Interlude—One-week hiatus looms: On Wednesday morning, we'll be leaving our sprawling campus on a mission of national import.
We'll be taking part in a symposium for federal managers at an undisclosed location in Aberdeen, South Dakota. For that reason, our four-week series, Where the Test Scores Are, will be on hiatus until next Monday.
Next week, we'll proceed with the third week in our series, "Where the Achievement Gaps Are." Today, we'll jump the gun on that topic a tad—and we'll explain what Bill Keller said.
As we noted in last Friday's report, Keller is a major American journalist. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer prize for his foreign reporting. From 2003 through 2011, he was executive editor of the New York Times, a well-known American newspaper.
Keller is perfectly smart (it sometimes seems that some journalists aren't); he's also thoroughly decent. But in August 2013, he made this peculiar highlighted statement in an opinion column in the New York Times:
KELLER (8/19/13): The Common Core, a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers, made its debut in 2010, endorsed by 45 states. It is to be followed in the 2014-15 school year by new standardized tests that seek to measure more than the ability to cram facts or master test-taking tricks...As of back-to-school 2013, why did Keller believe that the United States had experienced "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education?"
This is an ambitious undertaking, and there is plenty of room for debate about precisely how these standards are translated into classrooms. But the Common Core was created with a broad, nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable.
As we've noted in the past two weeks—as we've noted for the past many years—our most reliable data seem to contradict or challenge that claim. So why did Keller believe that claim? We offered an excuse for the lifelong Timesman:
He has a good excuse, we said. He reads the New York Times!
Did Keller hold a false or grossly misleading belief because he reads the Times? In yesterday's high-profile Sunday Review, the Times presented the latest example of what we had in mind.
We refer to six letters the Times published about a recent front-page news report. That report described a large achievement gap between some Connecticut schools.
We expect to start with that news report when our series resumes next week. Briefly, though, the report describes a large gap in academic achievement between students in low-income Bridgeport, Connecticut and their counterparts in high-income Fairfield, just a few miles away.
(Despite the presence of cities like Bridgeport, Fairfield County ranked sixth in the U.S. in per capita income as of 2005. Fairfield County's so-called "Gold Coast" is extremely wealthy.)
Those achievement gaps are real. So are some of the problems the Times news report addressed.
Those gaps are real—and they're very important. But the six letters in yesterday's Times help explain the puzzling claim described as "Keller's folly."
As we'll note all next week, our achievement gaps remain substantial and real. But so are the large score gains recorded by all major parts of the student population over the past twenty years.
The gaps remain, though they've gotten smaller, because all major population groups have shown roughly similar gains. But as we've told you again and again, newspapers like the New York Times impose a brutal journalistic regime when they report on the public schools:
They constantly report the gaps—and they constantly disappear the gains! This leads intelligent, well-intentioned people like Keller to fundamentally misunderstand the current state of play.
Yesterday, the New York Times published six letters about its news report. Several thundered about the gaps. None of them mentioned the gains.
A cynic might think that the letters came straight from a corporatist spin machine. The letters reinforced the sense of gloom which Keller so vividly expressed. None of them explained the basic reason why the gaps persist.
For today, we'll only consider one of yesterday's letters. Below, you see a textbook example of the deeply misleading way this situation is presented in newspapers like the Times:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (9/18/16): The educational reforms of the past decade, with its Common Core curriculum, reliance on high-stakes tests and the new world of digital technology, and calls for more charter schools, have done little to end the achievement gaps in the United States. The Stanford Education Data Archive, based on school district performances on the National Assessment of Educational Progress across the country, found that racial achievement gaps continue in nearly every district. In fact, I believe that these reforms have only exacerbated the problems associated with segregated schools.Why did Keller say what he did? Just take a look at that letter!
So what is to be done? States should dissolve current local school districts and collapse them into districts that integrate urban districts with suburban districts; establish per-pupil funding levels; and provide for extended social services for families in poverty, including parent education.
Until we muster the political leadership and the courage to really address the needs of disadvantaged children and integrate our schools, the current crop of educational reforms will do little to improve the quality of public education, and schools will remain highly segregated.
The letter says that recent reforms "have done little to end the achievement gaps in the United States." It accurately says that "racial achievement gaps continue in nearly every district."
With the elaborate moral grandeur so commonly seen in this broken discussion, the writer reports the gaps—but fails to mention the gains! He fails to say why those achievement gaps remain, despite the large score gains recorded by black and Hispanic kids.
In fact, he fails to mention those gains at all! His letter provides a perfect example of our account of the way the reporting works in this area.
Bill Keller isn't an education specialist. When it comes to public schools, he's probably a bit like Will Rogers: he only knows what he reads in the papers.
When he reads the New York Times, he sees laments about the gaps but never hears about the gains. In all likelihood, he has never heard about the large score gains recorded by all groups of American students during the years he cited.
When we present the third week in this series, we expect to start with Bridgeport and Fairfield. Yesterday, the Times published six letters about those neighboring districts.
On our scorecard, two of the letters—those from Yonkers and Los Angeles—presented "non-partisan" reactions to the original news report. The letters focused on the funding disparities which formed the basis for much of the Times report.
The other four letters all seemed to come from a screeching corporatist playbook. We heard insinuations about our teachers (though no one mentioned their fiendish unions). We heard about basic educational practices which were said to be foolish.
In the first letter, we were offered a statistical claim about failing students and where they're found which seems highly implausible. In the final letter, we received a final, familiar blast. We were told that "Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher’s sweeping critique of Connecticut schools did, indeed, sound like an indictment of school failure nationwide...Children begin life curious and enthusiastic about learning, but schools have failed to nurture their intense urge to learn."
As usual, we were told that our public schools have failed nationwide. We weren't told about the large score gains recorded by all groups of kids, including black and Hispanic kids.
In yesterday's letters, New York Times readers were told, once again, about our achievement gaps. But how strange! In the course of publishing six different letters, no one mentioned the large score gains recorded by black and Hispanic kids over the decades in question.
Bill Keller's been reading such work for years. So has everyone who subscribes to the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Liberal journalists never challenge this grossly misleading framework. Most plainly put: For all our ballyhooed moral greatness, we liberals don't seem to care.
Bill Keller's been reading such work for years. It represents a type of journalistic malpractice.
It constitutes a journalistic offense against the American discourse, against the public interest. Our four-week report about that offense will resume next week.
Coming next week: Where the Achievement Gaps Are
Starting October 3: Where the Deceptions Are