Interlude—Functional illiterates: As many have noted, sometimes unwisely, anti-intellectualism can be a troubling strain in the American fabric.
We liberals tend to focus on the anti-intellectualism associated with the red state South. We tend to look away from the anti-intellectualism which pervades our mainstream and liberal cultures.
That powerful strain of anti-intellectualism may service the needs of our global elites. In a relentless series of columns, Paul Krugman has shown how our economic discourse is shaped by such elites, then enabled by the cluelessness and obedience of the mainstream press corps.
A similar process shapes and controls our discourse about public schools. And alas:
This morning, the anti-intellectualism of the New York Times editorial board has been put on its fullest display. In a section-filling editorial, its members join the international cult of the PISA, making a blindingly foolish appraisal of our current public schooling.
This morning, the anti-intellectualism belongs to the 19-member editorial board of the Times. Of its nineteen members, only one, Brent Staples, lists education as one of his areas of specialization. Staples also lists criminal justice and economics as areas of expertise.
If memory serves, no one on the board was listing education as an area of expertise the last time we checked. (Ina brief search, we can’t find our previous post on the subject.) This morning’s page-filling editorial suggests that no one should.
Today’s editorial runs under these headlines: “Why Other Countries Teach Better/Why Students Do Better Overseas.”
The editorial runs 1455 words, filling the entire editorial space. Accompanied by a large chart of test scores, it runs from the top to the bottom of the editorial page.
This editorial demonstrates an ironic fact—when it comes to education and public schools, this board is functionally illiterate. Rather plainly, the board is also a member of the new PISA cult.
By now, this cult is dominating our nation's discussions of education. Membership in this cult requires several behaviors:
Rules for the cult of the PISA:In today’s section-filling editorial, the board complies with these regulations. In the process, they produce a journalistically absurd assessment, in which they put their functional illiteracy on full display.
1) Adepts must only consider the PISA when discussing test scores. They must not discuss results from the TIMSS, the PIRLS or the NAEP.
2) Adepts must recite the maximum numbers of sayings by Chairman Andreas, the cult’s Dear Leader.
3) Adepts must never discuss demographics when making international comparisons.
4) Most important, adepts must never discuss our nation’s brutal racial history. Why bother with something like that?
What is wrong with this editorial? Again, consider those headlines:
“Why Other Countries Teach Better/Why Students Do Better Overseas.”
In its editorial, the board pretends to explain why students do better overseas. But to what extent do such students do better?
Inevitably, they begin their exegesis with miraculous Finland. Yes, they actually wrote this:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (12/18/13): Though it dropped several rankings in last year’s tests, Finland has for years been in the highest global ranks in literacy and mathematical skills. The reason dates to the postwar period, when Finns first began to consider creating comprehensive schools that would provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike.In the highlighted sentence, the board is referring to Finland’s performance on the PISA, a program the editors never name (!) but use as their sole source of data.
The editors never tell their readers that they are cherry-picking their data—that they are disappearing results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, two major international tests, and from the NAEP, our most reliable domestic testing program.
As Amanda Ripley showed in her ballyhooed book, adepts in the cult of the PISA are required to do this! At any rate:
Having dumped the bulk of the data, the editors tell their readers that Finland “dropped several rankings” in the 2012 PISA, but had been in the highest ranks in math “for years” before that happened.
Really? As we’ve noted a trillion times, American students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 matched miraculous Finland in math on the 2011 TIMSS. As we continue, the facts get even better:
At the Grade 8 level, nine American states took part in the TIMSS as independent entities. Six of the nine outscored Finland in math; Florida matched Finland’s score.
Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina outscored Finland by a lot.
New York Times readers aren’t told such things in today’s editorial. Instead, the board starts explaining why Finland does so much better in math than the United States does!
Needless to say, readers aren’t told about the way white students in the U.S. kicked Finland’s keister on the TIMSS and came close to matching it on the PISA. In principle, this is an instructive comparison because Finland is a middle-class, unicultural nation.
To its credit, Finland never created a despised minority within its population. It didn’t work for centuries to eliminate literacy within that brutalized population, as our benighted ancestors did.
Finland also has very few immigrant kids, although, at long last, the nation has a few percent.
Does Finland do better with kids from its majority culture than we do with ours? On the TIMSS and the PISA, the decision is split. But owing to the rules of the cult, the editors only mention the PISA. And they never dirty their hands talking about the brutal racial history which has created our leading educational dilemma, a painful problem schools in Finland have never addressed or solved.
Ironically, the editors are behaving like people who can’t read, analyze or cipher. Before long, they’re discussing the wonders of Canada and a few of its wonderful provinces:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Canada also has a more rigorous and selective teacher preparation system than the United States, but the most striking difference between the countries is how they pay for their schools.Everything’s better in Canada. Everything but the math scores!
American school districts rely far too heavily on property taxes, which means districts in wealthy areas bring in more money than those in poor ones. State tax money to make up the gap usually falls far short of the need in districts where poverty and other challenges are greatest.
Americans tend to see such inequalities as the natural order of things. Canadians do not. In recent decades, for example, three of Canada’s largest and best-performing provinces—Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario—have each addressed the inequity issue by moving to province-level funding formulas...
