3 Signs of incompetence in education journalism

I saw this op-ed in the New York Times titled: The Good News About Educational Inequalities. The article is so misguided and irresponsible that I have to address it.

The authors of the op-ed (three authors! like it’s a university paper or something!) touted the trend toward poor kids going into preschool more and more prepared. Educators refer to this issue as the “school readiness gap” and they define readiness as math and reading.

This op-ed is a great example of how irrelevant and irresponsible mainstream media is when they talk about education.

1. Journalists ignore inconvenient truths.
Educators no longer believe in forcing math and reading readiness on preschoolers. Toddler years should be focused on free play, and you can see how widespread this belief is because the expensive NYC preschools all advertise an emphasis on self-directed play.

The teachers in this study picked kids from private schools and public schools and then “asked children to identify shapes and colors, to count, to identify letters and to sound out words.” What is mind-blowing to me is that expensive preschools are specifically NOT focused on counting, letters, and the sounds of words. Because it’s been shown to be more beneficial for kids to just play at that age.

2. Journalists report on data without honest measurements.
Also, these measures for preschool readiness skew toward the core curriculum, but rich kids don’t use core curriculum. So what this study really shows is that poor kids are spending their days learning irrelevant, energy-draining skills, while rich kids benefit intellectually and emotionally from endless self-directed playtime. And our educators are measuring if poor kids know as many irrelevant skills as rich kids. We are measuring the success of poor kids using a yard stick rich kids threw out long ago.

Poverty’s effect on a kid is all-consuming, and there is no evidence that anything people do in school reliably lifts kids out of poverty. (In fact, in a long-term study of kids who were born addicted to cocaine, researchers found that a parent’s income had a bigger impact on the child’s success in school than being born addicted to cocaine.) And there is no evidence that school readiness makes kids more successful in adult life.

3. Otherwise ethical journalists ignore conflict of interest for education.
Educators should not be allowed to both create the measuring stick, create solutions, and judge solutions, because doing so incentivizes experts to define a problem that is easy to measure and easy to solve, instead of defining the problem in a clear, true way.

The authors of the op-ed have a conflict of interest. They are vested in the current educational system because they earned graduate degrees to study it. They could not conclude, for example, that doing well in school is a poor measuring stick for doing well in life. And they can’t conclude that kids should not even go to school.

I would say that almost every time I read something positive in the news about school I can dissect the article like I am doing here. Because as a culture we are in such incredibly widespread denial about school that it’s hard to have an honest conversation about it in public.

When I see parents struggling to make the leap to homeschooling, I think of articles like this one—it’s almost Orwellian in it’s doublespeak. It’s hard to go against the grain in society, but it’s even harder to participate in public discourse that makes no sense. Every time you worry you might not be strong enough or rich enough or organized enough or smart enough to homeschool, remember how insane the discussion is about school. That’s the best use of this op-ed: a reminder.



14 replies
  1. jessica
    jessica says:

    If they really want ‘education equality’, the authors are focusing on the wrong thing…

    The authors in this piece are focusing directly on the early cognitive movement, which has now been proven to be null in the outcomes for poverty stricken children. That right there is shocking- where is the editor, fact checker, someone, anyone?

    “Changes in parenting are not going to be sufficient to sustain or speed this progress, although more paid leave would help.”

    Changes in parenting are exactly what paid leave would attempt to provide- TIME. Time to BE there for the kid, time to destress from multiple low paying jobs, time to see and cheer on their own child, time to visit friends and relatives, maybe even time to homeschool!

    They clearly did not call Paul Tough, as he states directly in his book the one thing that can be the change and influence in the child’s direction in life is the parenting approach. If the poverty parent has the ability to intervene and make changes, then the kids’ life changes. (clearly for all these writers the subject matter of Family is akin to rocket science) (no offence YMKAS)

    If these writers come across this post by P what they need to do is figure out how to get more time to the parents in poverty. Write about that. If you don’t know the discussions that have come about are the living-wage movement, paid leave requirements, maternity leave requirements, etc. This then comes down to more direct government intervention in our current capitalist society. That is a battle that is long-won and very complicated, so I can see how it’s easier to talk about education reform and bring up useless points that are no longer relevant than figuring out how to provide the tools to parents (who are primarily responsible for their children’s wellbeing anyway).

    A piece like this really cheapens the discussion.

