Jay Mathews does it again: Kevin Dum has done what can’t be done. He’s had an idea break through.
It happened in Sunday’s New York Times, on the front page of Sunday Review. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were discussing the factors which may undermine children’s healthy development:
KRISTOF AND WUDUNN (9/14/14): Within four weeks of conception, a human embryo has formed a neural tube, which then begins to produce brain cells. As the brain is forming, it is shaped by the uterine environment in ways that will affect the child for the rest of his or her life. A mother who drinks alcohol may leave her child with fetal alcohol syndrome or, less serious, fetal alcohol effects...Hay-yo! Maybe it came from somewhere else. We’ll assume that Drum made this break through, and that is quite an achievement.
Children with fetal alcohol effects account for 1 percent of births; 20 percent of births in America are to mothers who smoked during pregnancy. These babies have smaller head circumferences on average, and because nicotine increases the testosterone in the woman's uterus, some theorize that this may lead to a greater penchant for aggressiveness, particularly among sons. Patricia A. Brennan of Emory University found that when a mother smoked a pack a day during pregnancy, her offspring were more than twice as likely to be violent criminals as adults.
Likewise, when a pregnant woman is exposed to lead from old paint or from air pollution, her fetus absorbs it in ways that impair the development of the brain. Some research suggests that the rise of crime in the mid-20th century may have been caused in part by the increasing presence of lead in the environment, and that one factor in the decline in crime from the 1990s on was the phasing out of lead from gasoline (and thus from air pollution) beginning two decades earlier.
Given the way our journalism works, it’s almost impossible to make an idea break through. We think we understand this fact about as well as anyone does.
Just consider what Jay Mathews wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post.
We share the old school system tie with Mathews, who we like but have never met. Despite that fact, for no known reason, he wrote what follows, in an interesting piece about the culture of Chinese schools:
MATHEWS (9/14/14): Critics of American schools use the PISA results to ridicule U.S. students as addled optimists. They have more confidence in themselves than Asian students despite their lower scores.The highlighted point is a minor part of Mathews’ essay, which is well worth reading. But how long can this go on?
Zhao (pronounced Jow) is not so admiring of the ancient system that has produced such Confucian modesty, having grown up with it himself in Sichuan province. Chinese authoritarian education—which has influenced nearly all Asian countries—has for thousands of years been telling students "if they cannot succeed, they have only themselves to blame," Zhao says. "This is an excellent and convenient way for the authorities to deny any responsibility for social equity and justice and to avoid accommodating differently talented people."
To those of us who admire the respect for teachers we find in Asian students, Zhao points out that it is not necessary for success in school. Students in Norway and Sweden tend to blame their teachers much more but do fine on the PISA.
Critics of American schools don’t just “use the PISA results to ridicule U.S. students as addled optimists.” Advocates of various types of “reform” use PISA results to denigrate American students and schools in a general way.
This has been extremely common over the past decade. The idea that American kids stink on the PISA has played an outsized role in misleading discussions of our hopeless schools, our worthless kids and their good-for-nothing teachers, what with their fiendish unions and all.
Along comes Jay to say, in passing, that “students in Norway and Sweden do fine on the PISA.”
That isn’t exactly wrong, but below, you see the relevant scores. Warning!
By a very rough rule of thumb, 35 points is said to equal one academic year on the PISA scale. Some score differences on this chart are therefore quite minor:
Average scores, PISA reading, 2012If students in Sweden do fine on the PISA, students over here do better. Norwegian kids and American kids pretty much score the same.
United States 498
Average scores, PISA math, 2012
United States 481
Average scores, PISA science, 2012
United States 497
And yes, those are the averages for all American kids, not just those from the majority population.
To access all data, start here.
None of these countries are world-beaters on the PISA. That said, we’re the country whose benighted ancestors spent three hundred years trying to eliminate literacy from one whole part of our population. And we’re the country with the massive inflow of deserving kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.
(Sweden has more immigration than many of us might think.)
The United States is not a super high scorer on the PISA. American kids tend to score better on the TIMSS/PIRLS, the other major international test battery.
For that reason, TIMSS/PIRLS scores are routinely disappeared by people funded by Bill Gates, the garage band genius of billionaire educational policy. And let’s face it—in education, virtually everyone is funded by Bill Gates.
We have no idea why Mathews would have said what he did about Norway and Sweden and the PISA. There seems to be an unending appetite within the press corps for statements which are false or misleading about student test scores, domestic and international.
We’ve tried and tried and tried and tried to encourage journalists to create a more balanced understanding of the ways American kids score on international tests. Nothing will ever stop the press from furthering the sense that everybody in the world outscores our American kids.
This Sunday, Kevin Drum’s idea broke through. We’d love to see it get more attention.
In a minor but unrelenting way, the flow of misleading test scores continued. To all appearances, a more accurate sense of American test scores will simply never break through.
To review all the date, click here.
Drum’s idea and our rising test scores: According to Kristof, some research suggests that the decline in crime has been caused by the phasing out of lead from gasoline and thus from the air.
In a similar way, some people have suggested that the rise in American test scores over the past several decades is tied to lead abatement. But how sad!
Since you aren’t allowed to know that American test scores have been rising, no one will ever speculate about such a thing in the Times.
The American press corps jealously guards several major secrets. The rise in test scores in recent decades is the story they seem most determined to make sure nobody hears.