Thursday, December 31, 2015

NYT Spots the Problem

The New York Times is wrapping up the year with a full-court press on the magical marvels of testing, including a shot today from the editorial board that really does show us a major part of the problem. But not on purpose.

They open with this line:

Teachers unions and other critics of federally required standardized tests have behaved in recent years as though killing the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.

Then they go on to talk about testing as though following the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.

They make sure to call out the usual villains--look, teachers unions make the very front of the multi-wrong lede. First, teachers unions are hardly the most notable critics of the testing mandate in New York, but the Times has been steadfast in its refusal to see the Opt Out movement as parent-led. Second, nobody has claimed that the end of a testing mandate would fix all that ills public education, particularly ills like poverty and systemic refusal to fully fund schools that are most in need. (Also, "get rid of tests in the early grades"? What early grades, because no federal law has ever reached lower than third grade)

The writer then goes on to complain about weak curriculum and graduation requirements, and at this point a fog of confusion settles over the writer, who seems to believe that no student should graduate from high school unless that student is fully prepared for college. Really? As "proof," the Times offers vague references to "college entrance exams" by which they mean... SAT? ACT? The exam given by the college (either Harvard or Podunk U)? As an example of why this is bad, the writer expresses concern that South Carolina, with its lax graduation requirements, "is producing high school graduates who are not qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW."

Five minutes of googling indicates that they can be less worried. BMW appears ready to add more jobs in South Carolina, and these jobs include Forklift Operator and Production Associate. Production associates must have a year of steady job experience and be able to pass a drug test; they must also be willing to work any day they're called, for a 10-12 hour shift. Forklift operators must have experience operating a forklift. Clearly more AP math courses would help graduates be better-prepared for these jobs.

The NYT has of course completely skipped over the question of students who seek employment in areas that don't require a college degree, just as they've skipped over the question of who determines the need for college remediation, and how.

The editorial board complains that 40% of students are not ready for college math and English, though they offer no source for this figure (which I find kind of incredible from the New York Times). The figure suggests that they've picked up this finding from the NAEP folks, but that's a problem as we've known since 2007 that NAEP doesn't know all that much about college readiness (about half of the students who scored "basic" i.e. "not college ready" went on to achieve bachelors degrees or higher). Or they could have pulled the 40% from this analysis by the ACT folks, which says that only 40% of ACT-takers scored high in at least three of English, reading, math and science. In other words, that math genius who graduated valedictorian from your college but who needed your help to pass Freshman Composition 101-- that guy was count by ACT as "not ready for college."

Sigh. We're not done yet, and we haven't even gotten to the crux of the matter.

But here's the board decrying high school grad's unpreparedness for the military by citing .... a study from 2010! Has nobody looked at this in the last five years? Politifact took a look at this talking point back when Jeb! garbled it in 2014. Here's what the Defense Department had to say:

For the military, the largest single disqualifying factor is health, including such problems as obesity. The estimate for those who are disqualified only because of aptitude is about 2 percent, said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. That includes not just people who failed the test but also those with other academic deficiencies, such as failure to get a GED.

There are other big chunks of wrong, well-worn and repeatedly gnawed on by commenters, like the old baloney that the teacher unions oppose Common Core (they didn't-- they supported it and continue to do so) and the connected testing because they "did not want to be evaluated based on how much students learned," a statement which ignores the question of whether the Big Standardized Tests actually measure any such thing, and which also ignores the rich and detailed arguments about these points that are all over the interwebs.

So here's the big question? How did the New York Times editorial board get so very much wrong? Does the NYT not have Google? I mean-- here's my New York Times story. One of my oldest friends from here in our small NW PA town now lives in Manhattan, and when he got married years ago, his wedding announcement ran in the NYT. A fact-checker called to verify the name of the business that his mother runs here in our population 7000 town hundreds of miles away. That's the level of commitment to accuracy that I associate with the the NYT.

What's the problem? I think we can find it in these two sentences:

A recent study from Achieve, a nonpartisan organization that works with the states to raise academic standards....

An alarming study by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation...

These are the sources that the NYT relied on? Seriously?  

