But does the problem exist? "The blind men and an elephant" is an ancient parable.
According to the leading authority on the subject, "the earliest versions of the parable" date to maybe 500 BC. According to that same authority, the parable goes like this:
Blind men and an elephant"The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people's limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true." Or so the authority says!
The parable of the blind men and an elephant originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent...It is a story of a group of blind men, who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other...
We thought of this ancient parable on Sunday, December 22. On that day, the New York Times published nine letters about two recent attempts to report on the nation's schools.
For background, see yesterday's report.
The first eight writers all seemed to agree with a certain gloomy assessment. This gloomy assessment had seemed to emerge from the Times' attempts at reporting.
"An extensive overhaul in the American education system is desperately needed," the writer of the fourth letter gloomily said. The other writers seemed to agree—but like the blind men groping the elephant, they offered a wide array of assessments concerning what has gone so horribly wrong in our public schools.
By our count, the first eight writers offered seven different assessments concerning what has gone so badly wrong with the nation's public schools. The writers all seemed to agree that the schools are in desperate need of change, but they didn't seem to agree on what is so desperately wrong.
What is wrong with American schools? The first letter came from a long-time education writer. She seemed to say that the problem is homelessness and poverty:
LETTER 1 (12/22/19): How long will we continue to beat a dead horse? When will we help families directly, ensuring that all children live in families with adequate minimum income and adequate housing?This first writer would start by giving each child ten free books! Leaving Letter 2 for later, the third letter-writer had a different view of the problem:
Education reform has enriched many people. It’s time to start reform where it’s needed, directing the riches to children.
I’d start education reform tomorrow by giving all children a voucher for 10 free books of their choice. And I’d work at making sure the children have homes where they can take those books.
LETTER 3: The stagnant reading test scores could be attributed to the larger societal challenge that fewer and fewer Americans read for pleasure regularly...[I]t is wholly unsurprising that a society that places a low priority on reading in fact produces so few proficient readers.Why are American reading scores do bad? We no longer read for pleasure!
We quoted the fourth letter in yesterday's report. As this writer groped the pachyderm, she found vast over-testing in our schools, something they don't do in Finland:
LETTER 4: Our country has sought to boost test scores by introducing a multitude of standardized tests, essentially forcing teachers to center their class around preparing for these tests rather than teaching their students foundational skills. In Finnish schools, students are subject to almost no standardized tests, yet Finnish students surpassed American students in the PISA exam.We test too much; mighty Finland does not! This was the third diagnosis of what's so wrong with our schools.
The fifth letter came from the "director of the Right to Read Project," a project which went undescribed. She offered a fourth diagnosis of our educational mess:
LETTER 5: [T]he one initiative that would have yielded prompt improvement in achievement is the “Reading First” component of No Child Left Behind, which in turn built on the findings of The National Reading Panel Report to Congress of 2000. Instead, it was engulfed by vendor scandals early on, and disappeared. Twenty years later, struggling readers at every grade level still await the report’s full implementation. For that, we don’t need any more “reforms,” just action on what is well established about how to make sure every child is reading on grade level.Only Reading First would have worked, or so this writer said.
Letter 6 came from someone who had administered the Pisa tests to American students somewhere. He thought the low scores on the tests resulted from a lack of motivation and effort:
LETTER 6: [S]tudents whose parents didn’t allow them to opt out were often upset and annoyed about taking another test, especially one that didn’t affect their grades. Second, some teachers had discouraged students from participating in PISA by telling them it would be their responsibility to make up what they missed in class. I believe that, because of these factors, many students did not put their full effort into the assessment, and therefore the results are not truly representative of our students’ ability.The groping of the elephant continued in Letter 7. The writer said the problem arises from the failure to involve our teachers when we plan education reforms:
LETTER 7: It’s disheartening to see yet another article about the “failure” of K-12 education advancing the claim that efforts to “solve” the problem are bewildering in their lack of success. What all those efforts have in common is their disdain for people with the most useful knowledge about how to improve learning and teaching: teachers.The first seven letters all discussed the allegedly low Pisa scores. The eighth letter addressed Mississippi's rising Naep scores, but this writer seemed to offer a seventh explanation for our overall education mess:
Maybe it would work better if people who want to improve education asked teachers what we and our students need instead of generating hugely grandiose plans that produce nothing but blame for teachers who had nothing to do with creating them.
LETTER 8: Apparently, educational theory has come full circle. When my wife and I were learning to read, we were taught to use phonics to decode unfamiliar written words. Later our mothers, who were public-school teachers, were required to teach reading by other newer methods. But they confessed to us that they never abandoned phonics entirely because the newfangled methods were less effective.Letter 8 seemed to agree that the schools are in bad shape. But its writer found a new part of the elephant. Why did we ever stop teaching phonics? It's no wonder our schools are a mess!
Now we are back where we started and should have never left.
The reader will note that we haven't quoted from Letter 2. That writer seemed to agree that our Pisa scores were low, but he seemed to say that it doesn't matter as much as people may think.
None of these people challenged a gloomy basic premise concerning the state of the schools:
The New York Times had seemed to say that things are bad across the board, as we can see from those darn Pisa scores. The Times had emitted this mandated view, and none of these obedient writers had offered a word of dissent.
We've reviewed the first eight letters (out of nine) which the Times published that day. The eight writers groped an ailing pachyderm. They offered seven different accounts of where the problem might be found.
The writers offered seven explanations for why our Pisa scores are so desperately low. But what if our Pisa scores actually aren't so horribly low? Indeed, what if two large segments of the student population actually outperformed fabulous Finland? What if two large groups of American kids are outperforming every country in the world?
As is required by Hard Pundit Law, the Times had offered a gloomy assessment of the public schools. Eight writers stood in line to gulp the Kool-Aid down.
Tomorrow, we'll return to the question of fabulous Finland's miraculous scores. What if the bulk of our Pisa scores are actually better than theirs?
Tomorrow: Disappearing the actual problem
Friday: In a break with every modern tradition, the ninth letter gets something right!