Disappearing the actual problem: The letters the New York Times chose to publish strike us as an embarrassment.
For those who want to know how our discourse works, they also seem highly instructive.
The letters, which were nine in number, appeared on Sunday, December 22. Eight of the letters seemed to agree with a highly familiar premise.
This premise was most clearly stated in Letter 4. No one else rose to dispute it:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/22/19): The stagnant results of the international PISA exam have spoken: An extensive overhaul in the American education system is desperately needed.An extensive overhaul of our education system is desperately needed! So said the writer of Letter 4—and essentially, so said them all.
This gloomy conclusion had been drawn from a gloomy front-page report in the Times—a gloomy report which had appeared on December 6.
In her front-page report, Dana Goldstein had painted a gloomy portrait which inspired the gloomy letters. In essence, it went like this:
Our kids' Pisa scores had been so awful that they called for an "extensive overhaul" of American schools. Things are "desperately" wrong across the board, or so these letter writers now said.
We the people have been told this gloomy story forever. Because we read such stories in the Times (and in Washington Post), we very strongly tend to assume that the gloomy story is true.
But what if the treasured old tale isn't true? What if it's grossly misleading? Below, you see some actual Pisa scores in reading, the main focus of the 2018 tests.
These data define a terrible problem. It just isn't the terrible problem those New York Times letters described:
Average scores, Reading Literacy, 2018 PisaA terrible problem actually is defined by those terrible data. But it isn't the terrible problem the New York Times likes to describe when it sits down to play with its dolls—when the hapless newspaper tells us one of the stories it very much prefers.
United States, Asian-American kids: 556
United States, white kids: 531
United States, Hispanic kids: 481
United States, black kids: 448
We've included tiny Estonia in that chart because it was the highest-scoring actual country on the 2018 Pisa test. We've included very small Finland because Letter 4 went on to offer standardized thoughts about the reason why fabulous Finland's miraculous schools perform so much better than ours.
Tiny Estonia and very small Finland were the two highest-scoring nations on the Pisa reading test. (Canada also scored 520.) And yes, you're reading those data correctly:
Our nation's white kids, as a group, outperformed the highest scoring countries in the world. Our Asian-American kids scored so high that they should probably all be drug-tested.
This leads us to a question:
Those are actual data from the Pisa reading test—the test from which the New York Times derived and spread a deeply gloomy conclusion. But let's go ahead and be truthful for once:
As you peruse those data, does our education system seem to be a mess across the board? Or is it failing to produce strong results among certain groups of children?
Which of those two is our actual problem? Let's try telling the truth just this once, though we know that the Times never will!
Those terrible data do, in fact, define a terrible problem. It just isn't the problem those letter-writers stood in line to describe, after being prompted by the front page of the Times.
Do our public schools test too much? Arguably, yes!
That said, over-testing didn't produce gruesome results across the board on the Pisa reading test! Neither did the alleged failure to teach phonics, another way those letters claimed that our schools desperately need an overhaul—an "extensive" overhaul, an overhaul across the board.
Good lord! if they only served white and Asian kids, our schools would be the highest-scoring in the world! Or at least, that's the situation those data describe—a situation you'll never see reported in the Times.
Why doesn't the New York Times (or the Washington Post) report those "disaggregated" test scores? It isn't because they're hard to find—those data are highlighted in the official, easy-reader report about the Pisa scores.
Our guess? The Post and the Times are embarrassed by the horribleness of those scores. For that reason, they simply refuse to report such facts. In the process, they seem to describe a sweeping, system-wide problem, a system-wide problem which doesn't exist in those terrible Pisa scores.
It's hard to have sufficient contempt for new orgs which function this way, as all our news orgs do. That said, let's take a moment to think about the people who wrote the letters the New York Times chose to publish.
We'd call those letters an embarrassment for one embarrassing reason. Those letters weren't written by Joe and June Blow. Many of those letters were written by educational specialists—by people who ought to know better.
Letters 1 and 2 were written by long-time education writers. Letter 3 seems to have come from a high school English teacher.
Letter 5 came from "the director of the Right to Read Project." Letter 7 came from someone who teaches English at West Chester University.
Letter 9 is a special case. Its writer, a retired education professor, pointed to a situation which gives the lie to a second recent report in the Times about educational testing.
Her letter was extremely valuable—so much so that we'll postpone our treatment of it until next week. But even her letter had nothing to say about the misleading news report about those Pisa scores. None of these writers said this to the Times:
There you go again! There you go, once again, with one of your treasured tales.
The New York Times refuses to tell you the truth about our achievement gaps. The Times prefers to pretend and suggest that the gaps are rather small—that they can be addressed in certain phantasmagoric, feel-good ways involving "desegregation."
Out in the Hamptons, such feel-good stories sell. In the process, our nation's elites have found the latest way to throw our black kids under the bus, to ignore the actual shape of their needs, their interests, their lives.
If we credit those Pisa scores, our schools aren't failing across the board at all! Instead, our schools are doing very poorly, on average, with our black and Hispanic kids.
Next week, we'll examine some possible reasons for that. We'll also blow up that other Times report, the one which found Mississippi rising on the recent Naep tests.
We'll visit Mississippi next week, hailing Letter 9 as we do. But for today, let's take instruction from the letters the New York Times chose to publish:
The letter writers had read it in the Times. It had even appeared on the famous newspaper's front page.
No one checked the actual data. It didn't seem to occur to these letter writers that the Times might be telling a tale.
They simply believed what they read in the Times! In such ways, our failing, flailing, floundering discourse runs on fictitious fuels.
Next week: Mississippi (not actually) rising