ADULT ABUSE: Two different worlds!


Interlude—Times profiles Ravitch: Readers of Sunday’s New York Times were exposed to a Familiar Old Story—an easily memorized, often-told tale about “the poor quality of our schools.”

The messaging was conveyed by the headline on the piece—and by a gloomy visual.

In the visual, a bright yellow school bus has broken down. Smoke is pouring from under the hood. Gloomily, the headline says this:

“The Great Stagnation of American Education.”

The writer, Professor Robert J. Gordon, rattles a list of familiar complaints about our public schools, the kinds of complaints a typical pundit could recite in his or her sleep.

Some of Gordon’s complaints and claims make sense. Some of them pretty much don’t. But is the general situation as bad as Gordon seems to suggest? His gloomy piece starts like this:
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.

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.
There’s a lot of air in that opening paragraph, partly thanks to the helpful word “much.” At this point, it isn’t clear what Gordon means by “educational attainment.”

That said, Gordon’s claims sound very gloomy—especially perched beneath that bus. That said, is it true?

Has “improvement” slowed to a crawl since 1990? In part, it depends on what the professor means—and sometimes, that isn’t real clear.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Professor Gordon’s various claims, which are rather selective and often unclear. For today, we thought we’d give you a look at a different world.

We start with today’s New York Times. On the first page of the National section, Motoko Rich profiles Diane Ravitch, who has a new book about public schools.

Kirkus has already penned its review. This is the way it starts:
KIRKUS: A noted education authority launches a stout defense of the public school system and a sharp attack on the so-called reformers out to wreck them.

We’ve been misinformed, writes Ravitch, about the state of our public schools. Test scores are higher than ever, the dropout rate is lower, and achievement gaps among races are narrowing. The only “crisis” is the one ginned up by government bureaucrats, major foundations, an odd coalition of elitists and commercial hustlers intent on privatizing education...When it comes to education, notoriously plagued by fads, it’s always difficult to determine truth. Ravitch, however, earns the benefit of the doubt by the supporting facts, figures, and graphs she brings to her argument...
Say what? If “test scores are higher than ever,” why did the New York Times show that school bus broken down?

Kirkus can be wrong, of course. David Kirp, a Berkeley professor, is smart and very experienced as an education specialist.

Last week, we cited his treatment of Ravitch’s book. Here’s part of what Kirp wrote:
KIRP (9/4/13): In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch documents how public education’s antagonists have manufactured a crisis in order to advance their agenda. They deploy doom-and-gloom language to characterize the threat...

Exhibit A in the sky-is-falling argument is the claim that test scores are plummeting. Ravitch shows that, quite the contrary, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, have never been higher. (The biggest gains in NAEP scores were recorded before the No Child Left Behind Act, with its fixation on teacher accountability and high-stakes testing, was implemented.) Nor do American students perform as badly as advertised on international exams—in 2011 tests of math and science, only a handful of countries did better.
Say what? Kirp makes the same observation as Kirkus, except with more detail. NAEP scores have never been higher!

Depending on what Professor Gordon is trying to say, it’s like we’re living in two different worlds! The gloom and the doom are very familiar—but Kirp says the gloom isn’t true.

Why the heck did the New York Times show us that broken-down school bus? That visual told a familiar old tale. But is that familiar tale true?

As usual, you won’t find out by reading Rich’s profile of Ravitch. In fairness, it isn’t the world’s longest profile. And it isn’t a formal review.

But Rich is an education reporter, and the profile is a featured news report in the National section. It just doesn’t make any real attempt to evaluate, or even state, the claims in Ravitch’s book.

Are test scores higher than ever? No such claim is mentioned. Instead, we get a type of soft profile, focused on Ravitch’s personality and life style. We get to learn about her pet Labrador-German shepherd mix, but not about what she has said.

Rich’s observations today aren’t wrong. But people, where’s the beef?

Tomorrow, we’ll return to the claims of Professor Gordon, who isn’t an education specialist. Does Gordon know what he’s talking about? Or did the Times let him blow a string of familiar old claims right straight out of his ascot?

Tomorrow: Professor Gordon’s various claims

Friday: What the Times should report


  1. Diane Ravitch is a national treasure; she's one of a very few respected scholars standing up to the school privatizers who want to dismantle our public schools because of "ourfailingschools" don't you know.

