The problem we choose to ignore: It would be hard to do!
It would be hard to overstate the amount of nonsense which appears when newspapers like the Post and the Times attempt to report, or pretend to report, on the state of our public schools.
Consider a bit more of what happened in last Tuesday's Washington Post. Results from the 2018 Pisa had just been released. In reading, American kids had outperformed their counterparts from such major "peer nations" as these:
Major nations the U.S. outperformed:American kids had outperformed some very major nations! That said, they'd also outperformed their counterparts from a wide array of smaller boutique nations, including these:
The United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia; Japan, Taiwan; Australia
Smaller nations the U.S. outperformed:With statistical significance thrown into the mix, U.S. performance was indistinguishable from that of the Asian educational tiger South Korea. The American score was substantially higher than the average score for the 35 OECD nations.
Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, many others
American kids had outperformed the vast majority of the world's nations. But because the American kids had been outperformed by their counterparts in Macau and Estonia (combined population, less than 2 million), the Washington Post headlined, and led its news report, with this fantastical claim:
"Teenagers in the United States continue to lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe in reading..."
So it said in the Washington Post! This claim was reproduced in a banner headline which ran across the top of last Tuesday's page A3.
Truly, that was a remarkable claim, but the absurdity was just getting started. Roughly fifty percent of the Post's report (ten paragraphs out of twenty) were devoted to an absurdly speculative "explanation" for the American kids' embarrassing failure on the Pisa.
What was wrong with these teens today? Balingit and Van Dam, and their unnamed editor, introduced this ridiculous theme right in their fourth paragraph:
BALINGIT AND VAN DAM (12/3/19): [T]he exam has faced a chorus of skeptics who caution reading too deeply in to the results. Students are not penalized for performing poorly and never see their results, and students in the United States tend to be less motivated to perform well on it compared with teens in other countries, according to recent studies.Roughly half the Post report was devoted to "mounting evidence that the gap in scores between countries reflects a gap in effort as much as it does a gap in achievement. By both measures," Balingit and Van Dam reported, "the United States lags behind."
Paragraphs 4-5 and 13-20 were devoted to this new speculation, a speculation the Post attributed to "economists." In support of this idea, the Post included a large graphic designed to show that U.S. kids respond more favorably to financial incentives—to being paid to do well on a test—than their counterparts in Shanghai.
This was all designed to explain why U.S. teens had lagged behind their peers in reading—on a reading test where U.S. teens had outperformed the substantial bulk of the world.
This is how crazy the discourse can get when newspapers like the Washington Post attempt or pretend to report on American schools. On the front page of last Tuesday's New York Times, the reporting on these Pisa results was little better.
Tomorrow, we'll return to that Times report, noting a few of its oddities. For today, let's discuss the very large canine which didn't bark in either of these scripted "news reports."
For our money, American kids did amazingly well in both reading and science on these latest Pisa tests. We discussed our reasons for saying that in yesterday's report.
In both the Post and the Times, reporters noted an undesirable fact, if only in passing. In the Post's formulation, the new results from last year's tests "show widening disparities between high- and low-performing students in the United States, adding to a growing body of evidence showing worsening inequity in public schools."
This undesirable fact was mentioned by both the Post and the Times. Neither paper attempted to say how much wider the disparity was—how much the disparity had grown since the 2015 Pisa.
Still and all, the papers were displaying a minor ability to "disaggregate" the Pisa results—to compare the average scores attained by different groups of American kids.
For whatever reason, neither newspaper managed to perform a different, highly familiar form of "disaggregation." Neither newspaper reported what the Pisa scores look like when American results are disaggregated by ethnicity and race.
Dear friends, would it surprise you if you were told that two large groups of American kids would, if viewed as nations unto themselves, actually be the highest scoring nations in the world? Especially given what you read in the Post and the Times, would such information surprise you?
Would it surprise you if you were shown something like that? Because that's what happens when you disaggregate American scores by ethnicity and race on the Pisa reading test.
Below, you see some extremely basic data. We're including two basic parts of the data which weren't permitted to bark:
Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2018 Pisa:For all Pisa data, start here. More information below.
Estonia: 523 (highest OECD nation)
(South) Korea: 514
United States: 505
United Kingdom: 504
All OECD nations: 487
United States, white students: 531
United States, Asian-American students: 556
Should we count Singapore as an actual nation? Technically, we probably should.
That said, no other nation in the world outperformed tiny Estonia on the Pisa reading test. But white kids in the United States outscored the brainiac Estonians—and Asian-American kids blew their Estonian counterparts away.
Does it surprise you to know that our nation's ragtag collection of white kids would, if viewed as a separate nation, be the highest-scoring nation in the OECD, perhaps in the entire world? Please understand:
These aren't white kids from private schools, or white kids from high-income families.
These are American white kids across the board, including kids in Appalachia and the Rust Belt whose families are devastated by Oxycontin. That average score even includes the fumbling efforts of white kids in Mississippi and Alabama, on whom we all know to look down.
Even including all those kids, American white kids, viewed as a group, would be the highest-scoring nation in the world! And then, along come our Asian-American kids! They blow everyone out of the water, even their peers in Singapore.
These Asian-American kids today! They massively outperformed the ballyhooed kids of South Korea. They even outperformed the kids of Finland, darlings of the American press corps for the bulk of this century.
On the Pisa reading test, our Asian-American 15-year-olds blew the whole world away! That said, let's return to our white kids for a moment—the kids whose lack of effort allegedly matches their pitiful lack of smarts:
We all can see what those basic data show once they've been un-disappeared. Our white kids outscored brainiac Finland. They outscored the Asian tigers Korea and Japan by substantially more.
If they were viewed as a separate nation, they'd be the highest scoring full-blown nation on the face of the earth! Meanwhile, the data from the Pisa science test follow this general pattern:
Average scores, Science Literacy, 2018 Pisa:In terms of international ranking, the United States did slightly less well in science than in reading. But even here, American white kids scored one point behind highest-performing nation Estonia, while matching Japan and outscoring Korea. Meanwhile, Asian-American kids matched Singapore and obliterated the rest of the world.
Estonia: 530 (highest OECD nation)
(South) Korea: 519
United Kingdom: 505
United States: 502
All OECD nations: 489
United States, white students: 529
United States, Asian-American students: 551
Readers of the Post and the Times aren't allowed to know such things. Instead, they're told that U.S. kids are lagging the world, possibly due to lack of effort along with a lack of smarts.
Presumably, somebody in these major newsrooms knows how to "disaggregate" test scores. Everyone has seen it done, and everyone has heard about our punishing achievement gaps. There's nothing "new" about any of this. They just don't choose to do it.
That said, two large groups of American kids are the highest-performing in the world! Each group outperforms the ballyhooed kids of Finland, kids our "press corps" has long loved.
They outperform the exhausted kids of South Korea, who go to regular schools all day, then attend their workhouse-like academies every night. At the Washington Post and the New York Times, you not only aren't permitted to know this. You are instead deliberately given a vastly different impression.
The data we're showing you are remarkable, but you aren't encouraged to see them. The reason is fairly clear:
Those data define the modern-day version of "the problem we all live with"—and the horrible folk at the Post and the Times quite simply aren't willing to go there.
Tomorrow: The problem we all disappear
Regarding Pisa data: For all Pisa data, start here. In each subject area, U.S. scores are disaggregated by ethnicity and race under "Achievement by Student Groups."
The NCES makes a point of providing these important data. The Washington Post and the New York Times simply don't want to discuss them.