  2. jessica
    jessica says:

    One of the writers heads up poverty research at Stanford.
    He wrote a whole paper about this gap, and can’t seem to read his own paper’s research to analyze and thus realize that the solution for his subject of study will not come about through cognitive measures.
    Taken from page 19, of his paper here https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/reardon%20whither%20opportunity%20-%20chapter%205.pdf

    “Although both middle-class and low-income parents may have become increasingly aware
    of the intellectual development of their children, Annette Lareau (1989, 2003) argues that middle and
    upper-class parents engage much more commonly in what she calls “concerted cultivation”—
    the deliberate organization of childhood around intellectual and socioemotional development. If
    this concerted cultivation is effective at improving children’s intellectual skills— at least, those
    measured by standardized tests—then this may contribute to the rising income achievement gap.
    If middle- and upper-income families are increasingly likely to invest in their children’s cognitive
    development, we would expect to see evidence of this in the trends in parental investment in
    children’s child care, education, and education-related activities. There is, however, little available
    evidence with which to test this hypothesis. Studies of parental time use show that highly educated
    and higher-income parents spend more time in child-care activities with their children than do less educated
    and lower-income children (Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney 2008; Ramey and Ramey 2010).
    Moreover, the amount of time parents spend in child-care activities (broadly defined) has increased
    from 1965 to 2008 and has increased more for college-educated parents than for less-educated
    parents (Bianchi 2000; Ramey and Ramey 2010). In addition, in a recent paper using data from the
    Consumer Expenditure Survey, Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenburg (2010) find that families’
    spending on children increased substantially from 1972 to 2007, particularly among high-income
    and college-educated families. Spending increases were particularly sharp among families with
    preschool-age children. Consistent with this is evidence that the relationship between family
    income and preschool enrollment among three- and four-year-old children grew from the late
    1960s to the late 1980s (Bainbridge et al. 2005). These patterns are broadly consistent with the
    hypothesis that the rising income achievement gap is at least partly driven by the increasing
    investment of upper-income families in their children’s cognitive development, particularly during
    the preschool years, though the evidence is far from conclusive on this point.”

  3. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    The article states that ‘these improvements are seen through the fourth grade.’ So, at least the lives of 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade teachers have been made easier.

    Maybe the bar for whether one should homeschool or not is if you are capable (or desiring to) see through the education propaganda. If you simply cannot or will not see it, then perhaps homeschooling is just not for you. Also, homeschooling is taking ownership, with school there is always someone else to blame, which is powerful. You can live a whole life putting power over your life into other peoples hands, and then blaming them when things go wrong.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s such a great point, Jennifa – that when kids see improvement in a few early grades and no other time, the only beneficiaries are the teachers. They get credit for having done something meaningful when it is not, actually, meaningful.


  4. Julia
    Julia says:

    Are you deliberately misrepresenting the article? I’m here to dissect your dissection. I’ll start by saying that I work in proximity to (but not with) one of the authors, and I’ll agree with you on one of your main points: they have a blind spot about the benefits of alternative approaches to teaching and curriculum. That said, they make no pretense of even being able to make claims about such things. They’re statisticians who use big data to understand inequality in education caused by social factors, and specifically gaps that correlate with poverty and race.

    The first big error in your dissection is in calling the authors journalists. They are decidedly not journalists. Because they’re big wigs, they got the opportunity to post a NYT op-ed that is basically an advertisement for their recent study.

    Second error is your assumption that private school students are not learning numbers, letters, etc. I assure you, they are. Just because the sales pitch material for a preschool says it’s play-based or some variation on that, I guarantee that the majority do some kinder-prep work every day. The reason in most cases is that parents want the “play-based” preschool that shows they know what the current trends are in education, but they then put pressure on the preschool to prepare their child for kindergarten. They still want their child reading above grade level before they leave preschool.

    Third error is in suggesting that these authors are both measuring and creating the education system. They are not. This particular group measures the correlation between sociological factors and education outcomes. Other education researchers, policy makers, and district personnel do the work of creating the education system. This group that does the measuring has zero expertise in curriculum or learning theory as far as I know.

    Fourth (whew!), after sharing the results of a study, it’s expected a researcher will speculate about what caused the results. In this case, they speculated that more ‘numbers and letters’ preschool might contribute, but even then they pull back and say that’s likely not the major cause. They go on to say that changes in family awareness of the need for preschool prep and changes in home environments is probably a bigger cause. They suggest that parents are reading to their kids more, and have more technology so kids are playing more learning games. I’m not sure why you didn’t use that as the take away, as a promotion of homeschooling.

    Fifth, the conflict of interest you described is way off base. For one thing, only 3% of families homeschool, so school isn’t going away in these researchers’ lifetimes. But also, they are sociologists, so if most poor students were being homeschooled, they would apply their research skills to the study of homeschooling. Researchers are people with expertise in certain tools that can be applied to many different types of problems. If this group seems vested in keeping schooling alive, it’s because they are realists who know that poor families in particular need schools.

