by Max Brantley
Those who don't see the Democrat-Gazette might have missed a fine Gene Lyons column today on Michelle Rhee, the self-promoting education reformer who's lost a bit of her sparkle recently because of reports on her exaggeration of her own performance as a teacher and a USA Today investigative story that raises questions about her claims of advancement in Washington, D.C. schools when she was chancellor.
Happily, you can read Gene for free at Salon each week. Particularly important is his debunking of the widely accepted myth that schools are deteriorating and students are falling farther behind, a myth propagated by the Billionaire Boys Club and people like Bill Gates.
Consider Gates' recent speech to the National Governor's Conference. "Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled," the great man claimed, "while our student achievement has remained virtually flat ... To build a dynamic 21st-century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve."
Alas, this is well-meaning demagoguery. Sure, costs are up. But so is overall student performance. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the "gold standard" of educational testing — American kids have actually done better in reading and math since about 1980. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute summarizes the data:
"American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading."