Supplemental: Nothing has worked in our public schools!


The false claim that brings us together:
Earlier in the week, we mentioned a deeply unfortunate fact about our bizarre public discourse.

Whether from the pseudo-left, pseudo-right or corporate elite, absolutely everyone loves to run down the public schools.

Different groups offer different explanations as to why our public schools are so bad. But nothing has worked in our public schools! It’s the false fact we all can agree on!

According to our most reliable data, this widely-voiced “fact” is bogus. Today, we thought we’d show you what this gloom-and-doom looks like when it comes from the academic center left.

Last week, Professor Zelizer was dishing the gloom in The Atlantic. The Princeton professor’s gloomy thoughts appeared beneath these headlines:
How Education Policy Went Astray
Half a century ago, President Johnson signed a law—now known as No Child Left Behind—that he believed would solve inequality. But achievement gaps have only grown.
Please understand—Professor Zelizer isn’t an education specialist. But everyone knows how to dish the gloom about the public schools. By now, this communal activity has replaced baseball as the national pastime.

Zelizer, an LBJ specialist, was wringing his hands about the way Johnson’s good intentions failed with regard to the public schools. This chunk provides an overview of the professor’s misleading presentation:
ZELIZER (4/10/15): Fifty years ago, on April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson went back to his old schoolhouse next to the Pedernales River in Stonewall, Texas, to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the ESEA. Kate Deadrich Loney, one of Johnson’s former schoolteachers, sat beside him, as did a group of Mexican Americans who were students of the president when he worked as a teacher.

The legislation constituted a huge expansion in the role of the federal government in the classroom, an area of public policy that had traditionally been left to state and local governments. At the heart of the legislation was Title I, the section of the program that earmarked federal funding for poor children—a provision that is still in effect today and whose parameters continue to figure as a perennial subject of debate in Congress. The section stipulated the distribution of funds to state education departments, which then allocated the money to school districts with the highest concentration of low-income children. "By passing this bill," Johnson said upon signing the legislation, "we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children." And this was one of several measures passed that year that aimed to provide better education: Head Start, for example, offered preschool programs for low-income families, while the Higher Education Act set aside federal funding to support aspiring college students.

But the president did not end up accomplishing his goal. Despite the hundreds of millions of federal dollars spent, the widespread challenges faced by children from low-income families in America remain extraordinarily difficult to tackle as they continue to struggle with vastly inadequate educational opportunities. Schools remain underfunded and poorly staffed. The quality of education is often poor, and their teachers are typically overburdened as they deal with the broader range of environmental factors that take a toll on student achievement. Since 2001, the government’s tendency toward focusing on the creation of national standards to measure school achievement, rather than the provision of resources, has also had negative consequences. The high-school dropout rate for children from lower-income families is much higher than it is for wealthier students. In 2012, The New York Times reported that since the 1960s the gap in standardized test scores between kids from lower- and higher-income families had risen by 40 percent.
Shorter Zelizer:

Johnson wanted to help low-income kids, but the president failed. The gap between kids from lower- and higher-income kids is much higher today than it was in Johnson's time!

In fact, low-income kids are scoring much higher in reading and math than they were in the 1960s. So are black and Hispanic kids. Surely, no one would ever get that idea from reading the gloomy professor.

In the passage we’ve shown you, Zelizer bases his gloomy portrait on a 2012 report in the New York Times. On a narrow technical basis, that report from the Times may well be true. (The data are hard to check.)

Here's the background:

According to Stanford professor Sean Reardon, the gap between kids from lower- and higher-income families really has grown by 40 percent. That’s the research the Times was citing in 2012.

But Reardon is talking about a special class of “higher-income” kids. he's talking about kids from the 90th percentile by family income—kids who are border-line wealthy.

Reardon was comparing those kids to kids from the 10th percentile by income, kids who are living in poverty. That is a very specialized comparison.

