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Look Who's Telling Us Our Schools Stink

Much of what we hear about 'failing' public education is false, distorted by special interests.

July 05, 1998|MOLLY IVINS | Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

AUSTIN, Texas — In a dandy letter to the editor the other day came this useful distinction about questions:

There are questions of faith, such as "Does God exist?"

There are questions of opinion, such as "Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?"

There are debate questions, such as "Should abortion be legal?"

And then there are questions that can be answered to a degree of certainty by the application of the scientific method, which are called empirical questions--in other words, those that can be largely settled by the evidence.

In politics, we often get ourselves tangled up trying to settle questions of faith and opinion through a process not remotely designed to resolve them. To the extent that empirical questions and even debate questions can be resolved through the political process, the value of that resolution depends entirely on the caliber of the evidence we use. And because the well of public debate is often poisoned by bad information, the first thing we need to ask is: "Where does this information come from, and how good is it?"

One of the most disturbing books I have read in years is "The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud and the Attack on America's Public Schools" by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle. Normally when you find bad information infesting a public debate, the culprit is self-interest--a.k.a. money. Studies sponsored by chemical companies on the effects of pollution, by the tobacco companies on the effects of smoking, by the auto industry on car emissions and so forth can all be treated with the gingerly skepticism they so richly deserve.

It's a great deal more puzzling to figure out why there is so much bad information about the schools. That the drumbeat of negative information has at least in part an ideological basis has been clear to the meanest intelligence for years. Supporters of the voucher system, who want to use tax dollars to send kids to private schools, are much given to jeremiads on the supposedly hopeless failure of the public schools, which they condemn as dens of iniquity and illiteracy.

Nevertheless, we all know (don't we?) that even though many of our public schools do a wonderful job year after year, on the whole, the system is failing our kids. It is the thesis of Berliner and Biddle that what we think we know just ain't so.

Starting with the 1983 report "A Nation At Risk," we have all been told over and over that the schools are failing, and the reason we know this is because SAT scores keep falling. Don't they?

According to "The Manufactured Crisis," the phenomenon of apparently falling SAT scores is based on a misunderstanding of the evidence.

"The brief decline in SAT scores a generation ago provided no information whatever about the performance of American schools but was, instead, a signal that interest in higher education was rising throughout the nation. Surely this should have been a matter for rejoicing, not alarm.

"Since the SAT is voluntary and is only taken by roughly one-half of high school seniors across the nation, aggregate national test scores will always reflect the characteristics of students who choose to take the test. And since those characteristics change over time, aggregate national scores simply cannot be used for making valid judgments about the performance of the nation's schools. . . . shifts in national aggregate SAT scores tell us nothing at all about the performance or problems in American education."

The point here is that the "fall" in scores compares half of today's seniors with the one-tenth who took the test in 1941, when almost all college-bound kids were a well-to-do elite. And SAT scores go down by 15 points for each decrease of $10,000 in family income, which is, among other things, the reason they're useless for judging the relative intelligence of African American kids.

Debunking the SAT-score myth is just the beginning of the mountains of evidence that the book examines and finds either erroneous or (more often) misunderstood, misreported, oversimplified or distorted for ideological purposes. The cumulative effect of all this misinformation for the public schools is chilling. I suspect that what is behind it is, as usual, not conspiracy but stupidity.

Even so, there is no way we can have a useful debate about what needs to be done about the public schools until we clear away part of this mountain of misunderstanding. And "The Manufactured Crisis" does move mountains.

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