it has still been growing.
That said, what does the professor mean by “educational attainment?” You’ll have to figure that out for yourselves; Professor Gordon never quite says what he means by that term. At this point, the professor spends some time discussing the slowing growth of the national economy. Before long, he returns to the public schools, with a claim which may not be familiar:
GORDON: Every high school dropout becomes a worker who likely won’t earn much more than minimum wage, at best, for the rest of his or her life. And the problems in our educational system pervade all levels.Did Professor Gordon just say that the drop-out rate has been rising? We’re not sure; we can’t help noting that qualifying phrase, bona fide high school diploma. (More on this point as our series continues. Much later, Gordon cites an educational economist who “has found evidence that high school...completion rates have begun to rise again,” though Gordon cites a gloomy reason for that rise.)
The surge in high school graduation rates—from less than 10 percent of youth in 1900 to 80 percent by 1970—was a central driver of 20th-century economic growth. But the percentage of 18-year-olds receiving bona fide high school diplomas fell to 74 percent in 2000, according to the University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman.
At any rate, the drop-out rate doesn’t typically figure in Standardized Tales about Our Broken-Down Schools. As he continues, Gordon returns to a type of claim which is extremely familiar:
GORDON (continuing directly): Then there is the poor quality of our schools. The Program for International Student Assessment [PISA] tests have consistently rated American high schoolers as middling at best in reading, math and science skills, compared with their peers in other advanced economies.Question: If our schools rate about as well as those in other developed nations, does that mean that they exhibit “poor quality?” In the land of Standardized Talking, it does! Needless to say, we must omit results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, international tests on which American students have scored higher in recent years than on the PISA.
After another long break, Professor Gordon again returns to the schools. In this passage, he shows that he can repeat sets of Highly Familiar Points which cut various ways:
GORDON: Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers. Many children are culturally disadvantaged, even if one or both parents have jobs, have no books at home, do not read to them, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning. Compared with other nations where students learn several languages and have math homework in elementary school, the American system expects too little. Parental expectations also matter: homework should be emphasized more, and sports less.Let us count the ways:
Poor academic achievement has long been a problem for African-Americans and Hispanics, but now the achievement divide has extended further. Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, has argued that “family breakdown is now biracial.” Among lower-income whites, the proportion of children living with both parents has plummeted over the past half-century, as Charles Murray has noted.
Our schools have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers! Many students are culturally disadvantaged! And not only that:
Our schools expect too little! Our parents are slackers; we over-emphasize sports! And not only that:
“The achievement divide has extended” beyond African-Americans and Hispanics, Professor Gordon says. As with much that he says in this passage, it isn’t quite clear what he means by this claim. But he seems to say that some biracial kids have experienced family breakdown too! Also, lower-income white kids!
Eventually, the professor ends his string of single-sentence claims about The Problems Infesting Our Greatly Stagnant Public Schools. These claims are familiar too:
GORDON: Other research has shown that high-discipline, “no-excuses” charter schools, like those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone, have erased racial achievement gaps. This model suggests that a complete departure from the traditional public school model, rather than pouring in more money per se, is needed.Some charter schools are kicking aspic! We need a complete departure from what we’re doing! Also, we need fuller early childhood education, and we need it earlier. Doctor and nurses should tell low-income parents how to nurture literacy in their new-born children!
Early childhood education is needed to counteract the negative consequences of growing up in disadvantaged households, especially for children who grow up with only one parent. Only one in four American 4-year-olds participate in preschool education programs, but that’s already too late. In a remarkable program, Reach Out and Read, 12,000 doctors, nurses and other providers have volunteered to include instruction on the importance of in-home reading to low-income mothers during pediatric checkups.
The professor has touched quite a few bases here. Some of his points make perfect sense. Most of his points are, or sound, extremely familiar.
Some of his points are so poorly expressed that they’re quite hard to interpret. But we tell this Standardized Story about Our Greatly Stagnant Schools, precision is rarely required, certainly not in the Times. We simply need to bring in the gloom. We need to justify the visual, in which a familiar yellow bus has tragically broken down.
As our series proceeds, we’ll examine the professor’s various points, including the points which are so fuzzy that it’s hard to tell what he’s saying. But for today, let’s ask a familiar question:
Who is Professor Gordon?
We were surprised, but not surprised, by what our research told us. In one of the three biographies of the professor on his own web site, we were soon reading this:
PROFESSOR GORDON’S WEB SITE: Professor Gordon is one of the worldʹs leading experts on inflation, unemployment, and productivity growth. His recent work on the rise and fall of the New Economy, the U. S. productivity growth revival, the recent stalling of European productivity growth, and the widening of U. S. income inequality, have been widely cited. He is the author of The Measurement of Durable Goods Prices, which has become known as the definitive work showing that government price indexes substantially overstate the rate of inflation. His book of collected essays, Productivity Growth, Inflation, and Unemployment, was published in 2004. He is editor of Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with His Critics, The American Business Cycle, and The Economics of New Goods. In addition he is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and more than 60 published comments on the research of others. In addition to his main field of macroeconomics, he is also a frequently quoted expert and author on the airline industry, and is the founder and president of an internet chat group on airline management.According to Professor Gordon, Professor Gordon is one of the worldʹs leading experts on inflation, unemployment, and productivity growth. He has written the definitive work showing that government price indexes substantially overstate the rate of inflation.
He’s also an expert on the airline industry. He founded an internet chat group.
None of that means that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he talks about public schools. But some of the points we have quoted sound extremely memorized.
Beneath that broken-down school bus, Professor Gordon offers a gloomy account of the public schools. That said, it’s a very familiar account. If you read the press corps at all, you could have rattled off most of those points exactly as Gordon did.
Many readers of Sunday’s Times took in that gloomy visual and that gloomy headline. In some cases, they read the professor’s gloomy account of Our Greatly Stagnant Schools.
Were these people getting the dope about the real state of the public schools? Or were they being exposed by the Times, once again, to a form of adult abuse?
Tomorrow: Professor Gordon’s points
This should be noted today: Was this, from a passage we've posted above, some sort of editing error?
“Many children are culturally disadvantaged, even if one or both parents have jobs, have no books at home, do not read to them, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning.”
You're right—that sentence doesn't make sense. It doesn't parse.
That said, it parses beautifully in one way. The whole darn sentence sounds gloomy!