Reardon discussed his own research in the Times in April 2013. When he did, he stressed the fact that everyone is doing better today, including low-income kids.

In his culturally mandated gloom, the Princeton professor wiped away the essence of what Reardon said. This is a very brief excerpt:
REARDON (4/27/13): Before we can figure out what's happening here, let's dispel a few myths.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline.
In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, have been rising—substantially in math and very slowly in reading—since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.
In his lengthy report, Reardon paints a complex picture of a trend in which kids at the 90th percentile by income are strongly outpacing their peers from both lower- and middle-income families. The growing gap stems from vastly higher achievement by the kids who are truly well-off, a phenomenon Reardon attributes to the growing investments such familiars are now able to make in their kids’ out-of-school educational experiences.

That said, all groups are scoring much better on the NAEP than they were in the past. As Reardon put it, “the average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11.”

That’s a reference to the average child. But lower-scoring kids are strongly outperforming their counterparts from the past too. Scores by black and Hispanic kids are way up in the years since President Johnson made his historic efforts.

Reardon sketched a complex picture in his lengthy piece for the Times. Zelizer dressed it the mandated way, draping it in gloom.

Nothing has worked in our public schools! It’s the one (bogus) message which “brings us together,” to borrow an old Nixon line.


  1. Warning to casual readers of this blog: The facts this is the first comment and comes three hours after this piece was posted does not mean these comments are moderated. Just because this post is not infested by one or more trolls who routinely attack the blog author in a variety of ways doesn't mean they aren't around somewhere.

    The lack of previous comments is not an indicator of the level of interest of other readers in school test results or the esteem in which the blog author is held by them. They do not despise black children just because they are silent.

    1. The lack of comments suggests that the trolls live on the East Coast, where it is dinner time. People on the West Coast are still at work and may not have time to comment yet. None of that has anything to do with the content of the post itself or how people feel about children, black or otherwise.

    2. Thursday meals are usually long drawn out affairs involving many courses, particularly on the East Coast. We hear traffic was especially snarled today (make that yesterday in Troll time (EDT) on the West Coast. Many a fan of Bob is still stuck on the 101.

    3. No one commented on the Geer post this late either.

    4. No one has commented on this post period.

  2. Howler Reader: Howdy, Bridge. Do you mind if I jump off?

    Bridge: OK. The Howler discussing black children again I see.

    Howler Reader: Arrrrggghhh!

    Bridge: Should have warned him to look out for Rachel Maddow. She must have broken his fall.

  3. An excellent rebuttal to the Princeton professor's op-ed.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "In the passage we’ve shown you, Zelizer bases his gloomy portrait on a 2012 report in the New York Times. On a narrow technical basis, that report from the Times may well be true." Bob Somerby

  5. "That said, all groups are scoring much better on the NAEP than they were in the past. As Reardon put it, “the average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11.” " Somerby

    That passage is not technically false. It is totally false. No skills have ever been measured in an 11 year old by NAEP.

    1. Are you saying that we don't know what the skills of an 11 year old would be, based on the NAEP? Or are you just saying that it is unreasonable to surmise that 9 year olds today have skills equal to 11 year olds, since the NAEP does not test 11 year olds. "Totally false" implies that the statement was intended to deceive. What deceptive idea is being put forward?

    2. Yes to question one, and not "just" because the answer to question two is also yes, but rather "simply" because it is.

      If one wants to "surmise" the skills of an untested age group, one is welcome to try, but that invites me in return to "surmise" the lack of intelligence of the one doing so.

      "Totally false" is a statement of fact with no need for any implications whatsoever. I could have easily said "completely untrue." If you want to "surmise" deception is an implication of the fact, that is up to you. I know the blogger has stated use of one Census statistic "implies" additional statements of fact even when they are never made. So you would be in good company here. One would have to start by asking if the blogger is thoroughly familiar with NAEP tests and should know 11 year olds have never been tested.