WHERE THE CHALLENGES ARE: Disaggregating Massachusetts!


Epilogue—Bay State confidential:
When American journalists report domestic test scores, they typically "disaggregate."

They compare white kids' scores to the scores of black and Hispanic kids. They announce that the "achievement gaps" remain large.

They fail to report that all three groups have recorded large score gains. Gloomily, they announce that nothing has worked.

That's what happens when our journalists report domestic test scores. But when they report international scores, they almost never "disaggregate." (We're not sure we've ever seen an American journalist do that.)

They present the American aggregate score, then fashion gloomy thoughts about the way our students, teachers and schools compare to those in admirable countries like Finland.

They fashion sweeping gloomy thoughts. All our students, teachers and school get thrown under the bus.

In the past two weeks, we've shown you how it looks when you disaggregate American scores on international tests. In one way, the results are horrific and painful. In another way, American public schools, full stop, don't look quite so bad.

Our white students stack up pretty well as compared to the rest of the world. Our Asian-American students stack up substantially better. That said, gigantic achievement gaps appear between those two groups of kids and our black and Hispanic kids. In our view, those painful data help us see where our educational challenges are.

What explains those large gaps? What could we do to erase them? Different people will have different ideas. In the weeks and months ahead, we will try to sift through them, although the dirty secret is this:

(There's no sign that anyone cares.)

In our view, disaggregated international scores show where our challenges are. They also tend to undercut the sweeping denigration of our teachers and schools which comes from the types of propagandists who have tended to write the scripts for our contemporary journalism.

According to those propagandists, we're supposed to look at international scores and declare how awful our public schools are, full stop. For ourselves, we often reach a different conclusion. After we disaggregate international scores, we're often struck by how mediocre the outcomes are in a middle-class, unicultural nation like Finland.

Today, let's extend a comparison we started yesterday. Let's extend our battle of the small, unrepresentative corners. Let's compare Finland, a small corner of Europe, to Massachusetts, a small corner of our own more complex land.

By all accounts, Finland is a wonderful place to live. That said, how do its public schools perform on international tests as compared to the public schools of Massachusetts? Today, we'll disaggregate Bay State scores to let you consider that question more fully.

Once again, we think you'll see where our nation's educational challenges are. But we think you'll also see the problem with those sweeping denigrations of American teachers and schools, full stop. In our view, those sweeping denigrations almost resemble a form of propaganda.

Let's start with results on the PISA, the international test on which Americans kids have performed less well.

On the most recent PISA, here's the way Massachusetts kids performed, as compared to their peers in the world's public school super-powers. As we disaggregate Massachusetts scores, we create a Bay State confidential:
Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2012 PISA
Massachusetts, Asian-American students: 584
Massachusetts, white students: 540
Japan: 538
South Korea: 536
Massachusetts: 527
Finland: 524

Taiwan: 523
Massachusetts, black students: 476
Massachusetts, Hispanic students: 475

Average scores, Math Literacy, 2012 PISA
Massachusetts, Asian-American students: 569
Taiwan: 560
South Korea: 554
Japan: 536
Massachusetts, white students: 530
Finland: 519
Massachusetts: 514

Massachusetts, black students: 458
Massachusetts, Hispanic students: 446
Even in the aggregate, our own small corner matched their small corner on these international tests. (On the PISA scale, 39 points is considered the rough equivalent of one academic year.)

Even in the aggregate, Bay State kids matched miraculous Finland! But when we disaggregate Bay State scores, the story becomes more complex.

On the one hand, you see the giant achievement gaps which show us where our challenges are. On the other hand, you may gain a new perspective on miraculous Finland, even on the three Asian tigers.

White kids in Massachusetts outscored Finland on both these measures. Asian-American Bay State kids outscored Finland by a lot; they even outscored all three Asian public school super-powers. Somehow, these results emerged from our ratty public schools with their lazy, unionized staffs.

Let's be fair! Massachusetts is a small, unrepresentative corner of the United States. But Finland is an even smaller, unrepresentative corner of Europe.

As a unicultural nation with very little immigration, Finland's students are almost all "majority culture." In our own small corner of the U.S., our own "majority culture" kids outscored Finland, even on the tests which made Finland famous.

On the TIMSS, the Bay State does even better. But the challenges remain.

Within the Bay State's disaggregated scores, the large achievement gaps are there for all to see. On the other hand, you might start to see how silly it is to denigrate American schools, full stop, while praising the wonders of Finland:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
South Korea: 613
Taiwan: 609
Massachusetts, Asian-American students: 599
Massachusetts, white students: 572
Japan: 570
Massachusetts: 561
Massachusetts, black students: 516
Massachusetts, Hispanic students: 514
Finland: 514

Average scores, Grade 8 science, 2011 TIMSS
Massachusetts, white students: 587
Massachusetts, Asian-American students: 576
Massachusetts: 567
Taiwan: 564
South Korea: 560
Japan: 558
Finland: 552
Massachusetts, black students: 514
Massachusetts, Hispanic students: 494
We can't give you a rule of thumb to apply to those score differentials. But especially in math, Bay State kids, even in the aggregate, outscored miraculous Finland by a lot.

On both these tests, our small corner, in the aggregate, beat Europe's small corner straight-up. In science, Massachusetts, in the aggregate, even outscored all three Asian public school powers. The Bay State outscored them straight up!

That said, we still confront those very large internal achievement gaps. In our view, we face two major challenges:

On the one hand, we face an educational challenge. It's defined by the large achievement gaps which appear whenever we disaggregate American scores.

