Sees the glass ten percent full: Emma Brown is a Washington Post education reporter with the soul of a Globetrekker host.
According to her official Post bio, Brown is "a latecomer to journalism who worked as a wilderness ranger in Wyoming and as a middle-school math teacher in Alaska before joining the newspaper in 2009." We'd say that capsule tends to overstate her age and to understate her apparent spirit.
Brown graduated from Stanford in June 2000. During the academic term, she absorbed four years of overpowering Pacific-10 dominance. In the summers, she worked in the Wind River Range!
From there, she followed the path laid out by Capucine in the feature film North to Alaska, the only major Hollywood film which paired the Parisian star with her single-name counterpart, Fabian. She got a master's degree in teaching at University of Alaska Southeast, then taught junior high math in Juneau for three years.
She transcribed interviews with Alutiiq elders. At some point, she kayaked Baja California.
During this time, she began to dabble in journalism. She returned to the Lower 48 to get a master's in journalism at Berkeley, then joined the Post in 2009.
Along the way, she'd been praised for her writing. In his introduction to American Nature Writing 2003, John Murray opined thusly:
"At twenty-three, Emma Brown is one of the most gifted young writers I have ever encountered, and that includes the over six hundred undergraduate and graduate students I taught during my years as a university writing professor." Murray went on to say that Brown's prose evokes "the best of such diverse writers as Edward Abbey and Norman MacLean."
A ranger in the Wind Rivers! You'll have to thumb quite a few resumes to encounter a greater sense of adventure. That's why it's so striking to see the way Brown succumbed this week to the upper-end journalist's curse—to the kryptonite of script.
Brown reported for the Washington Post about the new Timss scores from last year's quadrennial testing. We hadn't actually seen the scores when we read her news report, but her headline seemed to have blown in from the Narrative River Range.
As Brown began her report, she took the path more traveled by. Extending a mandated gloomy framework, she saw the glass ten percent full.
Hard-copy headline included. Presumably, Brown didn't write it:
BROWN (11/29/16): U.S. pupils still trail Asian peers in math, scienceDarn those eighth-grade students across the country! Their performance was "likely to stoke renewed debate...about why math and science achievement has not improved more quickly!"
Eighth-grade students across the United States showed some improvement in math and science over the past four years, but fourth-graders’ performance was stagnant and students in both groups continued to trail many of their peers in Asia, according to the results of a major international exam released Tuesday.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, was administered to nearly 600,000 students in dozens of education systems across the globe in 2015. U.S. scores are likely to stoke renewed debate among politicians, educators and business leaders about why math and science achievement has not improved more quickly relative to other nations.
Let's be fair to Brown. She started with a few words about "some improvement."
Beyond that, her instant prediction will likely turn out to be true. Given the way our discourse works, these new data probably will "stoke renewed debate" about our students' alleged lack of progress. Given the way our elite mandates work, no other type of debate is allowed in the Script River Range.
Once again, let's be fair. Everything in those two grafs is true, as is the headline's assertion. On average, American students did "trail their Asian peers" on the Timss last year, by a substantial amount.
Still, we'd have to say that Brown went out of her way to see the glass empty—or at least, that's the way we'd review her report as published.
How well did American students perform as compared to their peers around the world? We'd say an obvious preference for gloom prevailed when Brown returned to that question. She named every system our students trailed, no one whom they surpassed:
BROWN: On TIMSS, the average score of U.S. fourth-graders in math put them behind students in 10 other systems: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Northern Ireland and Ireland, Norway, and the Flemish portion of Belgium.All ten systems we trailed got named. Brown named none of the forty-three (43!) "education systems" our students matched or exceeded.
In Singapore, for example, 50 percent of students scored high enough to be considered advanced in math, compared with just 14 percent of U.S. students who reached that benchmark.
U.S. fourth-graders’ average score was indistinguishable from nine other systems and higher than 34 systems.
U.S. students ranked comparably in science.
That strikes us as a peculiar choice. It becomes even more peculiar when we consider that slightly peculiar term—"education system."
Uh-oh! As you might note, some of the "education systems" which outscored our kids aren't exactly nations. This isn't a criticism of the Timss. We do regard it as a criticism of the Post.
What's a more significant piece of information? The fact that our students were outscored by the Flemish portion of Belgium? Or the fact that our students outscored their peers in such places as these:
Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, France, Spain.
That's right! On the test in question, U.S. fourth-graders outscored their peers in those large, well-known nations. Beyond that, on the level of statistical significance, they matched the scores of their peers in England, even in miraculous Finland.
These triumphs were withheld from Post readers. Instead, Post subscribers were told that our perpetually disappointing kids got outscored by Belgium, at least in the Flemish region!
This strikes us as a weird, but highly familiar, approach to such data as these. Journalistic elites accepted the mandate long ago:
We must find a way for gloom to prevail whenever we report test scores!
In this case, Brown listed all ten "systems" who humbled our kids, but none of the 34 they bested. She was refusing to see the glass largely full.
How aggressive was Brown's refusal? Consider the torture involved in her focus on those ten education systems.
Some of those systems aren't even nations. More significantly, some of those education systems serve populations which are rather small:
Total populations of four smallish entities:It isn't that those populations aren't significant. It's just that they maybe possibly aren't as significant as these:
Hong Kong: 7.2 million
Flemish region of Belgium: 6.5 million
Ireland and Northern Ireland: 6.4 million
Singapore: 5.6 million
Total populations of eight major nations:In what realm is the Flemish region of Belgium journalistically significant, while Germany, France, England and Canada aren't?
