Part 1 in this series
Part 2—Who is Richard Rothstein: In late August 2011, Richard Rothstein presented a bit of a back-to-school essay in the pages of Slate.
Essentially, Rothstein's piece was a critique of certain kinds of "education reform." More specifically, it was a critique of the types of education reform which have proven very popular with press corps elites over the past many years.
Rothstein started with a glancing reference to a new film, Waiting For Superman, which was gaining attention and praise. Inevitably, the film cited the wonders of Finland's schools. It also advocated certain kinds of reform.
That said, the bulk of Rothstein's piece challenged the claims in a new book, Class Warfare, written by Steven Brill. Rothstein described the book as "another polemic against teacher unions and a paean to self-styled 'education reformers.' "
People can judge the tenets of various types of reform as they will. We'll focus on a remarkable, accurate claim Rothstein made late in his piece.
Late in his piece, Rothstein made the statement shown below. He described a truly remarkable fact—a type of fact our major news orgs have chosen to suppress:
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago.Say what? According to Rothstein, our only consistent data on student achievement showed that "public school performance ha[d] skyrocketed in the last two decades." He then cited a remarkable example:
"Black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago."
Could Richard Rothstein say that? As Rothstein noted, those data flew in the face of persistent, almost ubiquitous claims according to which "student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades."
Such gloomy, pessimistic claims had driven the movement for reform, Rothstein said. Rather plainly, that gloomy, pessimistic pattern has persisted to the present day.
Below, we'll show you the data to which Rothstein referred when he offered that specific example. Before we do so, let's look at his fuller statement. For better or worse, this was paragraph 15 of an 18-paragraph essay:
ROTHSTEIN: Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago. (There has also been progress for middle schoolers, and in reading; and less, but not insubstantial, progress for high schoolers.) The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.Was Rothstein allowed to say that? "Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education"—though you'd never know it from reading our major newspapers—he said that American public schools had recorded "truly spectacular gains" on our only reliable tests!
Who is Richard Rothstein? Unlike many of the people who shape our understanding of the state of the schools, Rothstein is a genuine education specialist. According to this official bio, he's Senior Fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. He's the author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (Teachers College Press and EPI, 2008) and Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers College Press 2004). He's also the author of The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998).
Specialists aren't always right in their assessments, of course. But in this case, Rothstein was citing extremely basic data from our longest-running testing program, the federally-run National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP).
The NAEP is routinely cited by our major newspapers, at least on the rare occasions when they stoop to the tiresome task of discussing our public schools. It's routinely described by such writers as "America's report card," and as "the gold standard" of domestic educational testing.
Reporters routinely cite the NAEP; they just never report the "spectacular gains" lodged in its basic data. Because sure enough! In the case of those black elementary school students, Rothstein's statement was right as rain.
In its most widely-cited component, the NAEP tests a large sample of American students in reading and math in Grade 4 and Grade 8. In his specific example, Rothstein was referring to score gains recorded by black kids on the Grade 4 math test.
Below, you see the data in question, updated through the year when Rothstein's essay appeared. Thanks to the NAEP's truly spectacular "Data Explorer," any reporter who had a computer and knew how to click could have accessed these scores:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, National Assessment of Educational ProgressSure enough, there it was! As of 2007, black kids were scoring higher on the NAEP than white kids had scored in 1990. As Rothstein noted, score gaps persisted between the two groups because white students had recorded large score gains during that period too.
White students / black students
1990: 218.63 / 187.42
2007: 247.88 / 222.01
2009: 247.85 / 221.98
2011: 248.70 / 223.80
How should we interpret the size of those gaps and those gains? We'll discuss those questions tomorrow as we provide an overview of the NAEP's major testing programs.
But you can bet your sweet bippy on this: as of 1990, no one dreamed that black kids would exceed white kids' prevailing score on the NAEP math test in the course of just seventeen years. Having bet your sweet bippy on that, you can proceed to marvel at this:
When that "spectacular gain" occurred, your press corps chose to suppress it.
Tell the truth! Unless you've read past posts at this site, you have probably never heard about that striking example.
Rothstein presented that striking example in paragraph 15 of an 18-paragraph piece. His example appeared in Slate that day, then instantly disappeared.
In the larger sense, very few people have ever heard about the more general batch of "spectacular gains" to which Rothstein referred. As is clear in his text, Rothstein's "truly spectacular gains" also included the large score gains recorded by the country's white kids.
In large part because of the work of our journalists, very few people have ever heard that any such gains have occurred. We've heard that Estonia and Poland have wonderful schools. We've never been told about this.
On Sunday, a highly privileged ed world insider sniffed as she told the world about the "educational malpractice" which, she loftily said, is "common in American schools."
Malpractice can be where you find it. A judgmental person could spot malpractice as our press corps reports and suppresses facts about our American schools.
Tomorrow: What the Sam Hill is the NAEP?