ADULT ABUSE: Sort of a nervous bustdown!


Part 1—The Times brings in the gloom: Last Friday, we listed “five myths about public schools,” noting that there were others we could have chosen.

Just to refresh you, these were the five myths we chose:
Myth: American students have been losing ground, or showing no progress, in reading and math.
Myth: American students can’t compete with students in other nations.
Myth: American students were once the best in the world on international tests.
Myth: The United States is constantly humbled by educational powers like Finland.
Myth: Our “achievement gaps” are as large as ever.
Just to be clear, did we say that those are the myths?

In fact, American test scores have risen in major ways over the past twenty years. American students often outscore their peers in other large developed nations. And our achievement gaps have been getting smaller. In large part, the gaps persist because all three major groups in the student population have been scoring better.

Black and Hispanic kids have scored much better, in reading and math. But doggone it! White kids have scored better too!

American schools should, could and will do better than they’re currently doing. They can and should do a better job of imparting the basic skills. They can and should do a better job of involving American kids in the joy of the search.

Unfortunately, our public discourse is clogged by myths about the current state of affairs in the public schools. These myths are endlessly advanced all through the upper-end press corps.

Yesterday, we saw the latest example of that familiar state of affairs. But first, we said there were other possible myths. This would have been our sixth:
Myth: American teachers have ruined the public schools.
Since basic achievement seems to be rising, it’s hard to say that anyone has ruined our public schools. Logically, American teachers can’t have ruined the public schools, since the public schools haven’t been ruined.

You'd think the logic there would be clear. But if we had moved to a seventh myth, it might have gone something like this:
Myth: The American press corps is willing, and able, to discuss public school issues.
Alas! Down through the years, the press corps has rarely conducted a serious discussion about the public schools. From the highest levels on down, journalists rarely seem to possess the basic skills needed for such discussions.

Nor do they display the will to engage in a genuine search. Instead, the public is offered a familiar set of scripts, which represent the “conventional wisdom.”

These scripts are typically gloomy; they're also misleading and/or wrong. Yesterday, the New York Times abused its readers with the latest sample.

Alas! In the Sunday Outlook section, Professor Gordon held forth. We refer to Professor Robert J. Gordon of the Northwestern economics department.

To see Professor Gordon posing with either Lucky or Toto, click here for his personal web page. To confirm the names of the professor’s pet dogs, click here for his one-page biography.

That said, Professor Gordon is a man of many biographies. For his two-page biography, just click this. For his paragraph biography, click here.

Yesterday, Professor Gordon was spreading the gloom pretty good. Including the headline, this is the way his gloomy piece began:
GORDON (9/8/13): The Great Stagnation of American Education

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.

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.
On line, the piece is accompanied by a cartoon picture of a yellow school bus, the traditional symbol of public schools. A STOP sign bars children from entering its door. The hood on the engine has been propped open. Dark smoke billows from the engine, suggesting no Pope has been chosen.

If you read the New York Times, you are constantly subjected to gloomy claims and representations of precisely this type. Just last month, the former executive editor of the Times asserted, in his weekly op-ed column, that the new Common Core standards were created to address this nation’s “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education.”

The visual on the Gordon piece suggests that he is discussing K-12 education too—and he does, in several passages, often seeming to have little idea what he is talking about.

In fairness, if a Times reader interprets Gordon that way, his claim is softer than Bill Keller’s. Last month, Keller referred to an “embarrassing decline” in our public schools. Softened by his love for Lucky and Toto, the professor only seems assert an age of “great stagnation.”

Great stagnation is better than embarrassing decline, though the visual employed by the Times suggests a total breakdown—“sort of a nervous bustdown of some kind,” to quote the mordant Woody Guthrie. Fuller text below!

In this case, the nervous bustdown may belong to the journalists at the Times—even to Professor Gordon, who isn’t an education specialist and doesn’t seem to know whereof he speaks when he repeats a string of easily memorized claims about familiar public school topics.

The professor has great love for his dogs; he has produced biographies of himself at three different lengths. But does he know what he’s talking about when he talks about public schools? Or is his piece the latest example of the familiar adult abuse which so often takes the place of an actual public discourse?

Tomorrow: Who is Professor Gordon?

The fuller quotation: The illustration in the Times shows a broken-down school bus. A STOP sign tells children not to enter.

We thought of Woody Guthrie’s famous lyrics about the ride out of the Dust Bowl. The song is called Talkin' Dustbowl Blues. To hear Woody talk it, click here:
The rain it quit and the wind got high
And the black ol' dust storms filled the sky
And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine
And I filled it full of this gas-i-line and started—
Rollin' an' a-drift-in' to California.

Way up yonder on a mountain road
I had a hot motor and a heavy load
I’s a-goin’ pretty fast, I wasn't even stoppin’
I was a-bouncin' up and down like popcorn a-poppin’,
Had a breakdown.
Sort of a nervous bustdown of the mechanism there
Some kind of en-gine trouble.

