From the daily howler blog [musings on the mainstream "press
corps" and the american discourse], Monday, September 2, 2013.
NOTE: What does the press know about public schools? A decline
in K-12 education? Our appreciation to Michael Paul
Goldenberg for calling our attention to this piece.
DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT PUBLIC SCHOOLS:
Part 1-The mystery: Bill Keller is a major American
journalist, one with whom we almost share the old school system
In June 1965, we graduated from Aragon High in San Mateo, California.
One mile down the Alameda, Keller was a student at Serra, a Catholic
high school which later gave us Barry Bonds and Tom Brady.
And Bill Keller! Despite his selection of high schools, Keller built a
career which took him to the top of the American press corps. In 1989,
he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the breakup of the former
>From 1997 through 2001, he was managing editor of the New York Times.
He was executive editor of the Times from 2003 through 2011. That
means he was in charge!
Today, he writes a weekly column for the Times, the best known
Everything we've ever seen about Keller tells us he's a good
decent person. Full disclosure: We're strongly biased in favor of
That said, Keller is also a major American journalist. But so what?
Despite or because of that fact, he offered a weird assessment in a
recent Times column, even as the nation's children got ready to go
back to school
KELLER (8/19/13): The Common Core, a grade-by-grade
outline of what children should know to be ready for college and
careers, made its debut in 2010, endorsed by 45 states. It is to be
followed in the 2014-15 school year by new standardized tests that
seek to measure more than the ability to cram facts or master
This is an ambitious undertaking, and there is plenty of
room for debate about precisely how these standards are translated
into classrooms. But the Common Core was created with a broad,
nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of
embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come
together on a way to hold our public schools
Say what? What in the world made Keller think that we have
experienced "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education"
here in the country which includes San Mateo and New York?
Why would a major journalist write that? As background, let's
drift back to 1969, the year we finished college.
That September, we began teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City
Schools. Two years later, the federal government initiated the testing
program known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP), the program which is often called "America's report
At present, only a fool would trust results from the statewide testing
programs conducted by the fifty states over the past dozen years. That
said, the NAEP has always been regarded as a whole other critter.
The NAEP has never been a "high stakes" testing program. Until
recently, no one ever had an incentive to fake its results.
Beyond that, the NAEP is run by people who are technically competent
and adequately funded. Statewide testing programs? Truthfully, not so
In part for these reasons, reporters constantly refer to the NAEP as
the "gold standard" of educational testing. But as we have often
noted, those same reporters rarely report the most basic data from the
NAEP, except for the so-called "achievement gaps," which can be
used to paint a gloomy picture.
In part, that's why ranking journalists like Keller often seem to
have no idea about the apparent state of the public schools.
Has this country really "suffered decades of embarrassing decline in
K-12 education?" Not if you go by the data produced by the widely
praised "nation's report card. To wit:
In 1971, we were in our third year of teaching fifth grade in
Baltimore. In that year, the NAEP conducted its first set of tests,
testing a nationwide sample of 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in
Two years later, the NAEP conducted its first nationwide math
The kids we were teaching in both of those years were all "black."
Since Keller believes that we have endured "decades of embarrassing
decline in K-12 education," let's compare the average scores of
black kids in 1971 and 1973 with the average scores achieved by black
kids last year.
To review the data in question, click here
[http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/main2012/pdf/2013456.pdf]. Scroll to Figures 7 and 9 (page 16), then to
Figures 23 and 25 (page 38).
In reading, the average score by black 9-year-old students has risen
from 170 to 206 during those four decades. Allowing for a minor
methodological change which occurred in 2004, scores have risen by 39
points over those 41 years.
Again in reading, the average score by black 13-year-old students has
risen by 30 points during those four decades.
Is 30-39 points a lot or a little? According to a very rough rule of
thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often said to equal one
academic year. Applying that very rough rule of thumb, the score gains
would seem very large.
Similar gains have been recorded in math. In math, the average score
by 9-year-old black students has risen by 39 points since the first
testing in 1973. The average score by black 13-year-old students has
risen by 41 points during that period.
Those are the best educational data the nation possesses. But very few
people have ever heard about these data. Apparently this includes
Keller, a decent person who is one of our most important national
Most people, Keller apparently included, have never heard about the
rise in reading and math scores on the NAEP. Instead, they have often
heard stories which lead them to make gloomy statements about the
embarrassing decline our pitiful nation has suffered.
Even as the scores of black kids have risen substantially, Keller
thinks we have "experienced decades of embarrassing decline." This
represents an astonishing fact about our nation's journalistic and
It represents an astonishing fact about the way our world works.
How can it be that people like Keller have never heard about the
nation's most basic educational data? We'd say there are several
basic reasons, but in our view, they all boil down to one basic
In the end, your nation's elites don't seem to care about this
nation's black kids-kids who are, in the end, simply a bunch of
good decent kids. Very few facts could be more plain. Few facts get
discussed less often.
We've noted these facts for quite some times. Manifestly, nobody
Manifestly, your nation's elites don't care about black kids, or
even about elementary facts concerning topics which are widely
discussed. For today, we'll describe this state of affairs as "the
Tomorrow, we'll adopt a different framework. Tomorrow, we'll
explore the pretense.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244