    1. OK, you like D.R. -- but can you see that's entirely non-responsive?

  2. The piece is horrible. I get that it's not a "formal" review but why bother to write something if it's just a hit and run?

    I love that the NYTimes has now designated me part of The Left because I disagree with Bobby Jindal and Milton Friedman on public education. They're moderate centrists while I'm a crazed radical because I'd like to retain my local public school system, I guess. What a crock. I reject it. It's nonsense. I think the local school board members will be surprised to find out they're The Left, according to the education writer at the NYTimes, because I don't know a single one of them who supports these wasteful, faddish, reckless "reforms". She shouldn't confuse "complying with federal and state reform mandates" with "support". The two things are not the same.

  3. Also, would someone alert the NYTimes education team that many, many states do not have "teachers union"s?
    They could start with the southern half of the United States. This ridiculous parochial framing they use where it's "teachers unions" versus "reformers" is not just wildly skewed towards privatization, it is also inaccurate.
    Do they really imagine that places like Texas and North Carolina who have also rejected chunks of the reform agenda are organized labor strongholds? Maybe they could wander out of the Education Division and check in with the News Division.

    1. Also, would someone alert the NYTimes education team that many, many states do not have "teachers union"s?

      [I did not know this and find this important, where is such information to be found?]

    2. Here in Alabama we have a very powerful teachers' union.

    3. You can start here:

      They are supposed to be a national newspaper. Writing about "education" when they are really talking about "education in New York City and DC" is not helpful. They're have a huge influence on the people who run public education nationally, which means the rest of us end up with their preferred policy. They have a duty to know these things.

      It's a big country.

    4. Alabama is a right to work state is it not? How can the teachers' union be so strong?

    5. That comment was posted by someone who does not work in education. A "very strong" teachers' union might minimal.

  4. OMB (Pooch Poo Edition)

    "We get to learn about her pet Labrador-German shepherd mix, but not about what she has said." Somerby 9/11

    Poor Matoko Rich (whose surname sound like a suspicious courge of Al Gore. If he had half the talent of BOB he would have cut and pasted Ravitch's words three times
    AND told us the goddamn dog's name!

    KZ (Ruler of Doom)

    1. Trollish rubbish, but you know that and just enjoy being a creepy troll.

    2. Yes, go bother people at some other blog.

    3. The ravings of a lunatic. Please, go away.

    4. So what is the trollery here? What bothers people? Suggesting that BOB is like Gail Collins by using Gordon's column for the third time as a space filler here in this post, or alluding to the fact that Rich doesn't have the courtesy to name the dog he mentions, as BOB did when informing us about Professor Gordon's pets Lucky and Toto?


    5. KZ, if you're going to criticize Somerby, try doing it on more substantive grounds--God knows they're superabundant. For example, Somerby's blog has a very narrow focus--some say ludicrously narrow, others say much narrower these days than years ago, when he would have focused, for example, on the media's reaction to the build-up to a Syrian attack had it occurred back then. But Somerby's many defenders say that it's Somerby's prerogative to have as limited a focus as he chooses, and reject the demands for more substance. Hence, KZ, you can now throw in the faces of such defenders Somerby's hypocritical cry of "Where's the beef?" just because the NY Times, in ONE PARTICULAR article, looks at someone's life style and not their viewpoint.

    6. More substantive grounds, eh, Crtical Judgement?

      Throw some of Somerby's hypocrisy in his face?


      I'll have to think that over. I wonder if the Liberal World would be able to notice if I did. I mean, after all, with civilizations ending and paralysis all around, the Liberal World might choose to turn its head and drop and R bomb or something. We just don't know.

      KZ (Formerly PPP)

  5. Part 1:

    Motoko Rich went to Yale, so presumably she's one of our "best and brightest."

    RIch has been the NY Times education reporter for about a year. Prior to that she reported on economics for three years. And she cannot seem to get the "market" nonsense out of her head.

    She ought to be reporting on, say, the goofiness perpetrated by the likes of Norm Augustine. As CEO at Martin Marietta, Augustine brokered the merger of that company with Lockheed to produce Lockheed Martin and got taxpayers to subsidize nearly a billion dollars of the merger cost, including tens of millions in bonuses for executives (Augustine netted over $8 million). And then the merged company laid off thousands of workers. The promised efficiencies and cost savings to the government (and taxpayers) have yet to materialize.

