Supplemental: The truth about our American schools!


And about our non-journalism:
As we mentioned yesterday, Libby Nelson’s recent report at Vox is one of the worst reports we’ve ever read.

We aren’t entirely sure whose fault that is. Nelson transcribed an interview with Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross.

Their conversation “has been edited slightly for clarity and length.” For that reason, we can’t necessarily pinpoint the blame for what is a god-awful discussion of American schools.

Did Schneider really say those things? Or did Nelson perhaps omit some of the things he said? Whatever! From its baffling photograph right on down, this is a god-awful effort.

It tells us little about our American public schools. It tells us a very large amount about our non-journalism.

Weirdly enough, the interview starts in promising fashion. The piece appears beneath a challenging headline, which may well be accurate:

“US public schools are better than they've ever been”

Is that true? Sweeping claims are hard to assess. But as he starts, Schneider makes an important statement about the state of agitprop surrounding the public schools:
NELSON (10/13/14): Why do people in the US think schools are in decline, and why do you argue that they're not?

SCHNEIDER: The first reason that people think schools are in decline is because they hear it all the time. If you hear something often enough, it becomes received wisdom, even if you can't identify the source. That rhetoric is coming from a policy machine where savvy policy leaders have figured out that the way that you get momentum is to scare the hell out of people. So reformers have gotten really good at this sky is falling rhetoric. All you have to do is look at any successful recent reform, whether it's something that they're targeting through courts or through referenda, or through policies like the Common Core, which have been adopted in a very different kind of manner. The rhetoric there is the schools are in crisis, we are competing against nations that are going to somehow destroy us if our test scores aren't high enough, and lo and behold, policymakers have a solution.
There is no question. As we’ve noted for all these years, the public is constantly being propagandized about the allegedly miserable state of our public schools.

We’re constantly told that things are “stagnant” or “in decline” in the nation’s schools. The best evidence seems to contradict these claims. But for that reason, that best evidence is uniformly withheld.

There are few policy areas where the public is so aggressively propagandized by major elites, including the mainstream press. Vox readers ought to be told about this grotesque situation.

Alas! In a stumbling, bumbling effort, Nelson and Schneider fail to accomplish this task. As they continue, Schneider offers some theories about one aspect of public surveys—on average, people rate their community’s schools more highly than they rate the nation’s school as a whole.

Schneider has little of value to say about this. Soon, though, the rubber hits the road in his discussions of test scores.

Nelson asks Schneider why he thinks our schools are better than they’ve ever been. He says our schools are spending more money on urban kids, on English language learners and on special education students.

Finally, he cites domestic test scores. This is horrible work:
NELSON: So you argue that...schools are better than they've ever been in the past. Why?


Even though standardized test scores don't measure even a fraction of what we want good schools to do, look at scores over time. Forty years ago, 9- and 13-year-olds were scoring much lower, and let's include the fact that there may have been less diversity in that initial group than there is now. We know that special education students or low-income students or English language learners are going to score lower on tests, so their scores are all going up, on state tests across time, at least on average.

All the evidence points in the direction that we have a fairer and more effective system that is probably more focused on student achievement than it once was.
That is an amazingly unknowledgeable presentation. If we lived in a slightly more rational world, no professor of education could ever give an answer like that. If Schneider actually gave that answer, it’s an indictment of Nelson’s preparation that she didn’t question him further.

It’s obvious that Schneider is referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal testing program which dates to 1971.

More specifically, he is referring to the NAEP’s so-called Long-Term Trend Assessment, which tests 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds, as opposed to the so-called Main NAEP, which tests fourth-graders and eighth-graders.

The data from the NAEP’s two studies demolish the propagandistic claims about stagnant or declining schools. For that reason, a site like Vox should have done extensive reporting on NAEP data long ago.

Schneider’s discussion of those data is amazingly rudimentary. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that his statements are true. In reading, 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds aren’t scoring massively better than their counterparts from forty years ago, unless you disaggregate the scores—unless you look at the progress attained by each major demographic group.

If you disaggregate the scores, the score gains recorded by black kids and Hispanic kids are truly astounding. Vox readers should be told about that. So should everyone else.

Black kids and Hispanic kids have recorded astounding score gains. How hard is it to state that fact? It’s isn’t very hard at all, but Schneider and Nelson failed to do it.

We’re especially puzzled by Schneider’s statement “that there may have been less diversity in that initial group than there is now.”

There may have been less diversity then? If we’re discussing standard racial/ethnic diversity, there was massively less diversity in the past. The NAEP provides the data:

In 1971, the 9-year-old student population was 84 percent white, 14 percent black, two percent Hispanic. In 2012, the corresponding percentages were 53/14/25. Click here, scroll down to Table A-1, page 55.

In a society with a functioning press corps and a functioning academy, that fuzzy-wuzzy answer by Schneider could never have gone into print. In that lazy, hapless answer, Vox readers are deprived of the services they think they’re getting when they go to that allegedly super-smart site.