I suppose they are "bi-partisan" in the same way that The Tobacco Institute and most lobbying groups are "bi-partisan." In that sense, the NYT board just stopped short of flat out lying by saying that these two groups are impartial or unbiased. But the Education Trust is a Gates-funded advocacy group from the earliest days of the Core. And Achieve is the organization that "helped" the CCSSO and NGA write the Common Core to begin with-- no organization is more highly invested in the continued support and push of the Core Standards and the tests that are welded to them. And they earlier this month released a report that says-- well, it says pretty much exactly what this editorial says.

In short, the NYT board has done the opposite of journalism here. This belongs with such classics as "Cigarettes Are Totally Good For You" or "US Must Solve Critical New Car Gap." This is endorsing one political candidate without ever actually talking to any of the others.

The problems that face public education are complicated. In fact, right now they're more complicated than ever because we have a muddy mix of actual problems (e.g. poverty, refusal to fully fund), created problems (e.g. charters stripping public schools of resources), and made-up problems (e.g. Oh Nos! Our students aren't taking enough standardized tests!). All of these problems exist at the intersection of larger national issues such as income inequality, systemic racism, and the proper relationship between corporate and citizen interests.

What would help? Information. Correct, well-researched, thoughtful information. If you want to find one of the problems getting in the way of finding a remedy for everything that ails education, a good first step would be for journalists to stop uncritically running the PR of the people who want to dismantle public education and sell off the parts. The NYT did not solve any problems today, and they didn't identify any, either. But they surely provided an example of one of them. Come on, New York Times-- do journalism better.


  1. The NY Times has created a straw man when it claims that opponents of excessive standardized testing believe that reducing such testing will solve all problems in public K-12 education.

    Of course, nobody really believes this, but I do believe that getting rid of much of this testing along with much of the preparation for this testing would give both teachers and students a great deal of instructional time to do more important things like: write, read (maybe even an entire book?), do non-multiple-choice math problems, do science experiments with actual science equipment, draw or paint, put on a school play, take more electives like art, journalism, etc. in middle school, go on more field trips to museums, learn to play a musical instrument, etc.

    Basically, my children's K-12 education is impoverished compared to mine because so many of the above activities were greatly reduced or completely cut out in order to spend weeks and weeks prepping for and taking standardized tests that taught my children nothing and told me nothing about their educational progress that I didn't already know.

    I participated in three plays, with speaking roles, in elementary school. My children participated in none! I took many electives in middle school. My children wasted time in periods called "enrichment" and "mastery" learning tricks and strategies for standardized tests! This is absurd.

    My anger and opposition to standardized testing is motivated by the fact that such testing, including the preparation, is wasting precious time that my children could be using to learn. Period.

  2. I'm not sure we can talk about "journalists" or "journalism" without using quotes anymore. With a few exceptions of actual remaining journalists (David Sirota, for instance), the closest we get to actual journalists are those dreaded bloggers.

    1. We have to be careful not to confuse journalists with columnists and editorial writers. There are a lot of excellent journalists out there, including many at the NY Times. They just don't cover education. The editorial staff has its own agenda.

    2. And I think the NYTimes editorial writers aren't reading what the NYTimes reporters are writing. The editors complain that SC isn't prodicu graduates who are reading to work at Boeing, BMW, etc. The NYTimes reporter who wrote about this very issue just last week wrote "some business leaders worry that not enough students have the abilities they need for higher-skilled jobs at Boeing, Volvo and BMW, which have built plants here in recent years. What is more, they say, students need to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively, skills they say high schools do not always teach." These skills of communication and collaboration are exactly the skills that are pushed aside becaus of Common Core and high stakes testing!

  3. The fundamental problem with the NYT’s support for continued, yearly testing in grades 3 to 8 is that it blatantly ignores the fact that this policy now has a 15 year record of FAILURE! Failure to budge the “student outcomes/achievement” needle, using their very own metric and methodology. Failure to concede the truth: public educators never needed yearly testing to know "what if anything" children were learning (No other developed country does so). Failure to produce the resources needed by the struggling (and usually impoverished) schools that the tests have identified. Failure to expand the curriculum with multiple pathways for student success. Failure to understand the public education system is not about turning out competent workers for any corporation that funded the Common Core. Failure to understand the importance of cognitive learning theory, brain development, and just how compromised some children are by their disabilities. Failure to take into account the debilitating effects of generational poverty, family dysfunction, and the unrelenting stress that places a stranglehold on learning. Failure to listen to the one group that knows best, the professional educators that have devoted their careers to helping children to grow and develop, and helping to open the doors of opportunity so that young people can achieve their full potential.

