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Half-Truths in School Reform

By Walt Gardner — May 16, 2011 2 min read
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Few strategies are as effective as half-truths in swaying public opinion. That’s because unlike blatant falsehoods, they have enough plausibility to mask their insidiousness. One of the best examples is “The Failure of American Schools,” (The Atlantic, June 2011) by Joel Klein, who served as chancellor of the New York City school system from 2002 through 2010 before resigning to become CEO of News Corporation’s educational division.

Klein begins by acknowledging that despite the improvements made on his watch, the system is “still not remotely where it needs to be. That story holds more than true for the country at large.” He then goes on to cite reasons for his assessment. So let’s take the points he raises in the order that he presents them to show why his statements are so misleading.

First, Klein points to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that one-third or fewer of eighth grade students were proficient in math, science or reading. What he doesn’t take time to explain is that the highest level of achievement on NAEP is advanced. This is the equivalent of an A+. The next level is proficient, which is equivalent to an A or a very high B. The following level is basic, which translates to a C. By omitting this information, Klein leaves the distinct impression that schools are failing. Yet we know that in any large scale population there will always be a distribution of scores, with most being average, or a C.

Second, Klein charges that the “rest of the world is moving ahead” of the U.S. He offers as evidence the World Economic Forum. It ranks the U.S. 48th in math and science education. But the same organization has consistently ranked the U.S. No. 1 in its annual Global Competitiveness Report. (The only exception was after 9/11 when the U.S. was bumped down to No. 2.) How important can these test scores be in the larger scheme of things? Once again, Klein omits crucial information.

Third, Klein dismisses as an excuse the role that poverty plays in student performance. He conveniently leaves out the finding by the National Association of Secondary Principals that schools in the U.S. with less than a ten percent poverty rate posted a score of 551 on the latest Program for International Student Assessment, making the U.S. No. 1 when compared with ten countries having similar poverty numbers. He should know the perils of making judgments about disparate groups.

Finally, Klein uses the same technique of selective data in attacking teachers unions. He characterizes them as obstacles to reform. But in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, where teachers are heavily unionized, students have the highest scores on NAEP. Conversely, in states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, where virtually no union contracts exist, students have the lowest NAEP scores. He can’t have things both ways. If teachers unions are the villains he makes them out to be, how does he explain these outcomes?

Public schools need constructive criticism. But Klein’s essay does a disservice to the very students that he claims he wants to help.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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