Joe Nocera’s ride back in time!


Part 2—In the footsteps of Ravitch and Ripley: Joe Nocera’s new column is highly instructive, in that it’s woefully clueless.

Nocera writes about a topic he manifestly knows nothing about: what constitutes good teaching in an “inner-city school?”

What constitutes good teaching in low-income schools? With respect to this very important question, Nocera has watched a documentary. He has also read, or read about, a new report by a national policy group.

On the basis of these inputs, he ends up saying what follows. Within the journalistic context, the highlighted questions are fatuous:
NOCERA (12/17/13): ...the movie is an unwitting primer on how to teach disadvantaged students. There are teachers in the movie who know how to connect with their students, and teachers who don’t. Teachers College at Columbia University liked the film so much that it is creating a companion curriculum, so the film can be used to help train teachers. Until Gunther’s movie came along, Teachers College used to show “The Wire” to give prospective teachers a feel for what it’s like to teach in a disadvantaged community.

“What is good teaching?” asked Anand Marri, a professor at Teachers College who has championed the film. “Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?” For the most part, these elemental questions are ones that schools of education don’t ask nearly enough.
“What is good teaching? Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?”

Do schools of education “ask those questions nearly enough?” Obviously, Nocera has no idea. He simply repeats the conclusion found in one recent report.

That said, we were struck by the fatuous nature of those questions in the journalistic context. As a piece of journalism, Nocera’s column took us back to the future, to the days when Llewynn Davis kicked around Gotham singing his heartfelt songs.

“How much do you start with where the students are?” From an education professor who gets new students each year, that is a basic, important question.

That said, those students may be twenty years old. Nocera is a grown man, a columnist at our smartest, most famous national newspaper.

In that context, that question is stunningly fatuous. It provides a window into the world of the nation’s education discourse, which is persistently handed to people who don’t know what they’re talking about—clueless, wildly misinformed people like Amanda Ripley, Diane Ravitch and the well-intentioned M. Night Shyamalan.

These people invent ridiculous “facts” or champion others who do so. When you read their lists of “solutions,” an experienced person will suspect that they have never set foot inside low-income classrooms, except for the briefest drive-bys.

This doesn’t make them bad people. It does mean they don’t much know what they’re talking about.

Beyond that, it means that they work inside an intellectual culture which doesn’t give a flying fig about the lives of children in low-income schools. It means that the liberal world quit on black kids long ago—that we liberals are willing to chase around after the latest gurus.

Briefly, let’s return to Nocera’s basic question:

“How much do you start with where the students are?” Good God! Within the national discourse, such questions surfaced in the mid-1960s, when the liberal world discovered an interest in “inner-city schools.”

It was a different time. In 1968, Jonathan Kozol won the National Book Award for his brilliant book about Boston schools, Death at an Early Age. In 1967, Herbert Kohl published his widely-discussed book about New York City schools, 36 Children. Other books which described urban teaching came center stage.

Fifty years later, Nocera praises a film for being a “primer on how to teach disadvantaged students.” In the process, he poses the world’s most fatuous journalistic question:

“How much do you start with where the students are?”

Fifty years later, that question strikes Nocera as interesting, perhaps cutting edge. This speaks to the fatuous nature of the discussion we’ve conducted, or failed to conduct, over those fifty years.

Enter Ravitch and Shyamalan, joining people like Michelle Rhee and the newly-anointed Ripley:

How disgraceful has our discourse been over the past fifty years? How disgraceful has our conduct been in the liberal world?

This disgraceful:

When Rhee arrived on the national scene in 2006, her resume included ridiculous claims about her stunning success as a teacher. The liberal world and the mainstream press couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see the absurdity of her self-glorying claims.

This disgraceful:

When Ripley’s ballyhooed book appeared, she joined a decade’s worth of Finland idolators. Displaying her fealty to this cult, she made grossly inaccurate statements about that miraculous land, starting right in on page two.

The mainstream press and the liberal world weren’t able to discern the absurdity of her statements. But then, a steady stream of scripted beings, included Ravitch, had praised the wonders of miraculous Finland over the previous dozen years.

This silly cult was accepted by one and all. Below, you see the way miraculous Finland scored on the 2011 TIMSS.

