American schools have never been better: A Journalism and Intervention Problem

April 12, 2012 at 10:02 am 15 comments

Interesting piece arguing that schools are actually getting better over the last decade, despite the growing rhetoric about their failure.

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention). Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

via Flunking the Test  | American Journalism Review.

Audrey Watters responds to this issue.  She believes that Farhi’s article points to a failure of educational journalists.

Farhi contends that journalists simply aren’t doing the legwork necessary to write good, critical stories. Instead, he argues, they’re parroting the “ed reform” movement’s version of the story — not questioning the press releases, policies or narratives that they’re handed by the likes of the politicians, philanthropic organizations, and corporations. Part of my criticisms of tech blogging certainly involves a similar issue: uncritical parroting of “buzz,” churnalism, copy-and-pasting of press releases, and “parachute journalism.”

Farhi says there’s a lack of “due diligence” on the part of reporters, who have a starry-eyed fascination with Bill Gates alongside an inability to walk into the classroom or talk to many educators (thanks to both policy proscriptions and schools’ unwillingness to communicate with the press). But I think there are other issues at stake here too, least of which is the fact that journalism is a rapidly changing industry, one where “Old Media” is feeling increasingly squeezed and where — in the brave new online world — pageviews drive the product and often the storyline. There’s an incredible amount of “diligence” that goes into addressing the latter, and so I’m never surprised to hear fear and failure touted.

via Education’s Journalism Problem.

Of course, there are significant problems with the American school system.  I have one of Alan Kay’s quotes on a post-it on my monitor, “You can fix a clock, but you have to negotiate with a system.”  At any moment, there are lots of things going to be going right and getting better with the American school system, yet there will still be a need for change and improvement.  How do we change such a complex system?  How do we make it better?

F0r me, it’s important to know what we’re trying to change and how. The system is too big and complex, and too expensive to change, to design without a good idea of the purpose.  That’s why I found the call for more distance education in Georgia schools distressing.  More distance education is a good thing, but it’s unlikely to improve graduation rates.  I can imagine a lot of effort going on to create distance education opportunities in Georgia, with the wrong design criteria, and judging success or failure by looking at the wrong outcome variables.  I could imagine the distance education efforts enabling adults to return for formal education, or to reach students who might not even enter into higher education.  Those are good goals, but they require something different than what’s needed to raise graduation rates.  And if you watch graduation rates, you’re not going to see rural access and a rising average age of students (or graduates).

American schools have never been better, and there’s never been more work to do.


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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gflint  |  April 12, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I teach in a private school so my view is a bit skewed. My wife on the other hand teaches in a public school so I am able to make some comparisons and keep up on the issues within the public school education system. In our public high school district (3 high schools of about 1000 each) the graduation rate over the last three years has improved. The superintendent has done this by lowering requirements and adjusting the statistics. The school board applauds him for improving the graduation rate. Too bad they cannot do some simple numbers. Many of our local public school graduates to not meet the minimum requirements to attend our State colleges. As long as administrations measure success by looking only at the graduation rate and not at the quality of that education the US system is going to look like it is improving. Graduation counts (the superintendents motto) but only if allows graduates to meet their personal goals and it produces educated citizens.

  • 2. Bonnie  |  April 12, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I went to public school during the nadir of American education, the 70’s. Now that my own kids are in school, I am astounded at how much more they are learning. In math, they are a full grade level ahead of where I was in that same grade. The writing is much more intensive and focused. They read more, and they analyze more. There is no question in my mind that American schools are better. Are they as good as they could be? No, but they have improved a lot since the 70’s.

  • 3. Alan Kay  |  April 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

    But the real question, especially in a democratically scaffolded republic, is whether the country is producing enough adults savvy enough to handle real argumentation about vital issues.

    This is the “threshold idea” that I keep bringing up.

    It just really doesn’t mean a thing that “things are better” relatively if they are still too substandard to work.

    A more interesting survey can be found in the DofEd assessments of reading skills. They don’t have very high standards for their top category — called “proficient” — but using these weak standards they were able to determine that the graduates of 4 year colleges and universities were only 40% “proficient” in 1992 (shocking, I would say), and much much worse, in 11 years this had dropped to only 31% in 2003.

    • 4. Bonnie  |  April 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm

      So perhaps it is 4 year colleges and universities that have declined in those years since 1992? That would not surprise me.

      • 5. Alan Kay  |  April 12, 2012 at 12:30 pm

        Hi Bonnie

        I don’t think that is the way things work. Colleges and universities don’t teach reading (except one hears of remedial horror stories …).