  4. *drops mic*
    Bring on 2016, Reformsters!

  5. The NYT has been in the right-wing/neoliberal tank since it dropped Richard Rothstein from educational coverage in the early days of the GWB administration. When I challenged them on that horrid move, the reply I received made clear in its absurdity that we would be getting PLENTY of coverage of education – just not worth reading. I stopped caring about their official positions and reportage on education at that point; little that has transpired since has suggested I was wrong to do so.

  6. Emily Talmadge of SaveMaineSchools thinks the NYT is being used as a mouthpiece for the Digital Learning Now Council to continue to prepare the ground for CBE.

  7. Hi, Peter. I hope the holidays are treating you and your family well.

    It looks like you're missing some word(s) in the first sentence of a paragraph about 2/3rds of the way down, so I'll hazard a couple of guesses as to what you meant:

    "There are other big chunks of wrong, well-worn and repeatedly gnawed on by commenters, like the old baloney that the teacher unions (MISSING WORD(s))Common Core ... "

    Perhaps you meant:

    "There are other big chunks of wrong, well-worn and repeatedly gnawed on by commenters, like the old baloney that the teacher unions OPPOSE Common Core ... "

    or maybe you meant ...

    "There are other big chunks of wrong, well-worn and repeatedly gnawed on by commenters, like the old baloney that the teacher unions OPPOSE TEACHERS ENGAGING IN TRANSVESTITE CROSS DRESSING WHILE TEACHING Common Core ... "

    I'm guessing it's the first one. ;-)

  8. The core of the editorial concerned the very rapid increase in high school graduation rates at Berea High School. Do posters here think that the faculty and staff at that high school have found a "secret sauce" that enabled them to increase the four year graduation rate from below 65% to above 80% in four years?

  9. When referring to the last 15 years of failed educational policy and methodologies, please consider calling that the status quo.

    That makes us, who want to change things the reformers, not them.

  10. [I just posted this comment, albeit with slight editorial differences, on Diane's blog.]

    Although I agree with most of your analysis, I think you got the point about the military disqualification standard at least partly wrong. From the standpoint of statistics it’s actually much worse than what you wrote. I went to the Education Trust to find out what the study actually measured. Although it is hard to tell from how they presented the data I think they are only including in the test takers those who were not otherwise disqualified, i.e. that other 75%. Whether they were or not, this is what really matters about the qualifying scores: It is by design that only so many applicants will "pass".

    That 20% of ASVAB test takers who don’t qualify are disqualified BECAUSE THEY SCORED IN THE BOTTOM 20% OF ALL WHO TOOK THE TEST. Period. It is not based on how many answers they got correct. It is the same logic behind the taking over of all schools in the bottom 5%. Every school – or every military recruit – could have scores above 80, or even 90! Since somebody still has to be at the bottom of the group a score of 82 could theoretically still be disqualified.

    That Education (dis)Trust would produce and disseminate such a piece of propaganda is a clear testament that the ed reform movement’s agenda is not about improving education but about taking over education for their own for purposes. The New York Times has no excuse. A newspaper that often goes to great lengths and cost to do long, meticulously researched investigative pieces has very low standards for editorial accuracy about topics they (think they) already have all the answers to.

  11. The second sentence of the editorial is an outright lie. It reads:

    "In reality, getting rid of the testing requirement in the early grades would make it impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year."

    The testing requirement is the requirement to test every student every year in the early grades. But, as Diane Ravitch constantly reminds us, with the NAEP tests, the nation already has more than sufficient data about what students are learning in terms of reading and math. And the NAEP tests are not given to every student every year. It's as if the editorial board members have no knowledge of statistics. Or they are simply lying.

    1. Eric,

      One issue with NAEP tests is that they do not make any attempt to look at how school districts are performing outside of a few very large urban districts. If you think districts have different policies and district policy matters, NAEP is not at all helpful.