Unless otherwise noted, all scores are for white students only—for kids from this country’s majority culture. Finland’s student population is almost solely majority culture:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
Massachusetts: 572
North Carolina: 563
Minnesota: 558
Colorado: 544
Connecticut: 543
Florida: 531
Indiana: 530
United States: 530
California: 525
Finland, all students: 514
United States, all students: 509

Alabama: 489
How miraculous does Finland look now? But so what! Eight months after those data appeared, Ripley proceeded with her Finland-worshipping book, for which she was lavishly praised. At the same time, Ravitch published her own book, Reign of Error, in which she showed that she too was part of the Finland cult.

(For one example of Ravitch’s fawning over Finland, see Chapter 28 of that book. It starts with these absurd and ridiculous comments: “Everyone interested in education knows about Finland. It is the counterexample to our own practices and policies.”)

Our point? Joe Nocera doesn’t know much about public schools. (There’s no reason why he should.) If he knew more—if he had ever been exposed to an ongoing real journalistic discussion—he wouldn’t be offering his miracle ride to 1963, his ride back into the future.

(“How much do you start with where the students are?” Welcome back from our national coma!)

In our view, Ravitch doesn’t seem to know a great deal about public schools either, aside from what you can read in studies by cosseted “experts.” Neither does Shyamalan. (There’s no reason why he should.)

This doesn’t make them bad people. It means that they’re largely clueless people who are moving and shaking within an uncaring intellectual culture—an intellectual culture which despises black kids, doesn’t much care if they rot.

In what other type of culture could the serial idiocy of our elites be hailed as brilliant insight? The brilliant insight of the cult of Finland. The brilliant insight of Ripley, with her many ridiculous statements.

The brilliant insight of Bill Keller, who referred in August to “decades of embarrassing decline in [our] K-12 education.” What type of culture accepts that?

The brilliant insight of Ravitch, whose book is full of peculiar wanderings. The brilliant insight of Shyamalan, who makes ridiculous statements like those which follow, with major journalists rushing to spread his misinformation around:
SHYAMALAN (12/11/13): You know how everyone says America is behind in education, compared to all the countries? Technically, right now, we're a little bit behind Poland and a little bit ahead of Liechtenstein, right? So that's where we land in the list, right? So that's actually not the truth.

The truth is actually bizarrely black and white, literally, which is, if you pulled out the inner-city schools—just pull out the inner-city, low-income schools, just pull that group out of the United States, put them to the side—and just took every other public school in the United States, we lead the world in public-school education by a lot.

And what's interesting is, we always think about Finland, right? Well, Finland, obviously, is mainly white kids, right? They teach their white kids really well. But guess what, we teach our white kids even better. We beat everyone. Our white kids are getting taught the best public-school education on the planet. Those are the facts.
Are we really unable to see the nature of our gross dysfunction? Unlike Ravitch, Shyamalan has rejected the cult of Finland. But he did so on a statistically bogus basis, which led him to make, and to believe, those ridiculous claims about the way our white students “beat everyone on the planet” “by a lot” on standardized tests.

Those statements are crazily wrong. Tomorrow, we’ll show you the passage in Shyamalan’s book which explains how he came to believe such things.

Hint—he believes these things because he believed a piece of bullroar Ravitch has peddled over the years—a piece of bullroar she won’t stop peddling even now, when she knows it is wrong. (For some very bad conduct, click here.)

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Shyamalan. He got taken by a claim he didn’t understand. (Even his rejection of Finland is based on bad information.) But in our view, his five key points about public schools also reflect a basic fact:

He has never worked in low-income schools! In part for that reason, he doesn’t really have any idea what he’s talking about. As a general matter, we get the same impression when we read Ravitch’s work, even when we review her eleven solutions.

Ravitch, Rhee, Ripley, Shyamalan, even Nocera? We liberals may draw distinctions between them based on whose team they’re perceived to be on.

To us, they look a great deal alike. They look like the kinds of people who get thrown to the top within an elite intellectual culture which doesn’t give a flying fig about the lives of black kids.

When you simply don’t care about some topic, you’ll accept all manner of bullshit from an array of “intellectual leaders.” Tomorrow, we’ll visit a pitiful point:

How did Shyamalan got tooken?

Tomorrow: The pioneer woman’s (bogus) story

Thursday: Key points and solutions


  1. Since the shitty shit-slinger slinging shit will never ever actually lay out the five points, here they are:

    1. Start with good teachers:
    Good teachers matter more than small class sizes. "There's a classroom with 30 kids and a great teacher and 11 kids and an okay teacher, where do you put your kid? It's a no brainer, the 31st kid," he said.

