Diane Ravitch to the rescue!


Part 3—The pretense: By the end of his playful song, Wonderful World, Sam Cooke had presented a long list of subjects he didn’t know much about.

He didn’t know much about math or science, or even about the French he took! As he playfully semi-scatted, his back-up singers recalled some of the subjects he didn’t know much about:

La ta ta ta ta ta taa-a-a-a (History)
Hmm-mm-mm (Biology)
Wo la ta ta ta ta ta ta (Science book)
Hmm-mm-mm-mm-hm (French I took)

To hear Cooke sing it, click here.

Cooke employed a playful pop hook in a song which has been remembered. Today though, it’s the American public which might sing such a song, this time concerning our lack of knowledge about the public schools.

As the old saying goes, it isn’t so much the things we don’t know; it’s the things we know which aren’t true. On August 19, Bill Keller enacted the problem in the New York Times, referring to the “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education” from which our country now hopes to emerge by adopting the Common Core standards.

As Kenneth Chang semi-noted in Tuesday’s Times, this gloomy picture of the schools is widely held. But where did Keller get that idea, which flies in the face of our best educational data?

Where did Keller, a good decent person, get that gloomy idea? Perhaps from reading op-ed columns in his own New York Times! Here are excerpts from two recent samples:
BRICK (11/23/12): For the past three decades, one administration after another has sought to fix America’s troubled schools by making them compete with one another. Mr. Obama has put up billions of dollars for his Race to the Top program, a federal sweepstakes where state educational systems are judged head-to-head largely on the basis of test scores. Even here in Texas, nobody’s model for educational excellence, the state has long used complex algorithms to assign grades of Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable or Unacceptable to its schools.

So far, such competition has achieved little more than re-segregation, long charter school waiting lists and the same anemic international rankings in science, math and literacy we’ve had for years.

MEHTA (4/13/13): In April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, “A Nation at Risk,” that American education was a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The alarm it sounded about declining competitiveness touched off a tidal wave of reforms: state standards, charter schools, alternative teacher-certification programs, more money, more test-based “accountability” and, since 2001, two big federal programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

But while there have been pockets of improvement, particularly among children in elementary school, America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre.


As the education scholar Charles M. Payne of the University of Chicago has put it: “So much reform, so little change.”
Brick, a Texan, snarked at his state’s public schools, then complained about the nation’s anemic international rankings, which never seem to change. Mehta lamented the lack of change over the last thirty years!

These gloomy portraits are hard to square with the actual data. Despite that, they get repeated by everyone from Obama on down, then by their crazy uncles.

Last month, Keller sang the conventional song, much as Gail Collins did last year in a gruesome book. Borrowing a hook from Whitman, we hear these journalists singing:

La ta ta ta ta ta taa-a-a-a (Texas sucks)
Hmm-mm-mm (We’re shit out of luck)

In fact, Texas is a very high-scoring state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the widely praised “gold standard” of educational testing. After disaggregation, the major groups of Texas students match or top their peers in Massachusetts—and as Chang noted, Massachusetts was outscored by only one country on the 2011 TIMSS eighth-grade science test!

Bay State students seem to know about the science they took. It’s our journalists who seem clueless about the subjects they ponder. Chang broke every rule in the book, reporting the Bay State’s striking success on that international test. If someone would tell his newspaper’s readers about the similar test scores in Texas, what a wonderful world it would be!

Someone might even praise the students and teachers of Texas! Someone might try to figure out what may be working down there!

As of this week, it looks like someone plans to spill the beans about some of these topics. (Just a guess: Texas will not be included.) Before we reveal who that person is, let’s discuss a group of people who simply don’t care about public schools or about the children within them.

In fairness, the pretense by these people is strong. Lawrence O’Donnell runs a promotional ad in which he sits in a public school classroom talking about some topic or other. Melissa Harris-Perry runs an ad in which she feeds us rubes a pleasing sandwich, saying that low-income kids do poorly in school because they haven’t had breakfast.

In some cases, that is true, of course—but that’s the lowest-calorie gruel you can feed to a pack of liberals. It makes solutions sound so easy—and it ignores the large amount of free breakfast programs which have now followed free or reduced-price lunch into the public schools.

We love the idea that it’s just lack of food! It makes things sound so simple!

Can we talk? On The One True Liberal Channel, they simply don’t care about public schools or about the children within them! You can tell that the channel doesn’t care, because these subjects never get discussed in its endless prime-time hours.

The One True Channel doesn’t care about schools! This is a remarkable fact when we consider the role played in the national discourse by the endless gloomy talk about those floundering schools.

It’s isn’t like public schools get ignored in our wider discourse—they get discussed all the time! Unfortunately, the standard tale Bill Keller told is commonly used to serve an array of regressive ends.

When we’re told about those decades of embarrassing decline, we tend to hear many other tales too. We’re told that the government can’t do anything right—that we need to privatize all sorts of functions. We’re told the decline is the fault of public school teachers with their fiendish unions.