It was a-way up yonder on a mountain road
I wasn’t feelin' so very good
And I give this rollin' Ford a shove
An' I's a-gonna coast as far as I could.
Commenced to rollin', pickin' up speed
And there was a hairpin turn and I couldn't make it

Man alive, I'm a-tellin' you
The fiddles and the guitars really flew.
That Ford took off like a flying squirrel
An' it flew halfway around the world.
Scattered wives and childrens
All over the side of that mountain...
Is that where we stand in the public schools? When it published that gloomy illustration, that’s what the New York Times said!


  1. Gosh, getting such people to actually examine the assumptions they makes seems to be impossible but they are humored so that why should they?

  2. "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."

    I apologize if other commenters are already aware of this stuff, but I find that even people in their 40s are not aware of basic facts about education in our recent past. So,
    I wonder how many Times readers are aware that as recently as the 1940's it was not routine for students to continue to high school, much less complete it. An 8th grade education was considered sufficient (especially in rural areas), high schools had entrance exams (much as colleges do today) and only those interested in entering a profession continued in school. A high school education was sufficient to teach K-12 public school before WWII. Most of the increase in "educational attainment" occurred from 1950-1970, with the professionalization of teaching, implementation of standards and testing, creation of teacher colleges, and formal teacher training. Graduation by all students is a modern goal, as is college attendance by a large proportion of students (encouraging them to take college prep courses in high school). Of course educational attainment has increased with such a change in goals and expectations of parents and employers.

    Because these major changes were in place before 1990, how much additional increase is possible after then? The rate of improvement must decrease because the largest changes have already been made. We are now at the point of improving HOW children are taught by understanding more about how they learn (and how the mind works). That is being informed by cognitive psychology and empirical examination in the classroom of what works and how to mentor teachers. Best practices are being identified and applied more broadly, but to expect the same rate of improvement from these sorts of changes is not reasonable compared to the major increases to be had simply by requiring more students to attend school longer. We may be reaching a point where further improvement will depend on societal changes to support development of young children and change poverty and other obstacles that prevent kids from benefitting from the educational opportunities now in place for them.

    I also wonder whether people appreciate how much the volume of knowledge has increased, how much more someone must know today in order to be considered well educated in a specific field. The technical specifics needed to understand whether American education has improved is an example -- most people cannot reel off the names of the relevant tests the way Somerby does, much less know how to make comparisons using the statistics published. So, the complaint that this Professor is not an expert in education is valid and representative of the fact that there are no more polymaths in an age where the core body of learning needed for a basic understanding has expanded in every field. I think that is part of why the Times is doing such a poor job of informing readers on most topics -- how can barely graduated young reporters without specialization produce competent overviews or analyses of complex topics on a daily basis? Journalism perhaps needs to rethink how it hires and compensates writers.

    1. "I wonder how many Times readers are aware that as recently as the 1940's it was not routine for students to continue to high school, much less complete it. An 8th grade education was considered sufficient (especially in rural areas), high schools had entrance exams (much as colleges do today) and only those interested in entering a profession continued in school. A high school education was sufficient to teach K-12 public school before WWII. "

      Great comment. There's another aspect, too. In the past we barred the door to a whole bunch of kids. We just didn't let them in if they had any disability at all.
      I have an older acquaintance who was involved in a serious accident as a child which left him with some brain damage. He never returned to school after the accident. There simply was no public school available to disabled children in the rural area where he lived (and lives).
      His education simply ended at 11 years old.
      I keep this in mind when I see those silly, facile "bang for our buck?" education spending graphs media churns out.

  3. Has anyone every written an OpEd in the NYT explaining the myths described in this post?

    Why are so few people willing to say that, assuming one is concerned with test scores, schools have improved steadily for years?

    I assume that it is like most things - there's no money to be made in telling the truth.

  4. Very good post and comments. In reference to Anonymous' comment about high school above. In Finland, and perhaps some other countries, high school is tuition free but not compulsory (though almost universally attended.) It is more like community college. Primary school starts at age seven and continues for nine years, (the equivalent of our 10th grade). There is no tracking in primary school so everyone receives the same education. Upon graduation students can choose an academic or technical high school (and it is possible to switch, if need be, there are programs for catching up). I gather that in Finland, businesses are involved in job training -- unlike here.

    I also understand that Finnish University entrance exams are arduous, but once admitted, the student's tuition and board are paid for by the state. --Ellen

  5. Finland has universal health care, free university education and a child poverty rate in the 3% to 5% range while the US child poverty rate is above 22%. In the US, teacher unions are blamed for just about everything. Finland's teachers are unionized and in fact the overall unionization rate in Finland is about 74%. The US unionization rate is at 11.3% and falls every year because there is a well funded and well coordinated all out nuclear war against unions. We have right to work (FOR LESS) states and the Taft Hartley Act which make unionization very difficult if not impossible in some states. There is no war on unions in Finland.