    (Watch this: Minerva project vs. liberal arts education)

    2. Principals, principals:
    The best school principals spend the bulk of their time teaching the teachers and taking an active role in the classroom, instead of handling administrative tasks. Principals are the ones who uphold best practices and create the "incredibly intense" culture needed to close the racial gap in learning.

    3. Keep it lean:
    Class size may not be the most important factor, but keeping the entire school relatively small makes it easier.

    4. Feedback:
    Turns out 16 really is a magic number—giving students feedback on their work at least 16 times over the course of a school term pushes them past a "tipping point" where they learn things much more effectively.

    5. Get an extension:
    "Elbow out" the day. Start kids earlier in the morning, keep them later into the day, and extend the school year into the summer. Turns out, two-thirds of the education gap between white suburban students and minority students can be erased just by extending the amount of time spent in school each day.

    (I renumbered the 1,2,3,4,4 in the source as 1,2,3,4,5).

    Folks - the shitty shit-slinger's shit-slinging has NOTHING TO DO WITH SHYAMALAN's findings. If you are here for any reason other than Kool Aid drinking - discuss these points.

    1. Insane troll is trolling, needs to be banned.

    2. Starting kids earlier in the day is a bad idea. They are sleep deprived as it is and have biorhythms that put them at their best for learning later in the day. Schools that start at 9 am instead of 8 am produce better performance by students. Anyone who reads the literature on sleep and young people would know this. It is something that has been tested in schools and shown to work out better. So Shyamalan may be right about increasing classroom time, but wrong about starting earlier in the morning.

    3. That rant does not address at all "SHYAMALAN's [baloney] findings" that "we teach our white kids even better. We beat everyone."

      Please, sell your shit somewhere else.

    4. AnonymousDecember 17, 2013 at 1:50 PM

      This is what happens when you let someone else do your thinking for you. Those are not Shyamalan's findings. Shyamalan's analytically (I know thats a lot of syllables there, use a dictionary) derived findings are the 5 points. The blogger finds opportunities to nit-pick and score gotcha!s against Shyamalan's incidental utterances to get his Kool Aid drinkers excited.

    5. Let's see whether TDH analyzes Good Night S's five points. So far, TDH has written, as he is wont, about the failings of the press, some of whom have swallowed whole Good Night's bogus talking points about his likely bogus solutions.
      Let's see. 1) Good teachers are better than bad teachers. 2,4) More feedback from good people is better than less. 3) Smaller organizations are easier to manage than larger ones. 5) More time in school is better than less no matter what.
      Do you really have to direct bad movies or even do study to figure most of that out?
      (Anonymous @12:44P, thanks for pointing out what a disaster it would be to start school earlier in service of point 5.)

  2. Bob, you are allowing a superb blog to be destroyed by an insane troll. I do not understand, no other blogger would allow this for the sake of the blogging and decent readers.

  3. "...they work inside an intellectual culture which doesn’t give a flying fig about the lives of children in low-income schools. It means that the liberal world quit on black kids long ago..." - b. somerby

    >>> this seems to me to be at the heart of somerbys interest in educational achievement tests. he beats liberals over the head with this *assertion*.

    but regardless of somerbys motivation, is it true first of all? i dont see much in the way of proof, which somerby is so keen on liberals providing when critiquing conservatives. im not saying hes necessarily wrong, but on what basis is this assertion likely true, other than on somerbys word which is informed by his experience teaching in inner city schools?

    second, how do liberals compare to conservatives in this regard? better, worse, the same? if conservatives are far worse, as i personally believe, then why not at the very least also say that that is the case before clobbering liberals? as somerby regularly presents it on this blog, it looks like the cons would do inner city kids a lot more good than libs and so we should elect republicans.

    1. I'm thinking that to TDH the issue of education is about the facts as they are presented in the media. So, to the extent that some groups ignore education is irrelevant. What TDH focuses on is what people claim to be facts about education. If you write something in the TImes or write a book, you are fair game. Political parties and elections are not, unless they say something about education. In general, I tend to agree that the politics will work itself out properly if we can just stick to the facts.

    2. The critique has nothing to do with current politics. "liberals" were anther group that betrayed Gore in 2000. We voted for Nader. We called out Clinton for being the GOP-lite pol that he was.

