December 27, 2023

John Thompson: Will the press help or hurt schools?

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J0hn Thompson wonders if the media eyes are aimed at the right place.

Whether we’re talking about presidential polls or inflation; or students’ mental health and use of social media, or their test scores; we’re seeing more versions of two socio-political tales – one extremely alarming with the other one constructive. It’s an election year, so it’s inevitable, and proper, that the press devotes more space for the political horse races. And some of these narratives are bound to be frightening. Similarly, whether the subject is educational metrics, or the stress of COVID, social media, or overall mental health, the press has a duty to report on those effects on students. But, I’m becoming worried that even the best reporting institutions are going overboard toward the narratives that get the most eyeballs.

So, this post contrasts a New York Times reporter’s and a Times columnist’s takes on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores. It will contrast the simple narrative that American schools are failing, and implying that school closures made them worse, with the evidence-based analyses that explain how the U.S.’s post-COVID outcomes have improved more than most affluent nations’ metrics and why we need holistic approaches to get schools back on track for the teaching and learning needed in the 21st century.

Sarah Mervosh’s New York Times’ Math Scores Dropped Globally, but the U.S. Still Trails Other Countries began with, “The math performance of U.S. teenagers has sharply declined since 2018, with scores lower than 20 years ago, and with American students continuing to trail global competitors.” Two paragraphs later, it reported, “The bleak math results were offset by a stronger performance in reading and science, where the United States scored above average internationally.” But, over the next 22 paragraphs, the Times almost completely focused on the bad news for U.S. schools. And in contrast to OECD director of education Andreas Schleicher who said, “COVID probably played some role but I would not overrate it,” Mervosh reported, “Countries that kept schools closed longer generally saw bigger declines.”
It wasn’t until the last paragraph that this terribly sad, but wider context was added:

On other measures, the United States stood out for having more children living with food insecurity (13 percent, compared with an average of 8 percent in other O.E.C.D. countries), more students who are lonely at school (22 percent, versus 16 percent) and more students who do not feel safe at school (13 percent, versus 10 percent).

In contrast, David Wallace-Wells’ “Americans Out-Performed the Rest of the World during the Pandemic” challenges the “self-lacerating story” that has dominated news coverage, asserting, “By now, you’ve probably registered the alarm that pandemic learning loss has produced a ‘lost generation’ of American students.” Then he cites the PISA results (that were also reported holistically by A.P., Reuters, and Chalkbeat.) While calling for an end to education “blame games,” Wallace-Wells embraces evidence-based solutions.

First, Wallace-Wells explains, the average U.S. reading score “dropped just one point from 505 in 2018 to just 504 in 2022.” The average O.E.C.D. loss “was 11 times as large.” And, he further explained:
In Germany, which looked early in the pandemic to have mounted an enviable good-government response, the average reading score fell 18 points; in Britain, the country most often compared with the United States, it fell 10 points. In Iceland, which had, by many metrics, the best pandemic performance in Europe, it fell 38 points. In Sweden, the darling of mitigation skeptics, it fell 19 points.
Moreover, the United States science scores declined by “three points, about the same decline as the O.E.C.D. average and still above the level Americans reached in 2016 and 2013.” But, “German students lost 11 points, and British and Swedish students dropped five; performance by students in Iceland fell by 28 points.”

Wallace-Wells acknowledged, “In math, the United States had a more significant and worrying drop: 13 points.” But, the O.E.C.D.’s average declined by16 points from 2018 to 2022. And putting the U.S. decline in a historical context, it was “just two points larger than the drop the country experienced between the 2012 and 2015 math tests.” I would add that those years were the time when the full corporate reform agenda was in place, and American NAEP Math scores stagnated, suggesting that 21st century trajectories in math may be more concerning than the short-term pandemic setback.

Moving towards solutions, Wallace-Wells stresses chronic absenteeism which “is up significantly since before the pandemic and may prove a far more lasting and concerning legacy of school closure than learning loss.”

Then, Wallace-Wells cites the American Academy of Pediatrics which “declared a national mental health emergency,” and the “language that has been echoed by the American Medical Association.” These are stark warnings about the suffering of students. But then he puts the issue into a broader context, explaining,  “Mental health surveys of older Americans, such as the General Social Survey, which found that the percentage of American adults describing themselves as ‘very happy’ fell from 31 percent in 2018 to 19 percent in 2021 and those describing themselves as ‘not too happy’ nearly doubled to 24 percent.”

In keeping with the call to end the blame game, I don’t want to relive the test-driven “teacher wars” started by No Child Left Behind, and ramped up by venture philanthropists pushing school privatization. Ordinarily, I mostly bring them up is when politicians like Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters try to put failed mandates on steroids. But repeatedly reporting on what is wrong with schools without historical context, and not recalling the damage done by corporate reform is empowering Walters, the Moms for Liberty, and other MAGAs.
Instead we need to make school improvement a team effort where we are united in battling inter-connected local and international crises. And let’s not forget a key reason for today’s American schools’ resilience – federally funded COVID relief.

That leads to the question that goes beyond education coverage. I greatly admire the Times and other great journalism. But, are too many journalists focusing too much on political horse races? Yes, the U.S. during the Biden years has suffered from inflation, an immigration crisis, and rightwing populism. But the Biden administration’s record on inflation, immigration, and other crucial issues compares very favorably to the record of affluent European nations’ administrations. Doesn’t the nonstop reporting on today’s challenges – that were a long time in the making – raise the chances of electing rightwing populists seeking to blow up our democracy, as well as institutions such as public education?

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