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Caveat lector

FOOLED ON SCHOOLS! A bracing report in the Washington Post gives the lie to twenty years of school bashing:


SCHOOLS RULE: For a must-read piece from the Post op-ed page, see Gerald Bracey’s April 25 report, “20 Years of School Bashing.” As readers know, our pundit corps loves to attack American public schools—sometimes with a political agenda, and sometimes from sheer dumb-ass cussedness. Bracey’s piece reminds all readers to be careful of such school-bashing work.

Are America’s schools an international joke? Are American students the dumbest around? We get this impression from press corps rants. But in one part of Bracey’s piece, he discusses a 35-nation study whose results were released just this month:

BRACEY: Blaming public schools for social ills has a long and dishonorable history…Yet in the international reading study released this month (and ignored by most media), American students finished ninth among 35 nations. White American students outscored top-ranked Sweden 565 to 561. Americans attending schools with less than 10 percent of the students in poverty (13 percent of all students) scored a whopping 589, and only those attending schools with more than 75 percent of the students in poverty (20 percent of all students) scored below the international average.
When newspapers report international studies of this type, scores-by-race are rarely provided. Newspapers don’t like to go there. But for those who would judge American teachers and schools, it’s significant to see how white American kids perform on tests of this type. After all, the U.S. has an unusual history, which affects its overall scores in such measures. For a period of roughly 400 years, the United States tried, as official state policy, to eliminate literacy in the black community. Until the mid-nineteenth century, it was against the law to teach black kids to read; for roughly a century after that, only the most modest efforts were made in this area. Under the circumstances, it’s a miracle that black literacy rates aren’t much lower. But American blacks are still affected by the assault on literacy that was conducted over time, and average scores on international tests are affected by residual problems that have yet to be solved in our nation’s urban schools. But as Bracey points out, white Americans sometimes score at the very top among international groups. Since other countries didn’t spend centuries stamping out literacy in one part of their populations, these scores provide an intriguing rebuttal to sweeping attacks on American schools. Obviously, our suburban schools are far from perfect. But our suburban schools do tend to house kids who score near the top of the world.

Meanwhile, most of Bracey’s report is an attack on “A Nation At Risk”—the iconic study of American schools which is twenty years old this very month. The study “restored to popularity the sport of pummeling the public schools,” Bracey notes—and he says that the hoary old report was “a grand April Fools’ joke.” How bad was it? “One must admire the sheer audacity of the commissioners for writing such hokum,” Bracey writes. “But this snake oil served school critics well when they blamed our ‘lousy’ schools for the recession of the 1980s.” What was wrong with “A Nation at Risk?” We advise you to read Bracey’s piece.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve never studied “A Nation at Risk.” We can’t vouch for Bracey’s analysis. And guess what? No one else will ever debate his assertions. As you know, our press corps loves its Official Approved Tales, and the claim that American public schools really stink is a long-standing, much-treasured old chestnut. But readers, remember the scores from that 35-nation study the next time you hear that our schools are dead-end. We’ve advised you before to be very careful when you see test scores from “international studies.” Bracey’s bracing breath of fresh air reminds us to be skeptics again.

DON’T EVEN START: Don’t even start with your complaints that it’s “racist” to leave out our black kids. The point here is simple—American history has created a situation that exists in no other developed nation. Japan and Sweden didn’t spend hundreds of years destroying literacy among ten percent of their populations. The astounding tragedy of American history created the tragedy of today’s urban schools. At present, American ed is indeed overwhelmed by the problems that exist in our urban schools. But other countries don’t face the unique problem that our history has asked us to handle.

As readers may know, our entire staff spent their first twelve adult years teaching lovely kids in Baltimore’s city schools. Those kids deserve to have the truth told—not only about how bad their schools are, but about schools in other parts of their country. Meanwhile, for an utterly worthless Post op-ed education piece, just read this, by a regular columnist. If we served tapioca this bland in our schools, outraged kids would stage instant food riots.

The Daily update

THE LYON THAT ROARED: When the Washington Times reported the results of the 35-nation study, reporter George Archibald included these silly remarks from "Bush's top reading adviser:"

ARCHIBALD (4/9/03): G. Reid Lyon, President Bush’s top reading adviser at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said the study disappointingly shows no change in the level of reading achievement of American students from two prior studies during the past decade.
“That’s very concerning,” Mr. Lyon said in an interview. “We’ve still got stagnant rates, and it’s a bit bothersome when we’re comparing ourselves internationally, while at the same time we lose sight of the kids who aren’t getting it in this country.”

What silly remarks! Only a fool would assume that the U.S. should have improved its international rank over that achieved in other recent studies. After all, other nations are trying to improve their school systems too—and attempts at “reform” which we’ve seen in this country have seen silly, political, phantasmagoric, charade-dominant. But when Lyon considered our test scores by race, he did say something that was tragically accurate:

ARCHIBALD: “If you disaggregate the data in this PIRLS report, you will still see substantial gaps in performance in the [United] States between racial and ethnic groups and between kids from low-income families and more advantaged families,” he said. “And what that tells us is that we have a long way to go.”
“We have a long way to go,” Lyon said. Without any doubt, that assessment is accurate. Over the past three or four decades, we’ve learned to cheat-cheat-cheat on standardized tests to produce pleasing urban “schools that work.” But we’ve made little attempt to address the real problems faced by real kids in our real urban schools. But alas! People who mumble about “disaggregating data” aren’t likely to lead us to triumph.