Vox is a wonderful publication along many dimensions. One of its virtues is that it provides constant exercises in how a few statistics or credentialed quotes combined with ones own authoritative voice can mislead bright writers into thinking they know the one scientific truth of things.
Anyway, onto the American Carnage. First, Mark Bauerlein relays an anecdote about left-wing ideology robbing students of valuable class time, which then stands in for how the entire public school system is not emphasizing education sufficiently. He then argues that SAT and ACT scores have dropped. Of course, very few researchers, regardless of what their opinions of education reform, use these tests, as they reflect the study body–in other words, when more students believe they should go to college, scores decline as more poorly-performing students (as measured by exams) take the SAT and the ACT.
We’ll get back to test scores in a bit.
Then Bauerlein moves on to proficiency as measured by the NAEP. As Diane Ravitch and others have described, often in excruciating detail, ‘proficiency’ is an incredibly high bar–most college students don’t score as ‘proficient’:
With the release of a bevy of education testing results by various news outlets, you probably didn’t read that headline, but you should have. With this year’s release of the NAEP data as well as state exam scores*, we are seeing story after story decrying how few students are prepared for college. Massachusetts, which does the best of all states, only has around fifty percent of its students scoring as ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’–which is somehow being transmogrified into ‘college ready.’
Except, as we’ve noted many times before, when Massachusetts by itself compared to other countries, it scores higher than any other European country, including Blessed Finland™. Since Massachusetts has half of its students score at proficient or higher, we can use the average score (remember NAEP scores are normalized) as a stand-in for ‘proficiency’ on other exams. If we look at the eighth TIMMS 2011 math scores (pdf; the 2015 haven’t been released yet, but Massachusetts in 2011 was at fifty percent that year as well), Massachusetts scores higher than any other European country. This suggests that less than half–in some cases much less than half–of European students would be proficient or higher. There are other interesting consequences:
South Korea, which scores the highest, would only have three-quarters of its students deemed NAEP proficient.
Japan would only have 54% of its students deemed NAEP proficient or higher.
Finland would only have around thirty percent of its students deemed proficient or higher.
Does anyone really believe these things? Look, maybe students around the world really are that stupid. But then we have a global educational crisis. Or maybe setting a overly high standard isn’t combating the soft bigotry of low expectations but engaging in the fear-mongering of ridiculously high ones.
But why actually understand the limitations of your data, amirite?
One more point about the NAEP scores, one I’ve made often, which I’ll outsource to Kevin Drum (boldface mine):
So for what feels like the millionth time, here’s the best data we have about the quality of public schools in America: the long-term NAEP scores in reading and math…
Over the past three decades, math scores are up across the board and reading scores are flat. Are these “poor” results? I’m not sure why, unless we expect schoolkids to get smarter and smarter forever. Basically the NAEP scores suggest that today’s kids are doing a bit better than their parents, so unless you think America is hopelessly stupid across all generations there’s no real evidence that public schools are doing a noticeably bad job. They certainly seem to be doing at least as well as they were 30 years ago, and other evidence suggests they’re also doing at least as well as they were 70 years ago.
Now, what public schools are doing a bad job of is closing the gap between white kids and black/Hispanic kids. Whether private schools are doing better on this score is a subject of intense controversy, but that would certainly be something worth griping about….
I should note that Bauerlein also complains that we spend a lot more on schools even though results haven’t improved. This is true, largely because teachers are paid a lot more than they were 50 years ago. I assume the reason for this is obvious enough not to require explanation.
With the appointment of billionaire bully Betsy DeVos, it’s clear education policy is going to shift to emphasize charter schools and vouchers. Unless we keep the pressure on Democrats, this will give cover to education reform-friendly Democrats like Cory Booker. There will be a market for ‘moderate’ pro-education reform media. Vox needs to keep its business model flexible I suppose…