    3. Huge Bris,

      It's an argument by results. If the "liberal" world were interested in black kids' education, they'd at least pay attention to basic facts and question closely those who present fads. But they do neither of these things. This isn't about what liberals feel but what they do.
      In TDH's world, it doesn't much matter what conservatives do. For him, conservatives' standards are not the measure of liberals' actions. It's odd you haven't picked that up. Nothing TDH ever posts suggests that electing Republicans would do inner city kids any good at all.

    4. Anonymous @12:31,

      You voted for Nader? How'd that work out for ya?

    5. Electoral college much? Voting for Nader in MD had nothing to do with Florida in 2000.

    6. I'm supposed to know from comments on a blog where the commenters voted in 2000?

    7. deadrat,

      You cleaned it up well but it's a losing battle as it's a terrible assertion on TDH's part. The notion that certain "liberals", in the media interest or lack thereof in inner city black kids education can determined in the manner you suggest that TDH is doing is rather dubious to put it mildly.

      The unfortunately reality is that it's just one of the tired rhetorical sticks that TDH uses to beat certain "liberals" in the media over the head.

    8. im not asking for a whole lot. just the insertion of a short phrase, "while conservatives are far worse than liberals..."

    9. Anonymous @8:06P,
      I can barely parse your second sentence. I'm gonna guess you mean that it's wrong to judge people's level of engagement with a problem by the intellectual depth of their expression about the problem. We can substitute "liberal writers" for people, "the education of black kids" for problem, and "books, articles, studies, op-ed pieces" for expression.
      I take your point. It's impolite to impute heartlessness to those who are mistaken. But at the same time, what can you make of those who undertake a job to inform us (e.g., journalists) or to instruct us (e.g, researchers and out-of-their depth directors of bad movies), who can't be bothered to get their facts straight? Especially when getting things wrong hurts those they claim to care about.
      Yes, TDH goes after certain liberals. But aren't liberals the one who claim that reality has a liberal bias? That liberals are the ones who care about facts more than ideology?
      In Los Angeles, you used to be able to plead guilty with an explanation for traffic offenses. (Perhaps you still can.) If the judge bought your explanation, he would lower the fine. I saw a woman claim that she was speeding in a residential area because she didn't know the speed limit in the absence of speed-limit signs in the neighborhood. The judge was sympathetic until he looked at her ticket and found she'd been clocked at 60 mph. I'm sure if the judge had asked the woman if she cared about the safety of the neighborhood children, she would have said yes. I'm guessing you would have believed her.

    10. Huge Bris,

      So you're fine with the criticism of the tribe, but you just want the reassurance that the other tribe is worse?

      Why would you want that?

  4. Finland is indeed "a counter example" to our schools in that it has no standardized testing, a short school year, and little homework.

    It also invests heavily in non-academic early childhood learning until age 7 and emphasizes music and foreign languages. To state these facts is not giving in to "Finland worship".

    Nor is there any reason such methods are inappropriate for the US population or any population.

    Another thing that Finland does (along with several other European countries) is to pay a stipend to college students in addition to providing free tuition. Thus, education and medical students, for example, are guaranteed college free tuition and living expenses, including graduate education.

    No one mentions this, but I think this is a powerful and appropriate use of incentives, since only as many students as public policy and the economy requires are admitted into teaching and medicine programs, which amounts to admission restriction. Early childhood teachers are included in this policy, since they are required to have degrees in early childhood ed (that is pre-school), rather than treating it as as a way to provide part-time jobs for uneducated welfare recipients, as in Head Start. Thus early childhood teaching is a highly respected field in Finland and is not seen as custodial care. --E

  5. For working class families, child care is an important consideration. How does the length of the school day mesh with parents work schedules? Who takes care of the kids while parents are working? What happens when kids are sick and parents have no sick days allowed by their employer? Are parents around to make sure kids actually go to school? Are there employees at the school who can verify attendance and follow up on truancy? Lengthening the school day and year will impact all of this.

    Our society does not care about providing high quality, affordable child care for working women, yet most women with children now work, especially at lower income levels. Without child care, kids are kept out of school and may be watched by older children, who are also kept out of school to do so.

    1. Have heard of Grandma?

    2. Not a viable solution for most people.

    3. Grandma is too busy cooking meth in her spare time. That and going to the track.

  6. AnonymousDecember 17, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    Thank you for discussing Shyamalan's recommendations. He has used the techniques of clinical diagnosis - the results are only statistical and subject to criticism, as you have just done.

