Friday, April 8, 2011

KRUGMAN EZRA MADDOW COLLINS! Our political discourse is very dumb—though not quite as dumb as you’ve heard: FRIDAY, APRIL 8, 2011

Covering (for) Bloomberg: Luckily, Michael Bloomberg’s a billionaire, because his judgment often seems bad.

Yesterday, it happened again. At her Washington Post education blog, Valerie Strauss explains why Bloomberg had to dump Cathie Black, the publishing magnate he weirdly picked, a few months ago, to run New York City’s schools. For good or for ill, Black had no experience in education—none at all:
STRAUSS (4/7/11): As for Black, her very brief tenure was marked by a series of gaffes. When a parent asked her about crowding at schools, she responded with this joke: “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us”—for which she later apologized. She also used the phrase “many Sophie’s Choice” to explain the difficulty she faced in dealing with crowding, a reference to the William Styron novel about a Polish mother in the World War II Auschwitz concentration camp who had to choose which of her two children would die.
As if that weren’t enough, Black was booed at a public meeting by parents, and she booed back. There is a reason that district leaders should come from the ranks of educators.
For a more dignified, yet striking, account of Black’s downfall, see today’s New York Times. (The report is well worth reading.)
Black’s jokes about birth control and Sophie’s Choice were widely reported in January—in the New York Post and the Daily News. But the New York Times tends to cover for Bloomberg. Except one tongue-in-cheek cite in “Fashion & Style,” the incidents weren’t mentioned there.
Our news is heavily “managed.” Especially in the realm of education, the public is handed a relentless array of inaccurate and misleading “facts,” with a wide array of other facts carefully hidden away. In the past decade, the Washington Post and the New York Times have hidden a series of testing scandals. And everyone agrees to serve the public a bunch of bum facts.
In this past week, Gene Lyons did something that just isn’t done. In a nationally-syndicated column, he mentioned a set of accurate facts about American children. We’ll send you to Salon:
LYONS (4/6/11): Consider [Bill] Gates' recent speech to the National Governor's Conference. "Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled," the great man claimed, "while our student achievement has remained virtually flat ... To build a dynamic 21st-century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve."

Alas, this is well-meaning demagoguery. Sure, costs are up. But so is overall student performance. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the "gold standard" of educational testing—American kids have actually done better in reading and math since about 1980. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute summarizes the data:

"American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading."

You'd think this would be good news. But like TV evangelists, education reformers peddling miracle cures often exaggerate others' sins.
This would be a much better world if people were allowed to know that our black kids, and our Hispanic kids, are doing much better in school.
In a world where people were allowed to know that, citizens might find themselves believing that we, as a people, can solve our difficult problems. Citizens might start to admire our low-income kids, who have in fact been doing much better. Citizens might admire our much-maligned teachers, despite their infernal unions.
We citizens might even start to see ourselves as a people again. Perhaps for that reason, people aren’t allowed to know the facts Rothstein described. It’s amazingly rare to see a columnist cite the facts Lyons cited. Few people have ever heard those facts. We’ll guess that very few teachers have heard those facts.
And yet, the facts are there.
Instead, we hear that crap from the likes of Bill Gates—and from Diane Ravitch. Gates repeats those misleading claims to denigrate our existing schools. (For all we know, his intentions are good.) Ravitch repeats those bogus claims to denigrate George Bush.
Is it true? Has American student achievement “remained virtually flat” in the past forty years? That claim can be defended as technically accurate, due to changes in the student population—but it’s alsogrossly misleading. On the NAEP, scores by black kids are way up over that time; so are scores by Hispanic kids. And as Lyons noted, “it should be stipulated that nobody's yet found a means or motive for cheating on NAEP” tests.
In fact, we wouldn’t quite agree with that. On the state and big-city levels, superintendents now have a motive to cheat, although we don’t know if they have the opportunity. But scores have been rising for forty years—and, during most of that period, no one had any real motive. The NAEP was used for research only. In the wider world, no one gave a dang about it. No one’s job or reputation was at stake.
The progressive project would be well served if people knew about those score gains. But everyone misleads the public. And good lord, how short-sighted we liberals are! When Ravitch spreads that gloomy picture around, we liberals cheer and cheer! For an example from this week, click here, scroll through comments. We want so much to hear that Bush sucks, we’ll trash black kids—and teachers—to get there.
Also this week: To see Jay Mathews say there’s been no progress, click this.
Whatever the intention might be, these endlessly repetitive claims keep driving the current “conservative” world view: As a people, we can’t do anything right! It’s time we all went our own way!