That said, the interview becomes even more hapless when Nelson asks about international test scores. This defies comprehension:
NELSON: What role do international comparisons play in this—the idea that we're scoring behind many other countries on international tests in math and science?

SCHNEIDER: It is one of the most frequently used pieces of evidence in conversations I have with laypeople. They say the schools are in crisis; I say, what makes you feel like the schools need to be fixed? One of the most frequently cited pieces of information in these conversations is, we're just getting crushed in these international comparisons.

I say, OK, tell me one question that's on the PISA (the OECD's standardized tests taken by students in more than 60 countries and economies). And that's where we stop. People don't know a whole lot about it, but it is a nice piece of evidence that confirms this thing they already believe because they've heard it so many times.

There are a lot of people in policy positions and in political leadership who believe that, and I don't think they're being disingenuous. I think PISA is a big part of that. They say, oh my God, we finished 29th or whatever—we didn't finish first on whatever it is. We need to be first. It excites people who don't know what's on the PISA, or why some countries would be doing better.

This tells us that on one narrow snapshot, kids in Shanghai, which happens to be a very affluent city in a country that promotes testing far more than we do, happen to score better on a narrow range of questions than our kids. I'm not sure what the usefulness of any of that stuff really is.
That answer is astounding. Here are some of the reasons why:

As Schneider surely knows, there are two major international test batteries—the PISA and the TIMSS/PIRLS. The PISA is run by the OECD. The TIMSS/PIRLS, which is slightly older, is run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

The PISA and the TIMSS/PIRLS take different approaches to assessment. Each battery has its adherents, but the bulk of the developed nations take part in both programs.

Here’s where the scam comes in:

American kids tend to score better on the TIMSS/PIRLS, somewhat less well on the PISA. For that reason, the reformers only refer to the PISA in pimping their propaganda about failing schools.

Surely, Schneider must know that. And yet, good God! In their interview, Schneider and Nelson only refer to the PISA! They discuss a public survey which asks about the PISA only. In Schneider’s answer, he shows no sign of knowing that there are two international batteries at all.

His answer may even make it sound like American kids really are “just getting crushed in these international comparisons.” In a wide array of ways, his answer there is lazy, incompetent work.

Schneider’s presentations about test scores are both god-awful. If a college student prepared such work, he or she wouldn’t deserve a passing grade.

But there those answers sit at Vox, our purported go-to site for the new, smarter journalism. How much more do you need to know about the current state of “journalistic” culture?

Vox gets pimped all around as a new, smarter site. Nelson’s report helps us see the state of “journalism” within our dying culture.

Nelson’s report is deeply incompetent. Like so much in our modern “journalism,” it’s lazy, inept and knowledge-free—knowledge-free all the way down.

Final exam: Click here, then look at that photograph.

Considering what you've read above; considering some of Schneider's statements; how on earth could any editor have chosen that photograph?


  1. I think it is safe to conclude, buying in wholly to Bob's argument here, that our schools have declined for white people given the two people serfving as examples here.

  2. "I say, OK, tell me one question that's on the PISA (the OECD's standardized tests taken by students in more than 60 countries and economies). And that's where we stop. People don't know a whole lot about it..."

    Why should any member of the public be able to quote a single question from any of these tests? That seems pretty irrelevant in a discussion of how well our schools are doing.

    I vote for Schneider being incompletely quoted. He is an Asst Prof, which means he is a beginner in his field and most likely not very experienced in being interviewed by the media. He may not understand that he needs to give out sound bites and not leave reporters to draw their own conclusions about anything. Further, I doubt he was given a chance to review the article before publication, so he most likely did not get to correct anything about it. Many academics refuse to have anything to do with the media because of the likelihood of being made to look incompetent, as Schneider has been (giving him the benefit of the doubt).

    Yesterday Kevin Drum was wondering why conservatives have a much lower opinion of the schools than liberals. Last week Fox was making a fuss about the Purple Penguins (the school that tried to train its faculty to use non-gendered categories when talking about gender issues). These sorts of complaints appear on Fox all the time, so is there any wonder viewers form a negative impression of public schools. Further, they are the ones most concerned about home schooling in order to avoid exposing their kids to ideas inconsistent with their own ideologies, religious and political. I think it is also likely conservatives are less concerned with content of what is taught than quality of teaching, although they have championed the Back to Basics approach that now seems to be dominating schools with the emphasis on testing in NCLB.

    1. Sorry -- meant to say more concerned with content than quality, not less.

    2. "He is an Asst Prof, which means he is a beginner in his field and most likely not very experienced in being interviewed by the media."

      He should have directed her to his Department head.

    3. The Dept chair is just the person most willing to do bureaucratic make-work.

    4. He should have directed her to the person most willing to fight for his tenure.

  3. "how on earth could any editor have chosen that photograph?"

    Bob doesn't care about white kids.