Joe Nocera Is Wrong About Our ‘Failing’ Educational System: Only the Bottom Third Is Failing

And that’s still a tragedy. Joe Nocera in a recent column wrote this about U.S. education:

Students in other countries now regularly outperform American students. We are truly in the midst of an education crisis — one that won’t be solved until we completely rethink the way we offer public education. For starters, teachers and school administrators need to start working together instead of fighting each other. What the strike in Chicago mainly illustrates is how far we are from that goal.

Actually, that’s not true. As I’ve pointed out many times before (Intelligent Designer, this gets tiresome), U.S. students in schools where twenty five percent or more of the student body is lower income do horribly. Schools that have ten to twenty five percent lower-income students are very competitive, and schools with less than ten percent are excellent (before you think this seems like an unfair comparison, keep in mind that each of these sectors by itself is larger than most every OECD country).

I point this out not to engage in rightwing exceptionalist blather, but because we are failing to identify the problems correctly:

1) Poverty. Even in Massachusetts, which has one of the best educational systems in the world, poverty is highly correlated with educational performance (and that correlation increases when you look at science scores).

2) Some states have severe crises. What goes missing in the entire discussion about student performance is that states vary widely. The Alabama-Massachusetts gap among any socioeconomic group of whites is as wide as the black-white gap within Massachusetts. And that gap is equal to the effects of poverty. Yet this is never mentioned.

I suppose I could add the ‘pundit-reality gap’ too.

This is not ‘making excuses’, although it’s not like poor students get a fair shot at funding (and arguably they need more funding). But you really shouldn’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t correctly identify our educational problems and disparities.

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6 Responses to Joe Nocera Is Wrong About Our ‘Failing’ Educational System: Only the Bottom Third Is Failing

  1. hrun says:

    Mike, I followed your links and read about how categorizing schools into three income classes ranks these schools in comparison to the rest of the world. However, to draw any conclusions from this, wouldn’t it be necessary to similarly segregate schools in other countries by income and the compare the results? In other words, it could be that the “rich” US schools would still not compare very favorably to the “rich” schools in other countries, right?

    • Hrun,

      In some of those links, the original material makes also makes comparisons to countries that have poverty rates similar to each of the U.S. ‘thirds’. You are correct–your suggestion would be the ideal comparison though.

  2. amy says:

    This sort of thing makes me INSANE. The problem is not poverty. The problem is that the vast majority of poor parents are themselves poorly educated. Those of use who are poor but well-educated do exactly the same thing as well-off well-educated parents do: We do the #%@%!% schools’ jobs for them.

    Every. single. parent I know, in my nice professional circles where everyone else makes 5-20x what I do, is cramming the kids full of math, science, history, you name it AT HOME. Just as I do mine. Then the teachers, who may or may not be dumb as rocks, say oh how wonderful, we’re doing such a marvelous job, and there’s magic fairy educational dust attached to rich kids’ schools. And then — but how could this be? — when the neighborhoods begin to change, and the well-educated parents get their kids out (either by moving or by waging Hun-style campaigns to get the kids into magnet schools), the teachers are suddenly failing. Ma-gic.

    Here is the problem: Our schools suck. And that is in large measure because our teaching models and ed colleges suck, and at this point the inmates run the asylum. If you suggest that teachers should be very bright people who know a great deal about the things they’re teaching, you’ll be reviled and thrown out of the staff breakroom. The idea in American K12 ed is that teachers are a sort of combination cop and lunch lady, unwrapping pre-cooked “ed content” and serving it to the children, making sure no food fights break out. No knowledge of what the hell’s in the books, or whether it’s any good, is necessary.

    • Min says:

      amy: “Those of use who are poor but well-educated do exactly the same thing as well-off well-educated parents do: We do the #%@%!% schools’ jobs for them. . . .
      ” If you suggest that teachers should be very bright people who know a great deal about the things they’re teaching, you’ll be reviled and thrown out of the staff breakroom.”

      Not just out of the staff lounge, but out of the board rooms and halls of gov’t. If teachers were very bright people who knew a great deal about what they are teaching, we would pay them much more money than we are willing to.

      Primary and secondary school teachers are people people. They are not necessarily math people or science people or history people or geography people. As far as the subject matter goes, they usually end up teaching to the text or, these days, teaching to the test.

      But being people people is not all that bad for the students. Newton was a terrible teacher. On NPR the other night I caught a snippet of a program in which the guest was telling about research on people who get GEDs, which supposedly cover enough of the intellectual content of high school. They do better than other high school dropouts, but not as well as regular high school graduates. The main point that the guest made was that school teaches other skills that help us to get through life than just cognitive skills. And, I may add. the people people, their teachers, help them to develop those skills.

    • Amy,

      You should check out the NAEP database. There is a strong poverty effect that’s independent of parental education or English-as-second-language.

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