        It’s more likely that C&U are: (a) more or less selling degrees, (b) not requiring any notion of “generally educated” as a criterion for graduation, (c) not generally requiring much reading on the part of the students, and (d) that other media are distracting those who can read a little from doing the day to day reading that keeps reading chops up.

        So I agree with you that it is likely that C&Us have declined.

        But I don’t think the K-12 system is better in a way that counts.

        It is possible that *for all children* things are better on the average (consider the state of things in the 50s and 60s with segregation and other forms of discrimination, etc.), but that *for the US* things are not at all good — perhaps worse — than they were.

        This is the threshold idea again



        • 6. Jeff Forbes  |  April 12, 2012 at 2:22 pm

          I assume you’re referring to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy It’s interesting that the decline for proficiency in prose literacy dropped from 51% to 41% for people with graduate degrees or studies. Quantitative literacy proficiency remained constant for college graduates but increased by 8 points for the general adult population.

          What I took away from the article is that far too many reports on education neglect to mention any kind of context – like the part about quantitative literacy or that while prose proficiency has declined for college graduates, it increased significantly for Blacks and Asians – or target politically convenient parts of the education system. I’ve read so many articles about high dropout rates that don’t mention how much higher the graduation rate and proficiency is from when most readers went to high school.

          Looking at NCES statistics, the number of students in (and completing) postsecondary education appears to be growing faster than the population. Are the any objective measures by which the US K-12 system *for all children* has declined since the 60s? Segregation and discrimination were not exactly minor issues for education in the US.

          • 7. Alan Kay  |  April 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm

            With regard to your last paragraph, and especially your last sentence, please read my last paragraph above again.



    • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm

      I think that looking at “all college graduates” in different decades may be comparing very different fractions of the overall population. With politicians and education leaders pushing “college for all”, we’re seeing a larger fraction of students go to college. (I don’t know if the shift is
      significant between 1992 and 2003—it would take a 29% increase to fully explain a drop from 40% proficient to 31% proficient. Based on the plots in that may be pretty close to what we’re seeing.)

      • 9. Alan Kay  |  April 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm

        Very possibly, and an important point. But it is far from the main point — that 4 year colleges seem to be so concerned about “enrollment, retention, etc.” that they are graduating a very large number/percentage who lack important abilities that are part of basic education.

        As I said, I’m not thrilled by the weak criteria DoEd used for their highest bracket, but one thing that is good about their scale is that they apply it over all age ranges. (They then norm within the age ranges.)

  • 10. gflint  |  April 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    I taught remedial math courses at my local state university for 10 years. These courses were intended for nontraditional students coming back to college. These classes were high school Algebra 1 and Algebra II level. Most of my population was not nontraditional students but last year’s high school graduates. We offered more sections of these remedial courses (Math 001, 002 and 100) than any other course. The number of recent HS grads indicated to me there was a big discontinuity between HS math and what the kids thought they were going to need. The HS courses they needed were being offered, the kids were just deciding to not take them. If they did take the correct courses in HS they often put little to no effort on achieving any kind of functional knowledge out of the courses. This says more about parental involvement and councilors than the state of the education system. Everything our kids need is being offered in the schools (at least from what I can see in my local public high schools) it is just getting the kids to take it and getting them to work at it. So much is being blamed on the education system that has nothing to do with the education system. Kids unwilling to apply any effort or unwilling to take “hard” courses is more related to parental guidance than the state of the education system. Kids are almost always going to take the easy way out if given the option. Councilors have to be brave enough to tell kids straight up (and their parents) that if they do not take a HS college prep program that they should not plan on college unless they plan to take expensive remedial courses at the college level. Most of the kids I had in the remedial math courses were totally surprised that their two years of HS math would not get them through their college math requirements.

    • 11. Alan Kay  |  April 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      First, our “education system” is a “system”, an ecology that includes the children and the parents as well as the teachers, school boards, etc. This is the system that is failing.

      I agree that many parts of the system are not up to snuff, including the parents, etc.

      However, the schools (and C&U) have a level of quality control they can exercise, even if the parents opt out from their end. Imagine the hue and cry if they refused to graduate those who were not above threshold (this actually used to happen).

      The response of the ecology has been to find levels of comfort which passes the problem along, partly by lowering the thresholds, and partly by just ignoring what is manifestly going on.

      As the proper British lady said to me 30 years ago “You Americans have the best high school education in the world. What a pity you have to go to college to get it!”

      Today, there are more and more indications that the 4 year college graduates are not acquiring even a good high school education. The reasons are very likely economic: turn a C&U into a business where the customer is always right.

