Mitch Daniels (and Maybe Frank Bruni) Repeats the Education Zombie Myth That Just Won’t Die

As prelude, let’s start with this model by Mark Weber:


Anyway, Frank Bruni had an op-ed piece in which he wrote the following (boldface mine):

Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, didn’t wholly disagree. I approached him because he worked in George W. Bush’s administration, when the department’s power grew with No Child Left Behind, and he’s seen as a moderate Republican. He’s now the president of Purdue University.

“It’s not a ludicrous idea, honestly,” he said, referring to the abolition of the department. He noted that until 1979, when it was established as a cabinet-level agency, the country got along without it.

And now? “Let’s be gentle,” he said, “and say that we haven’t seen dramatic education improvement since the federal government set up shop.”

Suffice it to say, if any of his faculty demonstrated such shoddy scholarship, they wouldn’t receive tenure. Rather than supposition, we can use this technique known as basic data analysis. So let’s look at how students performed on the Long-Term Learning Trend NAEP in 1978 versus 2012. I’ll discuss national eighth grade math scores, broken down by ethnicity and parental education, though the patterns hold in fourth grade*†. Nor will this be exhaustive (i.e., every ethnic/educational combo); go to the site and poke around for yourself.

In 1978, the average black student whose parents graduated high school scored at the 21st percentile nationally. The average black student in 2012 whose parents graduated high school, transported back to 1978, would score at fortieth percentile nationally. Among students of his same socioeconomic group, the 2012 student would be at the 74th percentile in 1978.

That seems like “dramatic education[sic] improvement” to me.

If we flip this around, the 1978 student transported to 2012 would score at the 6.5% percentile nationally, which, in practical terms, means that a very significant fraction of his 1978 socioeconomic peers would be considered learning disabled in 2012. The average black student of 2012 whose parents graduated high school, in 2012 terms, scores at the 18th percentile. Not great, but at least most of his peers would not be considered learning-disabled. That has to count for something.

Now let’s look at whites with college-educated parents. In 1978, he scored at the 73rd percentile nationally. If we transport a 2012 student back to 1978, he would score at the 82nd percentile nationally. Not as large a gain, but still a dramatic increase. Among his peers, the average 2012 student would score at the 66th percentile in 1978.

Are there significant gaps? Of course: we have racial gaps, income gaps, parental educational gaps, and economic gaps, though those are less distant than they were 35 years ago. And it’s not clear what is going on with reading scores†. But here’s the key point: when Daniels–and note that Bruni didn’t correct him–who as a university president is in the education profession, misrepresents the basic educational facts of American education progress (and there has been progress), then just stop listening to him. Because who knows what other bullshit he’ll spout next.

We have long-standing educational disparities, which have become somewhat less disparate. Did the Department of Education help in any way? Hell if I know (it’s pretty clear Mitch Daniels doesn’t know much of anything). But why Mitch Daniels gets to promulgate his ignorance on the op-ed page of the New York Times escapes me.

As a long-time New York Times subscriber, I’ll just add that it really wouldn’t have been very difficult to fact check Daniels. That would have been an interesting and very useful column.

*According to people who have been in the room when NAEP decisions are made, it’s not clear how seriously, if at all, twelfth grade scores should be taken.

Reading scores have remained stagnant among whites within a given parental educational group, with gains among black and Hispanic students who parents have received at least some college education. Whether this reflects improvements in math education, changes in the reading test, or teaching to standardized tests (which could have a strong math performance bias relative to reading) is unclear.

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