Maybe it's the 'stache...
John Stossel, ABC-TV: "Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids"
SO right off the bat you might be asking yourself just how balanced a report you're getting when it uses "Stupid" and "Cheat" in the title, but of course you don't ask because it's John Stossel. I know we repealed the Fairness Doctrine. When did we repeal fairness?
And I am not making this up, I've got it on tape. The show opened with successive clips of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the last featuring a clip of Ben Stein as a boring drone, the role he was born to play, followed by a Student on the Street interview with a young lady who said some of her teachers were boring. Oh, my god, it's worse than I even imagined!
I was certainly prepared for an hour of anecdotal or cherry-picked evidence. I was prepared to see vidclips of anyone who disagreed with Stossel's divine wisdom edited to make them look shrill or mendacious. I did expect there might actually be some reasonable doubt expressed reasonably, though I was prepared to be disappointed. But God help me, I'm not sure why it is I was unprepared for outright fabrication:
Here in Belgium the government spends less than American schools do per student..."
when that's easily checked using the figures from the very test program that Stossel is using (both in the sense of "to employ" and "to manipulate cheaply for one's own gain", though I'm not sure those don't mean the same thing to him), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests. "Expenditure on Educational Institutions", from the chart on page 67 of the 2004 report:
Belgium: % of GDP, Public Schools: 5.97
United States: % of GDP, Public Schools: 4.66
Maybe it's just that some of our adults have a little problem with advanced mathematics, too. But then, per the report, Belgian funding "follows the student" into the school of his choice, so perhaps the 6.36% of GDP spent on public and private schools combined is more apt.
There's some more curious business involving Belgium and the PISA testing, but let's start at the beginning. I nearly did a full Kreskin on the thing, putting the following prediction in a sealed envelope: the first thing Stossel's gonna do is focus on New York City and Washington DC public schools. Why? Because those massive urban districts are a great favorite of the anti-union crowd, which likes to extrapolate to the entire country by inference, since they can't do it by fact. Sure enough, after we got done (with no apparent recognition of the irony, by the way) with showing that our perception of public schools comes from comedies aimed at young adults, we find the Mustachioed Muckracker trying, and failing, to get his cameras into NYC schools. Then DC alows him to tape, but only in an exceptional class taught by the National Teacher of the Year. No fair. They finally manage to get DC to agree to giving students (Stossel emphasized the district "hand-picked" the students, thereby underscoring the fact that he doesn't understand the first thing about supervising children) video cameras to film inside their schools. The results were suitably shocking:
•We see a young man remove his shirt and do a little spastic dance as the teacher sits apathetically in the background.
•We visit a geography class where students are playing Monopoly™. A smirking, attempted-teenage-bearded wiseass of the sort my wife treasures but I'd put in the hospital within twenty minutes of the bell leans directly into the camera to say "We're going to ask Mr. Dryner what Monopoly™ has to do with World Geography." We get a longer shot of Wiseass with his sandals ostentatiously up on his desk, and other students behaving badly.
Aha! Just the sort of thing we all knew was going on in "real" classrooms that weren't being taught by National Teachers of the Year.
Except, no, not quite. Even Lyin' John is forced to acknowledge that this class was taking place after finals. Any of you go to public school by any chance? Did you sit in your seat quietly and study on the last day of school? Could any thing short of the imminent application of superior physical force have made you?
Now, don't get me wrong. This sort of stuff drives my wife crazy. There are teachers who spend the last several days of the school year showing videos. She makes her students work until the final day, and every year has to endure the "Mr. So-and-so let us play games" bit. In fairness to Mr. So-and-so, she's teaching Art, and that's a lot more like play, plus it's a Magnet program, and students must understand that they aren't getting out of her class; they're going on vacation and will return to their chosen field of study in a couple months. In fairness to all of them, it's hot, not all the building was air-conditioned until this year, and the students just want to be out. It's discipline hell.