That said, we also face a journalistic challenge. Our journalism has been driven by simple-minded, propagandistic story-lines about our hapless public school teachers and our embarrassing schools. In sweeping fashion, these story-lines denigrate all our teachers, students and schools. Full freaking stop!

Those propagandistic story-lines are poorly aligned with reality. They're neatly aligned with certain corporate and pseudo-conservative perspectives, interests and themes. But they fail to capture the complex, appalling lay of the land within our public schools.

For whatever reason, our journalists have rushed to endorse those simple-minded tales. Perhaps in perfect good faith, the billionaires have been aggressively pushing those tales. Our press corps has rushed to recite them.

In our view, the truth is much more difficult, vastly more daunting. It's also much more complex.

Our small corner beats their small corner! Isn't it time for the press to expand its small, silly story-lines?

To access all data: To access all data, you'll have to click here. From that point, you're on your own.


  1. "(There's no sign that anyone cares.)"

    Or perhaps it is that the problems seem overwhelming without any clear direction about what to do to improve matters?

    Arguments for the innateness of differences are essentially a form of giving up because they are never followed by any suggestion that there should be renewed effort to decrease performance gaps. Instead, the argument is that such effort is futile.

    In those Asian Tiger countries, there is an assumption that everyone can and will succeed because those who find academic learning difficult will expend increased effort to achieve the same high scores as those to whom it comes easily. The cost to students and their families may be ridiculously high, but we could err by encouraging a greater focus on effort (and less on innate talent) and perhaps help more kids do better in preparing themselves for our competitive job market.

    Simply setting high Common Core standards isn't the same as encouraging kids to strive for improvement (while not discouraging them with comparisons to unattainable goals or telling them kids of their kind cannot succeed). Incremental improvement from each child's own baseline is needed, which implies individualized education, not age-step-locked curricula and expectations. With new educational technology, this should be more achievable than ever before.

  2. I had another question though, even in regard to the NAEP. How many of the kids taking these various tests are going to PUBLIC schools?

    Here where I live the Catholic school does very well on the ACT. Not sure if that is because of higher quality teachers, or higher quality fellow students (less disruptions in class perhaps, a peer group more dedicated to learning, and also providing input (peers with a larger vocabulary will be somewhat of a rising tide that lifts all boats (for example)). The big part is probably because they are the kids of parents who can afford to send their kids to private school. Way back in the 1990s I went as an adult to an honor society induction. It struck me that many of the honor kids had rich parents. Their parents were doctors and lawyers.

    If memory serves, the Bay State has a higher percentage of college graduates than some of our other states.

    In 2008 Massachusetts had 128,000 students in private schools compared to 959,000 in public schools in 2009 (my source is the 2011 state book of lists which has different years for various lists). My own Kansas has 43,400 in private schools and 471,000 in public schools. That's 8.4% for Kansas and 11.8% for Massachusetts.

    Massachusetts was #1 among the 50 states with percentage with college degrees and percentage with higher degrees at 38.2% and 16.4% in 2009. By contrast Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia were at the bottom with about 20% and 7% (except for Kentucky was 47th for college degrees and 32nd for advanced degrees, otherwise the bottom 5 were consistent)

    1. Yes, here in Massachusetts, we have a strong commitment to education, higher and otherwise. Maybe that could be the lesson learned without tripping to Finland.

    2. They are all public school students.

  3. Evidence that they don't care is found on the current California ballot. There's a proposition to bring back bilingual education. Bilingual education was tried here and it failed. It disserved Hispanic students, rather than help them.

    Yet, some liberal sources support bilingual education. They see opposition to bilingual education as bigotry. For many liberals, avoiding being labeled a "bigot" is foremost goal, even if one has to harm Hispanic kids in the process.

    1. Bilingual education didn't fail. It was ruthlessly attacked by conservatives who didn't want to pay for it. It was eliminated despite working well, along with other anti-immigrant ballot measures.

  4. 8:18 -- Read the entire article at http://www.onenation.org/article/a-true-disbeliever/
    Here's an excerpt:

    Gradually, in the course of her five years at the Armory School, she began to doubt the effectiveness of bilingual education. She noticed that students taught in their native language weren’t making rapid enough progress in English, and the longer they took, the longer they stayed segregated from their English-speaking peers. Some of her fifth- and sixth-grade students who had lived in Springfield all their lives had still not learned enough English to be taught math or science in it. In some cases, she felt that by following the rules of the bilingual curriculum — that is, by requiring kindergartners to answer questions in Spanish, even though they could respond in English — she was deliberately thwarting their English- language learning progress.

    Or, read http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/05/the-case-against-bilingual-education/305426/
    Here's an excerpt:

    Why even Latino parents are rejecting a program designed for their children's benefit

    Bilingual education is a classic example of an experiment that was begun with the best of humanitarian intentions but has turned out to be terribly wrongheaded....

    From this untried experimental idea grew an education industry that expanded far beyond its original mission to teach English and resulted in the extended segregation of non-English-speaking students. In practice, many bilingual programs became more concerned with teaching in the native language and maintaining the ethnic culture of the family than with teaching children English in three years.

    Or read many other articles explaining that bilingual edcuation failed and why it failed.

    1. No thanks. I will stipulate that it is controversial. You don't cite anything from the education literature, nothing written by experts in bilingual education, nothing with any stats on kids performance. You are spouting propaganda not any kind of analysis of a complex and technical issue that has been thoroughly explored by education experts.

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