    Lockheed Martin is is now the largest of the big defense contractors, yet its government contracts are hardly limited to weapons systems. While Lockheed has broadened its services, it is dependent on the government and the taxpayers for its profits. It's also #1 on the " 'contractor misconduct' database" which tracks contract abuse and misconduct. Meanwhile, while Norm Augustine touts the need for more STEM graduates (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and STEM teachers for public schools, Lockheed islaying off thousands of engineers. Research studies show there is no STEM shortage, but Augustine says (absurdly) that it’s critical to American economic “competitiveness.”

    A 2004 RAND study “found no consistent and convincing evidence that the federal government faces current or impending shortages of STEM workers...there is little evidence of such shortages in the past decade or on the horizon.” The RAND study concluded “if the number of STEM positions or their attractiveness is not also increasing” –– and both are not –– then “measures to increase the number of STEM workers may create surpluses, manifested in unemployment and underemployment.”

  6. Part 2 (Rich):

    A 2007 study by Lowell and Salzman found no STEM shortage (see: ). Indeed, Lowell and Salzman found that “the supply of S&E-qualified graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally. Further, the number of undergraduates completing S&E studies has grown, and the number of S&E graduates remains high by historical standards.” The “education system produces qualified graduates far in excess of demand.”

    Lowell and Salzman concluded that “purported labor market shortages for scientists and engineers are anecdotal and also not supported by the available evidence...The assumption that difficulties in hiring is just due to supply can have counterproductive consequences: an increase in supply that leads to high unemployment, lowered wages, and decline in working conditions will have the long-term effect of weakening future supply.” Lowell and Salzman noted that “available evidence indicates an ample supply of students whose preparation and performance has been increasing over the past decades.”

    Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote this stunning statement recently in the Columbia Journalism Review (see: ):

    “Leading experts on the STEM workforce, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students. In fact, according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.”

  7. Part 3 (Rich)

    So why the STEM emphasis by the likes of Bill Gates and Norm Augustine? Benderly continues:

    “Simply put, a desire for cheap, skilled labor, within the business world and academia, has fueled assertions—based on flimsy and distorted evidence—that American students lack the interest and ability to pursue careers in science and engineering, and has spurred policies that have flooded the market with foreign STEM workers. This has created a grim reality for the scientific and technical labor force: glutted job markets; few career jobs; low pay, long hours, and dismal job prospects for postdoctoral researchers in university labs; near indentured servitude for holders of temporary work visas.”

    Benderly reports that an engineering professor at Rochester Institute of Technology told a Congressional committee last summer this:

    “Contrary to some of the discussion here this morning, the STEM job market is mired in a jobs recession…with unemployment rates…two to three times what we would expect at full employment….Loopholes have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers with ordinary skills…to directly substitute for, rather than complement, American workers. The programs are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to American workers.”

  8. Part 4 (Rich):

    Norm Augustine is a charlatan of the first order. SO too are those who share his "vision."

    As I've noted any number of times, the World Economic Forum evaluates and ranks countries on economic competitiveness each year. The U.S. was typically ranked 1st or 2nd each year, but recently has started to slide down; it dropped to 4th last year (2010-11) and to 5th this year (2011-12).

    When the U.S. dropped from 2nd to 4th in 2010-11, four factors were cited by the WEF for the decline: (1) weak corporate auditing and reporting standards, (2) weak (poor) corporate ethics, (3) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street's financial implosion) and (4) unsustainable levels of debt.

    More recently, major factors cited by the WEF are a "business community" and business leaders who are "critical toward public and private institutions," a lack of trust in politicians and the political process with a lack of transparency in policy-making, and "a lack of macroeconomic stability" caused by decades of fiscal deficits, especially deficits and debt accrued over the last decade that "are likely to weigh heavily on the country’s future growth."

    It's interesting that the WEF cites the top economic competitors –– those ranking higher than the U.S. –– for efficiency, trust, transparency, ethical behavior, and honesty. Corporate "reformers" like Norm Augustine seem to take absolutely no notice.

    Neither, apparently, do education "reporters" like Motoko Rich.