So the last thing you'd want in your class is a freakin' video camera, and I have to wonder about the mental competence of whoever it was agreed to (or was tricked into) it. It's not actually clear that the teachers knew they were being taped, but it's clear the children did.
This, of course, is not the view we get of the Miracle Schools Stossel shows us. Well-behaved children, often in uniform, eager to learn, required to police the grounds and set up tables for lunch, all of them progressing at remarkable rates. No attempts here to go behind the scenes for a peek at what "really" goes on. No complaints that we're being given the official tour by a hands-on administrator. Nope, this is how it really works when you give parents a choice.
"Choice" was a big theme of Act I. Why can't parents choose what school they want their children to go to? Why do some parents go so far as to lie about their place of residence to get their children into "good" schools? Most of the countries that score higher than the US give parents choice.*
This is going to take us to Belgium shortly, but let's just note a couple things first, here. Stossel has already told us money isn't the answer. So why, then, are these schools of choice uniformly in wealthier districts? Parents aren't clamoring to get their children into schools with poorer equipment and fewer programs. Yes, there are a number of factors involved, but the inequalities in the American public education system are a national disgrace. Why isn't that a part of the show? And what exactly is the Libertarian theory that excuses it? We believe that Choice is a supreme good, but children don't choose to be poor.
But teevee producers can chose to fly to Belgium, and this segment was verrrrry curious:
"We gave parts of an international test to some high school students in Belgium, and in New Jersey."
Tonite on ABC it's the Belgian Waffles vs. Your New Jersey Barrens in a Texas Chain Saw Math Test! Whoa. I know it would violate standard Stossel practice, but is there some reason you don't cite the test? There's only one international test to speak of: PISA. And so is there some reason you give the test to two small groups of students, rather than use the results of the much larger sample of the real test? Yeah, probably.
This has a distinct Pepsi Challenge air about it already, but let's dig a bit deeper. We have no information as to who these Belgian students are; we do know that the Americans are a diverse group from a Jersey public school. That "parts of" thing is a little hinky, too. The PISA test comes in three parts: reading, science, and math literacy. But in a moment we'll reveal the average scores of our two competing teams, and it'll be a single number. So we didn't give two of the three parts; did we give selected portions of the math test?
Math is where American students in the tests for fifteen-year-olds score the poorest. Our ten-year-olds score above international averages, but the fifteen-year-olds trail the country mean by 3%. Which gives Stossel grounds for claiming "the longer kids spend in school the worse they get." But one of the factors that've been cited for our poor performance is that middle school, which these students have just completed, is in America something of a spin-your-wheels period. We tend to use those grades to reinforce what has been learned, to prepare for more advanced study ahead, and to separate students in terms of academic achievement. And it's the time when students expand into other areas of study and encounter their first elective courses. The countries which score highest tend to have a more conservative approach, spending more time on traditional subjects and having fewer areas of study available, and generally use testing at that level to determine a student's further academic opportunities.
So at the very least we gave a small sample of the test to two groups when we could have just looked up the results of the real test. I'm assuming here it was math. And the final score? Belgium in a walk 76-47. Way to go, Waffles! Especially impressive performance, seeing as how in the real test the USA scores were 91% of the Belgians'.
This may have been partly explained by the Jay Leno routine we did with the class (after showing a couple of real Jay clips, that's weeknights at 11:30, right here on this station; Jay befuddles one young couple by asking which state hosts the Kentucky Derby, and hilarity insues). One student couldn't name a major cause of the Civil War; another couldn't tell what the Bill of Rights was. A third opined that "we're not stupid. It must have something to do with teaching," but honey, and I mean this in a nice way, if you don't know enough to say "Slavery" when someone asks you about the Civil War I'm not sure it matters whether your teachers are even breathing or not.
NEXT: Unions support child molesters, Phonics work miracles, and John gets bad service in a Soviet restaurant.
* This is probably a matter of educational organization, but given Stossel's track record with the truth I intend to research this one, too.