Part 1—The mystery: Bill Keller is a major American journalist, one with whom we almost share the old school system tie.
In June 1965, we graduated from Aragon High in San Mateo, California. One mile down the Alameda, Keller was a student at Serra, a Catholic high school which later gave us Barry Bonds and Tom Brady.
And Bill Keller! Despite his selection of high schools, Keller built a career which took him to the top of the American press corps. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
From 1997 through 2001, he was managing editor of the New York Times. He was executive editor of the Times from 2003 through 2011. That means he was in charge!
Today, he writes a weekly column for the Times, the best known American newspaper.
Everything we’ve ever seen about Keller tells us he’s a good decent person. Full disclosure: We’re strongly biased in favor of San Mateans.
That said, Keller is also a major American journalist. But so what? Despite or because of that fact, he offered a weird assessment in a recent Times column, even as the nation’s children got ready to go back to school:
KELLER (8/19/13): The Common Core, a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers, made its debut in 2010, endorsed by 45 states. It is to be followed in the 2014-15 school year by new standardized tests that seek to measure more than the ability to cram facts or master test-taking tricks...Say what? What in the world made Keller think that we have experienced “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education” here in the country which includes San Mateo and New York?
This is an ambitious undertaking, and there is plenty of room for debate about precisely how these standards are translated into classrooms. But the Common Core was created with a broad, nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable.
Why would a major journalist write that? As background, let’s drift back to 1969, the year we finished college.
That September, we began teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools. Two years later, the federal government initiated the testing program known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the program which is often called “America’s report card.”
At present, only a fool would trust results from the statewide testing programs conducted by the fifty states over the past dozen years. That said, the NAEP has always been regarded as a whole other critter.
The NAEP has never been a “high stakes” testing program. Until recently, no one ever had an incentive to fake its results.
Beyond that, the NAEP is run by people who are technically competent and adequately funded. Statewide testing programs? Truthfully, not so much!
In part for these reasons, reporters constantly refer to the NAEP as the “gold standard” of educational testing. But as we have often noted, those same reporters rarely report the most basic data from the NAEP, except for the so-called “achievement gaps,” which can be used to paint a gloomy picture.
In part, that’s why ranking journalists like Keller often seem to have no idea about the apparent state of the public schools.
Has this country really “suffered decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education?” Not if you go by the data produced by the widely praised “nation’s report card. To wit:
In 1971, we were in our third year of teaching fifth grade in Baltimore. In that year, the NAEP conducted its first set of tests, testing a nationwide sample of 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in reading.
Two years later, the NAEP conducted its first nationwide math tests.
The kids we were teaching in both of those years were all “black.” Since Keller believes that we have endured “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education,” let’s compare the average scores of black kids in 1971 and 1973 with the average scores achieved by black kids last year.
To review the data in question, click here. Scroll to Figures 7 and 9 (page 16), then to Figures 23 and 25 (page 38).
In reading, the average score by black 9-year-old students has risen from 170 to 206 during those four decades. Allowing for a minor methodological change which occurred in 2004, scores have risen by 39 points over those 41 years.
Again in reading, the average score by black 13-year-old students has risen by 30 points during those four decades.
Is 30-39 points a lot or a little? According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often said to equal one academic year. Applying that very rough rule of thumb, the score gains would seem very large.
Similar gains have been recorded in math. In math, the average score by 9-year-old black students has risen by 39 points since the first testing in 1973. The average score by black 13-year-old students has risen by 41 points during that period.
Those are the best educational data the nation possesses. But very few people have ever heard about these data. Apparently this includes Keller, a decent person who is one of our most important national journalists.
Most people, Keller apparently included, have never heard about the rise in reading and math scores on the NAEP. Instead, they have often heard stories which lead them to make gloomy statements about the embarrassing decline our pitiful nation has suffered.
Even as the scores of black kids have risen substantially, Keller thinks we have “experienced decades of embarrassing decline.” This represents an astonishing fact about our nation’s journalistic and political culture.
It represents an astonishing fact about the way our world works.
How can it be that people like Keller have never heard about the nation’s most basic educational data? We'd say there are several basic reasons, but in our view, they all boil down to one basic point:
In the end, your nation’s elites don’t seem to care about this nation’s black kids—kids who are, in the end, simply a bunch of good decent kids. Very few facts could be more plain. Few facts get discussed less often.
We’ve noted these facts for quite some times. Manifestly, nobody cares.
Manifestly, your nation’s elites don’t care about black kids, or even about elementary facts concerning topics which are widely discussed. For today, we’ll describe this state of affairs as “the mystery.”
Tomorrow, we’ll adopt a different framework. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the pretense.
Tomorrow: The pretense