Germany: 82 million
France: 67 million
Italy: 61 million
England: 55 million
Spain: 46 million
Poland: 38 million
Canada: 36 million
Australia: 24 million
Answer: In a realm where the prevailing winds blow in from the Script River Range!
Just for the record, our fourth-graders also outscored their peers from The Netherlands, the Czech and the Slovak Republics, Hungary and Sweden, while matching their peers from Denmark. In what realm is Norway worth citing by name, while Finland and Sweden are not?
(Warning! Norway showed a very large score jump on last year's Timss, accompanied by a murky footnote which suggests that a change has occurred in the way "fourth grade" status is computed in that land. We'd be slow to stress Norway's score without determining what happened.)
Do our journalists ever tire of seeing the glass hugely empty? When it comes to our embarrassing, gruesome public schools, actually no—they do not.
We'd have to say that this claim is supported by Brown's gloomy framework—and sure enough! Inevitably, the Post's framework matched that of the AP, whose report bore a similar headline:
Washington Post headline: U.S. pupils still trail Asian peers in math, sciencePeople, we're just saying! The glass largely empty is, by law, mandated, hugely preferred.
Associated Press headline: US STUDENTS LAG PEERS IN EAST ASIA IN MATH, SCIENCE
(Are points subtracted when Post editors copy off their neighbors?)
Those headlines are accurate, of course. American students do trail a set of Asian tigers on international tests. So does everyone else in the world—but that's only part of the story.
It's also true that American students outperformed most of the rest of the world on the 2015 Timss. Especially given the way this topic has been treated over the past twenty years, readers of the Washington Post deserve to have this surprising fact made clear.
When he discussed these Timss results, Kevin Drum coined a term; he talked about our "peer countries." He mentioned the success of the Asian tigers, but he also noted our students' relative success on this test as compared to almost every other large developed nation.
He also mentioned something important. Importantly, Drum said this:
DRUM (11/30/16): One other note. If you really want a takeaway from the latest TIMSS test, it's the same as the takeaway from every other test ever administered to American schoolkids: we do a terrible job of educating black children. The single biggest thing we could do to improve education in this country is to cut out the half measures and focus serious money and resources on poor, black school districts.When we posted the scores for Grade 4 math, we "disaggregated" the American scores, showing our very large racial/ethnic "achievement gaps." Here's what Grade 4 math looks like when you talk about our "peer countries," and when you report those gaps:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, 2015 TimssWe didn't include the Flemish region of Belgium. We did include the developed world's larger nations—and we included the data which help us consider our own large achievement gaps.
South Korea: 608
United States, Asian-American students: 605
United States, white students: 559
United States: 539
United States, Hispanic students: 515
United States, black students: 495
Our domestic achievement gaps are very large. How did the Washington Post report this topic? Incredibly, this is the way Brown's report reaches its end:
BROWN: Among fourth- and eighth-grade students, the gender gap has narrowed or closed in math and science, according to TIMSS results. But there continues to be a yawning gender gap among the advanced high school seniors: Males scored 46 points higher than females in physics, and 30 points higher in math.(Warning: those "advanced high school" scores involves results from a highly limited set of students who are taking advanced math courses. It's a very different type of measure than the Grade 4/Grade 8 scores.)
In Grade 4 math, the U.S. gender gap stands at seven points, with boys scoring higher than girls. In Grade 8, the gap is just two points. By way of contrast:
In Grade 4 math, the black-white achievement gap stands at 64 points, but so what? Brown's text discussed the gender gap. Race wasn't mentioned at all.
Especially given the endless propaganda, American kids scored surprisingly well on the 2015 Timss. In Grade 4 math, our students, even in the aggregate, outscored most "peer countries," even miraculous Finland.
Our white kids did better than that. Essentially, our Asian-American kids outscored the world.
Post subscribers weren't exposed to those facts. As is mandated by the Hard Pundit Law which blows off The Privatization Range, Post readers saw a gloomy headline, then learned a hard fact. Those Flemish kids kicked our asps! Our "leaders" will surely complain about the lack of progress!
A note about small populations: The Asian tigers outperform everyone else in the world. That basic fact should be reported. Beyond that, though, please understand this fact:
You can always find some small jurisdiction which has achieved good scores. For years, middle-class Finland (population 5.5 million) was the club the press corps used against our ratty public school teachers and their fiendish unions and their slacker approach to our embarrassing kids.
This year, American kids outscored miraculous Finland in math. Rather than mention this fact, the Washington Post moved to to the Flemish region of Belgium.
Regarding small regions, please note:
In the 2011 Timss, the state of Massachusetts (population 6.8 million) participated as an independent "education system." Massachusetts is larger than Finland. It's even larger than the Flemish region of Belgium.
Massachusetts students scored extremely well in math on the 2011 Timss. They approached the Asian tigers, smoked the rest of the world. If you want to go hunting for successful small regions, you can find such regions right here! In 2011, the United States got outscored in math by eight of its own small regions, as you can see by clicking here.
Brown's report was highly selective. For that reason, it was also strikingly uninformative. Based upon her earlier life, we'll assume she handed in something better—that her editors took things from there.
Or did she succumb to the power of script? Within our propagandistic press corps, script has functioned like kryptonite for many free thinkers down through the years.
Certain frameworks are heavily favored. Human nature takes over from there.