    Finally, I’m sure they would argue with you that school readiness isn’t an advantage for life, though when it comes to this message, they are just the messenger. Really, it depends on how you think about advantages for life. Poor kids who have no other options than school benefit tremendously if they come to school on equal academic footing with their wealthier peers. That said, my opinion is more in line with yours — that the whole thing should be changed so that a child’s future success has nothing to do with her academic skills at age 5.

    I’m a huge fan of your writing and ideas about education. Not sure what happened here. I think the comments this post brings out are more disturbing than the post itself. It’s like blind people feeling an elephant, and the elephant is education. This whole discussion is blind people feeling the tail and then showing sanctimonious disdain for the blind people who are describing the torso. I did laugh at the idea of Sean Reardon calling Paul Tough for expertise on poverty and education though. Thanks for that one.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Anecdotally, when I sent my youngest to preschool last spring, it was sold as play-based, and in fact it was play-based. I toured, and my child spent over an hour there before we signed up for a few months.

    To Julia’s point, there was no parental pressure to change the school to be more academic, and in fact, we were paying the extra cost of private education there because the owners and teachers already know the research and benefits that backs up play-based. Lots of playing, different stations, indoor play areas, imagination, outdoor play structures, class pets, organic garden…etc.

    People are starting to come around, and it isn’t just the crunchie/hippie parents sending their kids there. I knew several executives from Fortune 100 companies that also sent their kids there.

    I really can’t speak to the other points. A lot of information that I have read over the years gives conflicting reports of so-called Head Start programs. The Op-Ed authors even explain that their data sort of ends at 4th grade. They are only measuring early education, and using old yard sticks to do it. Journalists, meanwhile, repeatedly show that conventional models of learning are becoming irrelevant.

    Until homeschooling can become scalable I’m not sure what other measures we can take. Ed Reformers say “school choice” is the way to go, while at the same time a report within the last year showed that school choice provided no difference in outcomes in Louisiana.

    At present, the best thing we can do is give education control back to the local communities. By doing so, they can make changes to have play-based education programs without worrying about losing funding due to arbitrary standardized testing results. As a society, we can do more and should do more to lift people out of poverty. Schools certainly aren’t able to do it.

  6. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Thanks such a great topic.
    That when children see change in a couple of early evaluations and no other time, the main recipients are the educators. They complete credit for having something significant when it is not, really, important.

  7. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    “Educators” love pre-literacy 3 year old stuff because it’s cheap and easy to get 100% result. Take 3 years who don’t know the alphabet, teach them alphabet, omg metrics success more funding 100% improvement!
    I also think rich professionals push mediocre preschool on middle class under the guise of expanding programs to help the poor for devious reasons. They are threatened by middle class moms at home with their tots when theirs are with paid caregivers…love can’t be bought..

    • Stabat Mater
      Stabat Mater says:


      But they think love can be bought and mothers are easily replacable so daycare workers are paid pennies to love on the kid while mom does something significantly more meaningful and fulfilling, right??? All about the dollar ’cause that is what will produce better people and a more civilized culture.

      Yes, Virgina, it really is that simple, and that black and white. Others just choose to complicate it.

  8. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Here and I thought three signs of incompetence in education journalism might be:

    1. Stating that an analysis is about one educational segment (preschool) when it’s about another (kindergarteners).
    2. Stating that statistical trends must obviously reverse once they’re outside the period covered by the analysis (K-4), making the trend demonstrated in the period covered perversely counter-indicative.
    3. Arguing that the things measured in a study aren’t the important things to measure, and that opinion makes the measurements themselves, and any conclusion drawn from them invalid.

    Boy, if someone made those errors I’d say they sure shouldn’t be publishing.

  9. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    There are other studies supporting the ‘benefits run out by third grade’ theory. More so than proving that early education is a waste, it could shine a light on the fact that k-4 is so awful and degrading and mind-numbing to the kids, it squanders and abuses the benefits the early education provided.

    Maybe what should be studied is what made the early childhood education work, and should those same ideas be applied every year thereafter? By patting themselves on the back about the benefits of the silver-bullet early childhood education and ramping up the ‘we need money for this’ steamroller, they completely avoid the still really big problem of ineffective k-12 public school education for people who really depend on it.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that what made an increase in early childhood education among impoverished families improve entering kindergartener’s performance is merely having a safe environment, adults who talk to them, and enough to eat for half the day.

      I’m a believer in the value of play for the youngest set, and I was very happy with my daughter’s farm preschool, which walks the talk of a play-based curriculum. But we also have to recognize that there is a hierarchy of needs. Creativity is way at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. If children don’t feel safe and don’t get enough to eat, those problems should be addressed first before we talk about how much better playing is than coloring in worksheets.

  10. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Great work – keep it up please, even if we all actually know full well why those who get handed the contracts get handed the contracts.

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