That Shudder You Felt Was the Earth Wobbling As an…

…education story actually covered U.S. students’ academic achievement during the last few decades accurately. I’ve made the point before that the claim of stagnating test scores for U.S. students is demonstrably false–in every demographic group, there has been a rise in achievement (and the minority-white achievement gap is closing to boot). Shockingly, in a Slate report on Steven Brill’s new book Class Warfare, Richard Rothstein sets up Brill with this:

The case they make for their cause by now enjoys the status of conventional wisdom. Student achievement has been stagnant or declining for decades, even as money poured into public schools to improve teacher salaries, pensions, and working conditions (reducing class sizes, or hiring aides to give teachers more free time). Teachers typically have abysmally low standards, especially for minorities and other disadvantaged students, who predictably fall to the level of their teachers’ expectations. Although teachers’ quality can be estimated by the annual growth of their students’ scores on standardized tests of basic math and reading skills, teachers have not been held accountable for performance. Instead, they get lifetime job security even if students don’t learn. Brill observes a union-protected teacher in a Harlem public school bellowing “how many days in a week?,” caring little that students pay him no heed and wrestle on the floor instead.

Protecting this incompetence are teacher unions, whose contracts prevent principals from firing inadequate (and worse) teachers. The contracts also permit senior teachers to choose their schools, which further undermines principals’ authority. Union negotiations have produced perpetually rising salaries, guaranteed even to teachers who sleep through their careers. Breaking unions’ grip on public education is “the civil rights issue of this generation,” and some hard-working, idealistic Ivy Leaguers and their allies have shown how.

And then knocks him down with:

Central to the reformers’ argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago. (There has also been progress for middle schoolers, and in reading; and less, but not insubstantial, progress for high schoolers.) The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.

The question we need to ask is “Is our media learning?” (to steal a phrase from Little Lord Pontchartrain).

Maybe they are…

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2 Responses to That Shudder You Felt Was the Earth Wobbling As an…

  1. It’s great that he wrote what’s actually happened, but I wish he — and others with similar articles — didn’t construct his setup that way. People will read that and they will remember that he said those points. Many of them will not remember that it was a setup, constructed to be the voice of a person whose claims are then shown to be false. It feeds into the consensus idea, the conventional wisdom, that has been built up (rather carefully, really) around the issue of education and education “reform”. Many people will simply remember that they read an article that, even though it was critical of this “reform”, agreed with the claims of the “reformers”.

    Although it’s not as short and punchy, the setup needs, IMO, to have “Brill claims” or “reform-advocates will tell you that” or something similar, or it will be remembered inaccurately.

    Count on it.

  2. Pingback: “Is our media learning?” Test scores require raises for public school teachers, don’t they? « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

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