    All of the blogger's copious venting is only smoke - there are 5 recommendations written in everyday English - they are either good or bad and unless you are a Kool Aid drinker, you should be able to critique them from you own experience.

    1. "...there are 5 recommendations written in everyday English - they are either good or bad and unless you are a Kool Aid drinker, you should be able to critique them from you own experience."

      >>> thats my kind of challenge bc i admit to having little knowledge of the accuracy of the various testing methodologies and their results compared across time and disaggregated into demographic and national groups.

      not trying to be funny, but i dont remember learning anything in school, at least anything worthwhile. obviously this will jaundice my views on the subject of education in general.

      teachers: how do they feel about your particular 'gang' or ethnicity/race/religion. its one thing to be a competent doctor, lawyer or teacher. its another thing the level of effort given to a client or student from the wrong side of the tracks vs. one of that of that teachers 'gang'. im sure almost everybody has had the experience of going to some very highly regarded professional for help and coming away wondering how they gained such a good reputation and wondering what went wrong.

      principals: on the one hand i would think a dynamic one could keep the teachers on the ball, but on the other hand, they may take away the teachers sense of autonomy and so disincentivize their creativity and depress their feelings of accomplishment.

      keep it lean: i agree the smaller the better and tutoring would be ideal. i like the idea of home schooling as a legal option, at least in theory.

      feedback: avoid negative feedback. dont call the student an idiot etc. dont beat the student or threaten to.

      extension: i see school as largely a warehousing of potential trouble makers for the neighborhood and headaches for the cops and competition in the labor pool.

    2. You didn't learn anything in school? (High school, I assume.) Let's review:

      1. It's better to be rich than poor.
      2. It's better to be popular than not.
      3. It's better to conform than stand out.
      4. Football is somehow important.
      5. Authority is always ridiculous, hypocritical, and arbitrary.

    3. yes zombie rodent, under "extention" i should have added socialization.

  7. I will be very interested in watching Bill de Blasio of New York City try to form an early childhood education program and if successfully formed what the results are.


  8. Another way in which Finland is a counter example to the USA is that its education reforms were instituted gradually and care was taken during their implementation to win the cooperation and trust of the existing teaching profession.

    Yet, in spite of the gradual introduction of educational reforms in Finland, they began showing positive results in a short time.

    This is the polar opposite of the USA where reforms were introduced suddenly and with zero input from existing teachers, who were derided as incompetent, and whom it was recommended to fire. The US reforms, in place now for over 10 years have NOT yielded positive, or any results, except a higher dropout rate.

    Yet another way in which Finland is a counter example to the USA is that in Finland all teachers and their principals belong to the same union (which would be forbidden here by the Taft-Hartley act, passed over Truman's veto, and which the Democratic Party platform for many years used to vow to reverse, but no longer does).

    It goes without saying that Finland, in having teachers' unions at all (with the job protections and pensions that that implies) is a counter example to what US reformers recommend, since our "reformers" oppose all unions on principle, considering them an obstacle to the market-based reforms they advocate. (SHAME, President Obama!).

    Again, to point out these facts is not to engage in Finland worship but to show a respect for worker, citizen, and children's rights, not to mention reason and common sense. -E

    1. I like this critique, thanks.

    2. This is all well and good as long as you recognize that Finnish students don't actually outperform (white) US students and that therefore it not at all clear that Finish schools are actually better than US schools.

      I personally like a lot of what Finnish schools do. However just because their educational model matches my aesthetic and ideological preferences doesn't give me (or you) license to pretend that that model produces superior outcomes (it almost certainly doesn't).

      I thinkt he only thing we can conclude is that there are many different methods

  9. Another way in which Finland is a counter example to the USA is that they have invested heavily making high-quality childcare available for working mothers. Their childcare facilities are staffed by people with degrees in early childhood ed and provide supervised NON ACADEMIC (but not "non-cognitive"), age-appropriate activities (i.e., supervised, imaginative social play and group activities using large muscles -- not television or electronic devices -- for example) for children under six. Facilities include 24/7 drop-in centers that are also open on weekends to give relief to stressed-out parents.- E

  10. You go to Finland because you can get paid.

    Paid to say "let's see what the miraculous Finns know" about education.

    Because you sure aren't going to get paid to visit North Carolina and say "let's see what the miraculous white people here know" about education.

  11. You will be paid to go to Finland and come back with cherry-picked facts that don't contradict what the "reformers" who paid for your transportation and hotel expenses want to hear. -E

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