In 2011, Canada didn’t participate in the TIMSS as a nation, but Ontario and Alberta did. Below, you see the scores from those wonderful provinces, who we’re supposed to be copying:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSSPeople, we’re just saying!
North Carolina: 537
United States: 509
As a general matter, Canada performs better on the PISA, less well on the TIMSS. A journalist would try to explain this phenomenon, which shows up in the scores of quite a few major nations. (The United States and Russia score substantially better on the TIMSS.)
Cult members have a better idea. They simply throw the TIMSS data away! Also, who needs the NAEP?
Several more points should be made about this full-page editorial, which is—let’s be frank—the work of shambling illiterates:
The editors close with a section on Shanghai, an extremely high-performing high-income city in China. Enormous demographic and methodological questions surround Shanghai’s scores on the PISA.
For a recent discussion of these questions, just click this. (Did Shanghai Cheat on PISA, by the Post’s Valerie Strauss.)
The editors ignore all that! Instead, they recite the wise sayings of Chairman Andreas, telling readers, with clear-eyed certainty, that all questions have been resolved.
So far, we’ve reviewed the way the editors sift the data about international scores. As shambling adepts, they simply throw away all data which don’t come from the PISA.
As we close, a few words should be said about the simple-minded ways they sift alleged solutions to the problem they’ve cherry-picked. In these matters, they blindly recite a few pseudo-liberal points.
How does Finland work its miracles? As they continue their exegesis, the editors tell us this:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: …Finland has for years been in the highest global ranks in literacy and mathematical skills. The reason dates to the postwar period, when Finns first began to consider creating comprehensive schools that would provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike. The reason dates to the postwar period, when Finns first began to consider creating comprehensive schools that would provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike. These schools stand out in several ways, providing daily hot meals; health and dental services; psychological counseling; and an array of services for families and children in need...The editors offer more explanations, explaining how Finland came within one-half of a standard deviation of matching Massachusetts in math.
The highlighted point about “daily hot meals” is a pet peeve for us. American liberals like to talk about children who go to school hungry every day. In this way, these people tell you that they have never spent a minute trying to understand the problems faced by low-income children in our American schools.
What happens to American kids who go to school hungry? As In Finland, these children get served daily hot meals—and yes, billions get served! We’re often amazed, and annoyed, by how hard it is to track down the data. We’ll let The New America Foundation explain:
NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION (7/1/13): The National School Lunch Program supports student nutrition in over 101,000 schools and residential facilities. It provides free and reduced priced meals to low-income children before school, during school, after school, and over the summer. In fiscal year 2012, federal school nutrition programs underwrote more than five billion lunches served to over 31 million students. Total funding for all nutrition programs sums to more than $16 billion in both cash and commodity payments.“Of the five billion meals provided to 31 million students during the 2011-12 school year, 59 percent were free of charge,” the NAF goes on to say, apparently referring to lunches alone.
How many American children get free breakfast at school? If memory serves, we have seen figures ranging from ten to fourteen million kids, with as many as 31 million getting free or reduced price lunch.
You can always tell a pseudo-liberal by the way he or she leaps to talk about kids “coming to school hungry” without going on to explain what happens next. Predictably, the editorial board is amazed at the way Finland’s schools serve those daily meals.
The second matter upsetting the board concerns per pupil spending. Like poverty and hunger, this is a genuine issue:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: The Ontario system has more than two million public school students—more than in 45 American states and the District of Columbia. But the contrast to the American system could not be more clear. Ontario, for example, strives to eliminate or at least minimize the funding inequality that would otherwise exist between poor and wealthy districts. In most American states, however, the wealthiest, highest-spending districts spend about twice as much per pupil as the lowest-spending districts, according to a federal advisory commission report. In some states, including California, the ratio is more than three to one.America’s sprawling arrangement of public schools raises many issues of equitable funding. But if we liberals want to understand the full sweep of our educational challenges, we have to move past the twin pleasures of funding disparities and hungry children.
In this passage, the editors praise Ontario for its attempts to equalize funding. We’ll assume that praise is warranted.
That said, as they complain about spending disparities between and within the states, the editors skip a striking fact—one of the highest spending “states” is the District of Columbia, which spent the most per pupil among the fifty-one “states” in 2010.
Alas! Despite a very high level of spending, the D.C. schools are quite low-scoring, even when compared to other urban systems. Translation:
Funding disparity is an actual issue. But people who care about low-income students won’t imagine that low test scores spring full-blown from low per pupil spending.
They don’t. Despite our desire to mouth talking-points, then drift away, the world of low-income schools isn’t nearly as simple as that.
This morning, the editorial board of the New York Times put on quite a show. They recited the creeds of a new cult and disappeared the bulk of the data, like Amanda Ripley before them.
Things get no better when film directors start making absurdly inaccurate claims which misstate the basic facts in the other direction.
Within our broken intellectual culture, top-end journalists shamble about, performing like what they are—functional illiterates. It doesn’t help when other ranking figures confuse matters even more.
Today’s editorial disappears the bulk of the relevant data. The piece is the work of functional illiterates—but will anyone tell you but us?
Last night, Our Own Rhodes Scholar continued to clown about Chris Christie and the bridge.
She killed another big bushel of time; she has never discussed public schools. When our (wealthy) Rhodes Scholars behave in such ways, what hope do we have for the world?
Tomorrow, part 3: Who misled M. Night Shyamalan?