"Tiny, desperate, unwell:" Did California have "great public schools" back in the good old days?
That's what Miriam Pawel recently said. She said it in an op-ed column in Tuesday's New York Times.
(For details, see yesterday's post.)
Pawel said California's schools were "great" way back when, in the golden age which covered the decades before 1978. She seemed to say that California's fabulous schools lured people into the state.
She offered no evidence in support of her claims. But then, they never do, and their editors never complain!
The notion that public schools were great Back Then is a standard, know-nothing script of the many front-line reporters who parrot conventional press corps lines about our allegedly failing public schools and their ratty teachers.
The schools were always great Back Then. By rule of law, they must be said to be terrible/awful today.
NBC News, whose cable arm was born in consort with Bill Gates, was long inclined toward this billionaire-sponsored party line. Back in 2010, Rehema Ellis told Lester Holt what's shown below as NBC kicked off one of its pro-"reform," party-line weeks—events in which it then participated on an annual basis:
ELLIS (9/26/10): Good evening, Lester. It was an exciting event. For two hours today, the teachers who joined us were inspiring, some even emotional, about the job that many say is stressful and extremely demanding.Ellis had been a decent, personable NBC reporter for sixteen years at that point. That said, she wasn't an education specialist. Nor must a person have specialized knowledge to get thrown on the air by network news orgs to tell us the stories about pubic schools they very much want us to hear.
Right now, the teacher's job is under critical review because of what is and what is not happening in the classroom. America's public school students are in trouble. On nearly every major ranking, the results are disappointing.
Forty years ago, American students were first. Now, among 30 developed nations, our students rank 24th in math, 17th in science and 10th in reading. Sixty-eight percent of American eighth graders cannot read at grade level.
Did Ellis understand the familiar basic claims found in that short report? Could she have supported her claims and insinuations?
In each case, we'll guess that the answer is no.
Some of Ellis' claims were misleading; others seem to be false. But you don't have to know any actual facts to go on the air and say things like that. You simply have to know the scripts about public schools, the ones preferred by major news orgs like NBC News and the New York Times.
"Forty years ago, American students were first" in the world? We know of no basis for that claim, pleasing though it may be. Indeed, it seems clear that that claim just isn't true. Meanwhile, Ellis was picking and choosing her international data in the requisite way these people always do.
She cited results from the Pisa, the major international testing program on which American kids perform less well. As is required by "billionaire boys club" law, she omitted results from the Timss, the second major international testing program, the one on which American kids perform better.
Ellis was picking and choosing her data in the way then required by law. Her claim about our kids once having been best seemed to come from thin air.
That said, how good were American public schools during the golden age Ellis recalled or invented? As we watched Ellis recite for Holt, we recalled a once-famous text.
(For our real-time reaction, click here.)
Ellis said our kids were best in the world back in 1970. Three years before that, in 1967, Jonathan Kozol had published a once-famous book, Death at an Early Age.
Kozol described the year he'd spent teaching fourth grade in a low-income Boston school. His once-famous book won a National Book Award during the golden age cited by Ellis. Chapter 2 started like this:
KOZOL (page 9): Many people in Boston are surprised, even to this day, to be told that children are beaten with thin bamboo whips within the cellars of our public schools and that they are whipped at times for no greater offence than for failing to show respect to the very same teachers who have been describing them as ni**ers.Oh, that glorious era! Indeed, Kozol started his opening chapter with some of the most memorable persuasive writing of that or any day. This was his real-time account of an age when, according to NBC News, “American students were first:”
KOZOL (page 1): Stephen is eight years old. A picture of him standing in front of the bulletin board on Arab bedouine shows a little light-brown person staring with unusual concentration at a chosen spot upon the floor. Stephen is tiny, desperate, unwell. Sometimes he talks to himself. He moves his mouth as if he were talking. At other times he laughs out loud in class for no apparent reason. He is also an indescribably mild and unmalicious child. He cannot do any of his school work very well. His math and reading are poor. In Third Grade he was in a class that had substitute teachers much of the year. Most of the year before that, he had a row of substitute teachers too. He is in the Fourth Grade now but his work is barely at the level of the Second. Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to Stephen because he does not have any mother or father.We know of no evidence that American students were ever "first in the world." As far as we know, the limited international testing conducted during that era never showed any such thing.
Meanwhile, we would have thought that everyone knew that American schools often did very poorly, during that era, by kids who were low-income or perceived as "minorities." That said, Ellis recalled a golden age, as they always do.
In Tuesday's New York Times, Pawel described a similar golden age in California. Its public schools were "great" before 1978, she repeatedly said. She closed her piece by wondering if the Golden State will ever have such wonderful schools again.
Yesterday, we showed you data which might sensibly make you wonder about the claims Pawel unloosed. Tomorrow, and again next week, we'll offer additional data concerning various basic points.
Like Ellis, Pawel isn't an education specialist. That said, education reporting at our big news orgs is largely recitation of script. Alas! Our news orgs routinely work on "gossip" and "fiction," much as Professor Harari has said.
That's the way our journalistic elites typically work in this, the dumbest and most fictional of all possible worlds.
Are we really "the rational animal," as sacred Aristotle said? When the new year finally starts at this site, we'll be chasing that old chestnut down.
Might that claim perhaps be seen as "Aristotle's error?" When the new year finally begins, we'll make it our business to ask.
Tomorrow: Again with the actual data!