      There could be a chilling analogy to adult onset Type II diabetes here. This is avoidable by most people via controlling their own behavior patterns. But the realization, the imagination and the will aren’t there for a large percentage of the population and the disaster is rampaging.

      Meanwhile there are many businesses that are trying to get people to consume food products in large quantities that contribute to the onset. People are happy to pay for these items.

      And so ecologies go.

  • 12. Tattatu  |  April 12, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    The game of schooling children is rigged by a pool of publishers and has been so for at least the past century. Selling textbooks and technology for the sake of learning is more profitable than the stock market. Desperate people will fall for the latest snake oil especially if it claims to improve their child’s school. As an aspiring salesman I was told to substitute the word technology whenever I heard parents ask about calculators. And fractions have not been a part of textbook lessons for the past 20 years. If you’ve been in this business for as long as I have, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  • 13. Tattatu  |  April 12, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    If your town or district suffers from a touch of land fraud or gasp… bankruptcy, more than likely you will find at least one of each – a ribbonist superintendent to run the school board, a finance director to cook the books, at least one wealthy developer, a well-heeled contractor, a textbook strawman with college connections, and finally an underwriter who’ll fence the debt over to the public. Tats, Be careful you don’t run over yourself with a tractor, singed Pinky.

  • 14. reestheskin – Fixing versus negotiation in education  |  April 14, 2012 at 9:19 am

    […] quote from Alan Kay seems to be very appropriate for anybody interested in improving medical education. […]

  • 15. Ted Irving  |  September 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Ms. Farhi is on point with her comments about journalists not covering education and how, ” pageviews drive the product and often the storyline.” I have two comments on this, but from a different angle. Journalists are fascinated by illegal sexual relations teachers have with students. And to be fair, more of these inappropriate relationships are between adult female teachers and male students. So, that is exciting. Juicy. Considered newsworthy. The imbalance is when journalists are ignoring the rampant behavior problems committed by students. Behavior in America in K12 environments is appalling and on the verge of ridiculous and barbaric. Those same students go on to college. How they perform I”m not so sure. There is no data tracking incivil students and their academic career on the college level. So, as journalists we have to aggressively cover both students and teachers. Second, as a former director of a digital media academy in Texas, I worked with most of the local universities and our students to help them attend the best journalism, film and convergence programs. My response here challenges one aspect of how American journalism schools have never been worse. My background is CTE; Career & Technology Education. I’ve always had a dual career in broadcast journalism and education. When I worked to get students into their desired college I ran into many that were, for the lack of a better term, rip offs. Not the entire university, just the journalism, convergence media, film, cinema programs. My experience has shown that most mass communication/broadcast journalism/new media or convergence programs are dominated by professors who have never worked in the journalism industry. The ratio of doctorate to staff in these programs can be abysmal. That is a disastrous flaw. I saw many schools that had state-of-the-art equipment, but the staff were all professors with no experience. So, students were, “on their own,” to, “play,” with the equipment which resulted in more damages and within, at some campuses, non functioning equipment in less than a year. To be fair, most graduates of film or broadcast journalism don’t go on to acquire their masters. So, unfortunately, many universities won’t hire individuals as instructors unless they have the masters degree. Some do hire those with bachelors degrees who have had many, many years of experience. That’s a problem that journalism associations and universities need to tackle together. There are schools I can visit right now and ask their student body basic journalism questions and basic technical journalism questions (non-linear editing ,a/b roll, l-cuts, nat sound, etc.) and they don’t know. They are not being prepared. I have to challenge the title of the article in relation to journalism. Is Mizzou or the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism or Syracuse preparing their students? A resounding yes, but not many of our small to mid-size and a few large colleges. Just go online and look at the broadcast journalism sample work of the University of Texas student produced newscasts. Horrible. Instructors don’t even preside over them. Just as the U.S. government has taken legal action against the Art Institutes, it should take action against universities that are promoting and selling a seriously flawed journalism program or any program failing the client (student). There needs to be a balanced ratio of Professor to Staff in a journalism/media program. 4 professors who engage in research and can acquire grants for new equipment, software and studio & ENG field technology is necessary, but you also have to have at least 3 staff who have the technical and real world experience in Electronic New Gathering & print journalism to teach students how to tell stories. Using a video camera as a tool. Proper framing & composition. The law regarding when & where we can shoot. Beginning. Middle. End. Major points, minor points. How to ask the right questions. How to then sit down and log footage using non-linear editing software, organizing the footage, analyzing the sound bites, writing the story and then editing it. From there compressing it, uploading it, etc. etc. Too many college graduates in journalism are not prepared technically or literally. They are being ripped off.


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