There are also the things we don’t get told. We don’t get told about the score gains achieved by black and Hispanic kids. We don’t get to admire those kids and draw hope from the gains that are occurring.

(On the 2011 TIMSS, black eighth-graders in Massachusetts outscored Finland in math and matched it in science. Please understand: they didn’t outscore black kids in Finland; they outscored Finland as a whole! And yet, we still read, again and again, about the wonders of glorious Finland—and about our own decline.)

Progressive interests are badly harmed by the misinformation about public schools. But the children on The One True Channel would rather jump off the Eiffel Tower than stoop to the level of discussing our ratty public school students—their needs, their interests, their successes, their failures, the things that may be working to make their lives better.

On MSNBC, we discuss the real concerns—the right to get married, then go in the army! Kidding aside, those are serious issues too. But why do these exalted figures throw our black kids under the bus? What makes them so determined to ignore these children?

The pretense is great on The One True Channel; so is the disinterest. Having said that, it seems that another famous figure is about to let cats out of bags.

Yesterday, David Kirp described a new book about these topics in a piece at Slate. Kirp knows a great deal about public schools; he also cares about these topics. Here’s part of what he wrote about Diane Ravitch’s forthcoming book:
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. For example, the 2012 report of a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warns that the failure of public education “puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety”—physical safety!—“at risk.” Similar alarms have been sounded since “A Nation at Risk,” a 1983 national commission report, insisted, to great effect, that a “rising tide of mediocrity…threatens our very future as a Nation.”

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. There’s no new dropout problem—students are staying in high school longer, and six-year graduation rates have never been higher.

Point by point, Ravitch attacks what has become the conventional wisdom about how American schools are failing...
Don’t worry! If Ravitch has decided to make the case, the case will be overstated. Beyond that, it will be mixed with all sorts of propaganda.

Having said that, Ravitch gets attention, despite her occasional flight from sound practice. Who knows! Her new book may start to debunk the familiar claim Keller made last month.

In the meantime, you ought to be sick, disgusted, with The One True Liberal Channel. The children won’t tell you about the way you get looted through your health care spending. Nor do they plan to speak on behalf of the nation’s teachers and kids.

Black kids can take their needs and their gains somewhere else. The exalted figures on this corporate channel have made one thing plain—they don’t care.

How complete is The One True Channel’s silence? Ravitch may be the best measure. In the past decade, Ravitch flipped. She moved from absurd overstatement in support of “education reform” to absurd overstatement in opposition.

When people flip that way in our culture, we tend to treat them as seers, not as dunces. Accordingly, the liberal world has bought Ravitch whole—except on MSNBC, where she has appeared exactly twice, according to Nexis archives.

It gets worse! One of those appearances was on Scarborough Country back in April 2003, before Ravitch flipped on reform. Promoting her new book, The Language Police, she complained to Evening Joe about this: “Across America, the term founding fathers is not used anymore. It's considered a sexist term.”

We’ll make a fairly safe bet. On the whole, people who watch The One True Channel don’t know much about public schools. They don’t know about NAEP scores, or about the strong gains found therein. They don’t know about all the major countries our students outscore on international tests.

They don’t know about the score gains recorded by the nation’s black kids. (Those gains aren’t nearly enough.) They’ve never seen those gains presented as evidence that our fiendish public school teachers really haven’t screwed everything up.

The fiery figures at MSNBC have taken a pass on the health care looting which characterizes our economy. In line with NBC’s pro-“reform” stance, they’ve taken a pass on the public schools too.

They tend to focus on the things that affect upper-end people like them. They don’t know squat about public schools.

Promotional pretense to the side, they show few signs of caring.

Tomorrow: In which we borrow a hook


  1. "one true liberal channel"

    Mother Jones has a TV Network? Since when?

    Oh, I see, you're "conning the rubes" by making believe a corporate-owned television network gives more of a shit about the citizens of the nation than they do the corporation which owns it.
    That's cute, but being sentient, I'm not buying it.


    1. Bob is being sarcastic when he calls MSNBC the "One True Liberal Channel"


    2. Thanks drew42.

      Now that i know Bob uses sarcasm as a tool, I now understand why he's always writing about how the talking heads in the corporate media should speak truth and put their employment in jeopardy.


    3. C'mon man, it's just capitalism -- and I'm way too cool to criticize that!


    4. Ahh, CecilaMc, how I've missed when you used to drag out the fainting couch and tsk tsk society when someone called someone "dumb" on the Daily Howler.

      BTW, City Pizza isn't "the best pizza in town" either.


    5. MSNBC: "lean forward"
      Fox: "no-spin zone"
      "You're in good hands with Allstate"
      "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there"
      "You deserve a break today at McDonalds"

      Goddamn, you're dumb CeceliaMC & Somerby

    6. Outstanding job of missing the point, fake Berto at 8:40 AM.
      Just in case you want to miss it again, here it is: Bob's always going on about how he doesn't understand how such people can keep their jobs after being so horrible at it. Simple, their bosses like the job they're doing.


    7. Anon11:25, well, that's interesting since I've long been calling thins "dumb" when I see dumb.

      That's not the same as attributing racial and ethnic (as in Irish -Catholic) bigotry to others, labeling an entire political ideology as being "dumb", or ascribing a character to your political opponents that is nothing short of a resume for Dr. Evil.

      Surely, you aren't too dumb to discern the difference.

    8. CeciliaMc,

      Yes, you've never had a problem calling things "dumb" here. You've only had a problem when others used the word.


    9. Don, "fair and balanced " or "no spin zone" is a plausible slogan for a media entity, whether or not it's true.

      Same with "tastes good" for restaurant fare.

      "Lean forward" as in progressive, is a bit nontraditional for news orgs.

      I'd wager that it's not any harsh words about Fox that inspires your suggestion that conflicts with a pronounced ideology viewpoint should inspire only shrugs, not blogs.

    10. I only have a problem with it when it's not illustrated. When it's merely a means of saying I disagree with you.

  2. Geez, here we go again with the Diane Ravitch bashing. Yes, she changed her mind about charter schools and the school deform movement, good for her. She saw the light. But Somerby keeps bashing Ravitch over and over and over and over and over and over again because she "flipped." There is a war going on against public schools, their teachers and their unions. Diane Ravitch is one of the few significant voices in favor of public schools, their teachers and their unions. Public school teachers love Diane Ravitch. Ravitch is fighting people like Rhee, Klein, Gates, Broad, Dell, Bezos, Icahn and the rest of the billionaires pushing charter schools, school vouchers, school privatization and destroying teacher unions. Has Somerby ever in his life changed his mind about some issue or controversy?

    1. TDH doesn't express actual views about actual issues or controversies other than media carping. There are implied views, but they are never presented or defended or tied to real policy proposals.

    2. He bashes her because she uses data in service of ideology, which is dishonest no matter who does it.

      I agree that it is good that people will get a corrected version of progress in our schools because Ravitch is listened to. However, I agree with Bob that when advocates of positions we favor use propagandistic techniques we can be hoodwinked as easily as those we disagree with politically. I do not like it when "our side" manipulates data to deceive people. I think doing that did the environmental movement a lot of harm among those who knew a bit more about the issues from a technical standpoint, losing allies. That can happen here too.

      So, his complaint is not that she changed her mind. It is that she knowingly manipulates facts to suit her purposes, whatever they happen to be at the moment.

    3. Bob complains about Ravitch's "flipping" ALL the time. Every time he makes a comment about Ravitch, there is ALWAYS the obligatory reference to her "flipping." Oh please, Ravitch is not a propagandist; she's a scholar and historian who backs up her arguments with tons of data. Try reading Ravitch's blog every day and then you will change your mind about her. She is sincere about her love for public schools. SHE DOES NOT MANIPULATE DATA.

  3. I read the Diane Ravitch blog every day. She is very scrupulous about her facts and information. If she errs or makes a mistake, she admits it and makes the appropriate corrections. She admits that she changed her mind about school reform or as Somerby puts it, she "flipped." Diane's blog is very open and welcomes criticism and contrary opinions as long as they are polite and civil. Somerby seems to regard Ravitch as a duplicitous fraud, phony and fake. I disagree because I have been reading her blog for more than a year. The woman is sincere, conscientious and scholarly; she really tries to get her facts straight and she documents and backs up her arguments with massive amounts of data and analysis.

  4. Somerby will never ever forgive Diane Ravitch for changing her mind, so he nitpicks on every little point and claims that Ravitch is a fraud, a propagandist and a facts manipulator. Diane Ravitch has a lot of very rich, very power critics in the school reform movement who bash her every day and spend a lot of time in trying to trip her up and to find fault with her books and analysis. She responds to them one by one. I wish Bob would post his complaints about Diane R. at her web site and allow her to respond to his attacks on her.

  5. Talk about manipulating the facts, what about Michelle Rhee? What about Joel Klein and Mike Bloomberg?

  6. So loving our public school system and not wanting to see it destroyed by the school privatizers, the school reformers like Gates, Broad, Rhee, Klein, Bloomberg, Cerf & Christie (For NJ) is some how ideology? Wanting to preserve our public school system is an ideology? Really? There is a well funded all out war against public schools and public school teachers. It seems that almost every day you hear the term "ourfailingschools" thrown around as if it were given wisdom and a fact. Any time Lou Dobbs mentions something about our schools it's almost always preceded by that term which has morphed into one word: "ourfailingschools." It's unquestioned in the media except for a few people like Bob Somerby and Diane Ravitch. From Diane Ravitch's web site: "Anthony Cody writes another brilliant column, this time questioning NBC’s Education Nation about whether it truly intends to sponsor a dialogue about education issues or just another Gates-funded celebration of “reformers” who don’t like public schools."

  7. Bob,
    An escape from far more serious issues.
    As you (probably) know, among Sam Cooke's back-up singers were Lou Rawls and Bobby Womack.
    Oh me; Oh my!

    Life without music? I can't cope.

    I remain,
    Your musical correspondent.