I Agree With Bob Somerby's Challenge to Ezra Klein & Kevin Drum: Will Progressives Stop Engaging in Willful Ignorance About Education?

I write about education and educational data a lot, and I'm always struck by the insistence that the U.S. K-12 educational system is DOOMED! This is a staggering display of willful ignorance that rivals creationism (and, arguably, is more pernicious). Without going through the entire backstory (that's what links are for), some U.S. states--relatively large ones--excel, to the point where they do better than every European country and most Asian countries. These states also do better than expected, given their childhood poverty rates; some cities also do a better than expected job of educating poor children.

Regarding long-term trends, according to the NAEP, African-American students have increased reading test scores by the rough equivalent of three grade levels during the period of 1971-2008:

Figure 1
(from here)

White students haven't stagnated either, with a grade level increase. Yes, there are states and localities that are failing (and, oddly, when it comes to educational reform, we only dwell on cities, not underperforming states. I'm sure that has nothing to do with the majority-white racial composition of states versus a large non-white urban population. Nothing at all). But there are states which do very well, and, nationally, we have made impressive gains. So I'm puzzled why Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum, and many others (such as The Boston Phoenix) claim our schools are in dire need of reform, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Thankfully, Bob Somerby throws down a challenge (italics original; boldface mine):

Explain why we keep offering gloomy, throw-away posts in the face of these data.

Explain why we allow ugly, simplistic attacks on teachers (and on their infernal unions) in the face of these data.

Explain why we keep saying there are no solutions, when data from both of the NAEP's major studies seem to suggest that something has been working in the past dozen years.

Explain why we refuse to offer credit where credit is due:

To the nation's deserving black kids, who seem to be showing substantial progress in both of the NAEP's major studies. To the nation's deserving Hispanic kids, whose score gains have been similarly large. To the nation's maddening white kids, who have largely maintained the "achievement gap" during this period because their NAEP scores have gone up too.

To the nation's public school teachers, who seem to be doing something right, unless there's something massively wrong with the NAEP's voluminous data. To the nation's superintendents, who have been screaming and yelling at the nation's teachers.

There's a simple reason why the data are ignored: if you accept the data, then we have to look elsewhere, to politically incorrect things, such as poverty, public health, and curricula. Progressives--and this is where I disagree with Somerby, as liberals aren't doing this bashing, progressives are--have forgotten that the major, initial impetus of school 'reform' was ideologically-driven (privatization über alles) and financially driven (the for-profit schools). Let's not forget that President Bush's brother was in the for-profit education business--and there is a lot of potential income there. That's what this is about.

Because if it were about education (and, when the chips are down, it's about money), our 'traditional', 'hide-bound' schools have managed to educate U.S. students--and not just in the tony suburbs. So here's Somerby's challenge (italics original):

Tell the public about those data! After that, try to explain the data. Stop insisting that nothing works when it seems that something has been working. If you give the first flying fig about black kids--about Hispanic kids, about low-income kids--try to figure out why those scores have gone up!

But, more than anything else, just do your damn jobs for once: Just report those data! Mention these data when the plutocrat's agents launch their incessant attacks on the schools--on the people who teach in the schools, on their infernal unions.

By inference, on black kids themselves.

Sorry, but the discussion flowing from Waiting for Superman has been a rolling moral disgrace. The liberal world has sat and stared as this ugly, stupid discussion unfolds--as Guggenheim is praised for being simplistic.

The New York Times writes learned reports when a language is found in an Indian village. At the Post, Klein promises readers that they will get "Economic and Domestic Policy, and Lots of It." Fulfilling that promise, his blog spills over with data, on a daily basis.

So go head--take The Ezra Klein Challenge! It's a challenge we issue to Ezra, and to all the other writers we've named! When it comes to low-income schools, let's get off our big fat keisters for once. Explain the data we've been describing--the data in both of the NAEP's major studies.

Sounds like a good idea to me. I would only add one thing:

Explain why some states--which have similar populations to many countries--do really well, while others do miserably. I bring up states, since it's all too easy to explain away individual schools or districts.

Admittedly, I'm just a wee lil' blogger, but, if they are willingly to be this willfully ignorant, then everything they claim has to be viewed with a grain boulder of salt. Certainly, their educational suggestions should be.

An aside: Before the cries of 'circular firing squad' begin, the reason I criticize progressives is because there's no point in discussing this with movement conservatives--they, as with so many issues, are a lost cause; they are more interested in spreading 'free market' ideology and busting teachers unions (and don't forget cutting taxes) than anything else.

More like this

He might be really good at designing operating systems (or not), but Bill Gates has a slight data problem. In an op-ed arguing that class size is unimportant and that teacher evaluation is crucial--and should be combined with merit pay, Gates makes this blunder (italics mine): Perhaps the most…
...too bad MA Governor Deval Patrick, and for that matter, President Obama, don't. The recent educational regression reform plan in Massachusetts and the Obama Administration's educational proposals both seem to misunderstand what has made Massachusetts' educational system one of the best in the…
When I was a post-doc, I once advised a student who definitely needed some remedial language skills help (since then, said student has gone on to be a very successful doctor--I take no credit for the student's success, but I just want to note that this student was very bright). What I learned is…
I've always had a problem with the whole call for "tougher standards" in education. I'm all for a clearly defined curriculum, but, if students aren't learning well, then trouncing more of them won't make them any smarter. This just seems like more 'will-based' policies. Thankfully, Bob Somerby…

I think you forgot to close an italics bracket somewhere. It's hard on the eyes.

By Valkyrie607 (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 #permalink

Just tilt your head about 3 degrees.

How much would you like to bet that the states where schools are "working" are the ones with strong teacher unions? How hard do you think it would be to get anyone to report it?

Well, maybe we should just teach the controversy on this.

Because what most folks are doing now is really just the same as accepting creationists' falsehoods as facts and attempting to incorporate them into science instead of saying they're false and we're not gonna use them.

I've got my differences with Somerby's take on some things but on this one he's dead right.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 24 Oct 2010 #permalink

there's no point in discussing this with movement conservatives--they, as with so many issues, are a lost cause; they are more interested in spreading 'free market' ideology and busting teachers unions (and don't forget cutting taxes) than anything else.

Sometimes, I honnestly wonder if "movement conservatives" (whether in the US or their cousins in Europe) are simply motivated by ideology or if they (or at least their leaders) are moved by more loathsome intentions: like destroying the public eductation to make sure that smart and talented kids from modest families never have any chance to challenge the dominance of their own mediocre upper-class kids.

By Laurent Weppe (not verified) on 25 Oct 2010 #permalink

there's no point in discussing this with movement conservatives--they, as with so many issues, are a lost cause; they are more interested in spreading 'free market' ideology and busting teachers unions (and don't forget cutting taxes) than anything else.