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Why Do So Many Ordinarily Thoughtful Columnists “Lose It” When They Write About Schools?


I really am surprised to see so many ordinarily thoughtful national columnists — ones who I generally like — show such poor judgment when they write about schools.

The only times when I’ve read David Brooks and he sounds somewhat incoherent is when he writes about education (see What Is Going On With David Brooks?) and you can sometimes almost see Ruben Navarrete foaming at the mouth (see Boy, Did Ruben Navarrete Get Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed This Morning!).

The latest is Matthew Yglesias, who, in his post The False Promise of Class Size Reduction, was completely taken in by a recent study from the Center For American Progress supposedly showing that class size reduction was not effective. The comments on his post pointed out a number of his, and the report’s, errors, and Bruce Baker completely demolished the data and premise of the report.

What is it that blinds these columnists? In fact, what is it that does the same to so many school reformers and legislators? Do they think that since they went to school when they were children, that makes them experts in figuring out how they should be run? They all have gone to see a doctor at some point, too, but they don’t seem to be as critical or prescriptive about how they think a medical professionals should treat their patients.

Help me out here — what do you think?

(When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists is an excellent post by Robert Pondiscio responding to this issue)

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. It’s the DFER effect. When the Secretary and the President are 100% in the “market-based ed reform” corner, they want to be there, too, flying their “moderate” colors. Unless they’re Republicans (like Brooks) who don’t want to be painted as tea-party, socially rabid right wingers. You know, country club Republicans, the kind that used to rule the party. Those folks are trying to show that yeah, they’ll come to the table and have a reasonable discussion. Plus they all think Michelle Rhee is cute ‘n spunky.

    Lay on top of that the widespread human conviction that teaching is something anyone can do, with a little spunk (there’s that word again) and practice. How hard could it be? Dan Lortie did the best job of anyone, ever, in dissecting that beginnings of disdain for teachers, two full generations of which were the first in their family to go to college. Credential creep has caught up with the teaching profession. I’m working on a blog about this credential creep idea right now.

  2. Well, I agree with the above and wanted to add another possibility. Columnists have to produce, on demand, informative-sounding op-eds lasting X many words and appealing to a broad audience. While they don’t have to be, often they are somewhat superficial in their analysis. The superficiality becomes very evident when they are writing about something they personally are not truly an expert on, and you are. So, it’s a combination of their context and the relative levels of mastery/experience. I’ve noticed this with many op-ed columns about psychology and psychological research; while I’m sure they sound fine to many, if you are trained in it, parts of them are cringe-inducing.

  3. I’ve observed this phenomenon quite a bit, having spent far more time in my career working in the media than in education. But I have a slightly more dour take on the issue. When I see someone I tend to admire show poor judgment writing about schools, I don’t think “how can someone so smart be so ill-informed.” Rather, I tend to wonder, “if you’re this ill-informed on a subject I know a lot about, how wrong are you on subjects I’m not well-informed about?” In short, if you show poor judgement on one issue, why should I accept your judgment on anything else?

    Here’s the dirty little secret about pundits. They generally traffic in borrowed and repackaged expertise. Their judgement is less about what they write, than who has their ear.

  4. Pingback: When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Columnists « The Core Knowledge Blog

  5. Bruce Baker completely demolished the data and premise of the report.

    He did no such thing. He merely took issue with the title of one subsection.

  6. Haimson says: “Has any other K-12 education reform been shown to yield larger benefits? No.”

    Well, in the recent DC voucher experiment, high school graduation rates were increased by 12 to 21 percentage points, depending on whether the student actually used the voucher. That’s a LARGER benefit than in the class size reduction study that she cites, which found a 3 to 18 percentage point increase in graduation rates, depending on whether the student was free lunch and how many years the student had a small class. (Note that she cites odds ratios, which are a good way to inflate what most readers will think about a variable’s importance). So there’s that.

    More importantly, nothing that she says, at least not here, lands a blow on Chingos’ main point that while class size reduction works for some kids (the ones that Haimson cites), there’s little reason to think that it can work in broad state-wide policies, which end up heavily diluting the effectiveness of the teacher workforce. (Chingos doesn’t say this, but in the space of 3 years in the late 1990s, California went from having about 62,000 teachers to having 91,000, which is such a drastic increase that it will almost certainly lower teacher quality.)

  7. People with money and power in this country do not want to have their tax dollars spent on educating people who are different from them – eg; the poor – who are most likely to be of color, recent immigrants or African Americans. Read the history of the extensive inequities that went on for centuries regarding the lassitude about educating non-whites – it is horrifying, and the saddest part is the legacy which we all still suffer from. Journalists, who are mostly white or of educated stock, are as insensitive to that history as most people in power – so they believe the assumption from the start that there is something wrong with schools now – something different perhaps from the past. If we want good public schools, we need to pay for them – or everyone should shut up and acknowledge that in America if you live in a city with new immigrants, and historic poverty the politicians think you do not deserve a decent education. If all public schools were funded on a per pupil basis the same as privately endowed schools (who by the way are not measured by state based standardized tests), there would not be an “education problem.” Building any kind of infrastructure takes money to have good facilities, great teachers, and the time to teach. The people in this country have lowered their aspirations for a civil society, and believe the racists who couch their values in cloaks of words from the constitution. Only when everyone stands up for each other, recognizes our common humanity, and works to provide equal resources, and a variety of educational choices for everyone will young people be given the true opportunity to learn, to create and to participate in our democracy. I would also like to see all media put as much attention to how money us used by the military as they do on education stories. We pay out endlessly for wars and weapons -but there’s precious little reporting or editorials about that. So much easier to pick on kids and teachers.

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