Part 4—Unable to see through Gail: Is Pearson overcharging Texas for its testing services?
Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea—in part, because we read Gail Collins. Last Saturday, she built her column around the (apparent) claim that Pearson’s “monster profits” represent a corporate rip-off.
But she showed no sign of knowing if that is true—or of having tried to find out! This passage had the analysts hanging their heads in despair:
COLLINS (4/29/12): That would be Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education business, which has a $32 million five-year contract to produce New York standardized tests.No one told Collins that increased testing would produce increased profits for testing concerns! Nor did Collins notice the oddness of the data she offered.
Now—finally—we have tumbled into my central point. We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson, for whom $32 million is actually pretty small potatoes. Pearson has a five-year testing contract with Texas that’s costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars.
This is the part of education reform nobody told you about. You heard about accountability, and choice, and innovation. But when No Child Left Behind was passed 11 years ago, do you recall anybody mentioning that it would provide monster profits for the private business sector?
If Pearson is charging the state of New York $32 million, why is it charging the state of Texas “nearly half-a-billion dollars” for the same services over the same time period?
A few phone calls could have answered this obvious question—and yes, a few commenters asked. But that would constitute an offense against Collins’ slacker work ethic.
Indeed, Collins showed no sign of knowing about any of the many topics she pretended to discuss. She showed no sign of having tried to learn about these topics. She started her piece in her standard way—burning up 40 percent of her space with silly jokes designed to build interest among her readers. (She says her readers have to be tricked into reading about serious topics.)
In the 60 percent of the space that remained, she composed a tribute to know-nothing, slacker script-pimping.
We thought her column was a joke. In comments, grateful readers told her how much they loved it! If you want to know why liberals fail, you might want to ask yourself why those readers did that.
Our answer goes something like this:
Collins’ column was lazy and uninformed—but it was tribally pleasing. She tickled her readers’ preconceptions—and few of her readers were able to see how worthless and uninformed her pseudo-assertions were. Indeed, the cluelessness was quite widespread as Collins’ readers sounded off. Near the end of the comment thread, these deathless complaints were heard:
COMMENTER: I have many issues with standardizing testing as a measure of knowledge in-and-of-itself, but for-profit organizations such as Pearson are the point today. Such organizations have no business being in the public school business.There is no question that “privatization” of government functions can be a matter of real concern. But private companies have always produced our textbooks and our standardized tests. It’s absurd to suggest that this is new, or that each school system is equipped to perform these functions.
COMMENTER: Two important things that should not be for profit are education and medicine.
COMMENTER: The bottom line is that Education (like Health) has no business being a business. These trends are more than disturbing, they're horrifying.
Guess what, people? They aren’t!
Whatever! Readers got to sound off good about a favorite topic. As a general matter, the comments were scattershot and poorly informed, like Collins’ column itself.
If you want to build a winning progressive politics, those comments should cause you concern:
Some commenters rushed to say that we should start doing things the way Finland does. They’ve heard the script a thousand times and were eager to repeat it.
Some decried the woeful decline of our public schools. But uh-oh! Out of 571 comments, not one commenter noted the fact that reading and math scores have been steadily rising on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our most reliable testing program.
Not one! Our “journalists” don’t discuss this fact—and Collins’ commenters showed no sign of having heard it.
Meanwhile, a depressing number of commenters tied this privatization scheme to the life needs of Neil Bush. Warning! Bogus facts follow:
COMMENTER: NCLB was passed to the benefit of Neil Bush, GWBush's brother, who had a major stake in a standardized testing company.Was “No Child” part of a fiendish scheme to enrich the younger Bush? If so, the scheme would seem to have failed. Bush founded his company, Ignite! Learning, in 1999. (It isn’t a testing concern.) In October 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that Ignite “has placed its products in 40 U.S. school districts.”
COMMENTER: Neil Bush (W's baby brother), has an interest in one of the testing companies. There is nothing else one needs to know about "No Child Left Behind."
COMMENTER: Truth to tell, though, if you google “Neil Bush” and “education,” things about No Child Left Behind become amazingly translucent—almost transparent.
COMMENTER: Thank you Gail for putting this front and center. Someone please check out the following: I believe that when Bush pushed the No Child Left Behind legislation, his brother Neil (of the Savings and Loan scandal) was head of a corporation that published school material and stood to profit greatly from the program.
That may sound like quite a score—but the Census Bureau reports that “the U.S. has more than 14,000 public school districts.” But nothing will stop our emerging tribe from sniffing out these concerns.
Needless to say, Collins is vastly more responsible for this general foolishness than her various readers. It’s Collins who poses as a journalist; it’s Collins who is richly rewarded on this fraudulent basis. And in fairness, a few of her readers did seem to see that her column was perhaps a bit of a scam. One such reader, from the wilds of North Idaho, offered these remarks:
COMMENTER: When I read, "This is the part of education reform nobody told you about...Do you recall anybody mentioning that it would provide monster profits for the private business sector," I want to ask this commentator, and the New York Times, and media in general: WHY? Why didn't you talk about it? Why were you silent when these details were obvious even to me, an ordinary citizen in the back water of North Idaho?There’s a great deal to be said for that question, especially given Collins’ track record as a see-no-evil cheerleader for the testing claims of a certain billionaire mayor. But even in that feisty comment, the most basic questions aren’t addressed:
Is something wrong with the (alleged) increase in profits for testing companies? Was it a bad idea to require annual testing? If we accept the practice of annual testing, is Pearson producing lousy tests? Collins showed no sign of being able to speak to these questions, or to the many others she pretended to discuss. And uh-oh! Her readers showed little skill at spotting this flaw, which rises to the level of scam in Collins’ unfolding work.
Instead, readers praised Collins for her piece—for a piece which let them screech about favorite tribal verities. In our view, the comments were depressingly uninformed—and very few commenters showed any sign of seeing through Gail Collins.
Therein lies a concern.
For decades, we liberals enjoyed the fruits of an historical accident. Pseudo-conservatives had created a sprawling talk-radio empire. Each day, we could hear conservative listeners as they called these shows, displaying their tribal dumbness.
They even called themselves ditto-heads! For decades, we laughed at their behavior. But uh-oh! As the liberal world has emerged from the woods, we have created our own cable channel—and we have created our own comment threads.
Through these media, we get to see an unfortunate fact: As it turns out, we really aren’t a whole lot sharper than the ditto-heads were!
We liberals don’t like to hear this said; we’re committed to a more pleasing tale. But just read through the almost 600 comments to Collins’ know-nothing column.
Her piece was a tribute to slacker norms, her latest “journalistic” scam. But all across the world of the Times, we liberals couldn’t tell! We thanked her for her opening jokes—for saying we have to be tricked into reading about a serious topic. And we thanked her for tickling our favorite pseudo-liberal chords.
For decades, we’ve heard conservatives repeat every damn-fool thing Rush Limbaugh has said. Now, our tribe increasingly plays this game—and we praise our own faux leaders.
People! They’re on our side!
Increasingly, two warring tribes are now content to repeat their leaders’ silliest claims. But uh-oh! Their tribe still has that hidden weapon—the massive financial backing Paul Krugman described again in yesterday’s column.
As we watch Our Own Liberal Channel, we tend to repeat our own silly claims, much as their side has done all these years. But their side still has the wealth and the power, the backing Krugman describes.
Silly piddlers like Collins can’t overcome that—and we can’t see through piddlers like Collins. Go ahead! Read those comments!
The major fault lies with Collins, of course. Her readers aren't supposed to be journalists.
But liberals have to know how to spot a fraud. At long last, a medium exists which helps us see why we fail.