WHY WE FAIL: How to write a pseudo-column!

WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

Part 2—Gail Collins’ alleged central point: After killing a great deal of time, Gail Collins “finally” reached her column's “central point.”

Or at least she said she did (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/1/12). For ourselves, we weren’t sure what “point” this pseudo-liberal pseudo-journalist was supposed to be making.

In the passage which follows, Collins refers to a pair of questions on a New York State standardized test—a pair of questions many people have found a bit confusing. By now, she had managed to kill 300 words by joking about the contents of these questions:
COLLINS (4/28/12): The state education commissioner, John King, announced that the questions would not count in the official test scores. There was no comment from the test author. 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.

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?

Me neither.

It’s not just the tests. No Child Left Behind has created a system of public-funded charter schools, a growing number of which are run by for-profit companies.
In this passage, Collins unveiled her alleged central point. “We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson,” she wrote. “This is the part of education reform nobody told you about” in 2001, she further wrote, referring to the “monster profits” being scarfed up by people like Pearson.

It isn’t just the tests, she explained, noting that some charter schools “are run by for-profit companies.” And before she was done, she had extended her polymorphous scare story. We were struck by this passage:
COLLINS: An American child could go to a public school run by Pearson, studying from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests. The only public participant in the show would be the taxpayer.
Might we state the blindingly obvious? In fact, other “public participants in the show” would be the various public officials who decided to buy their school district's textbooks and standardized tests from Pearson. And this sort of thing has been going on for a very long time, although you might get the impression from Collins’ piece that George Bush somehow invented this world when he dreamed up No Child Left Behind.

Yes, Virginia—public schools do buy their textbooks from various textbook companies! And they purchase their standardized tests from testing companies! And this has been true for a very long time. When we began teaching in the Baltimore schools in the 1969-70 school year, our textbooks were purchased from some of the same well-known textbook companies which are now owned by Pearson. Meanwhile, for Baltimore’s annual testing, we administered the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a well-known “norm-referenced” test battery which was published by Houghton Mifflin.

But then, public schools have always purchased tests and testing services from major for-profit test publishers. In a similar way, cities purchase their mass transit buses from for-profit bus manufacturers. And yes, Virginia—profits have always been part of this package! This helps explain why those buses get made and why those tests get published.

CTB/McGraw Hill has long been a leading player in the testing industry. On its current web site, a bit of this history is recorded. We’ll highlight some key words and phrases:
CTB/MCGRAW-HILL: Our Heritage/1926

In 1926, Ethel Clark founded the Research Service Company (now known as CTB). At the time, Ethel’s husband, Dr. Willis Clark, was the Assistant Director of Research for the public schools of Los Angeles, CA. He was involved in the school’s Los Angeles Diagnostic Tests in the Fundamentals of Arithmetic. The test was so impressive, many school districts were interested in purchasing it.

Ethel Clark saw a business opportunity and bought the publishing rights to the LA tests. She mailed 25 one-cent postcards to 25 school districts announcing the availability of the tests used in Los Angeles. One year later, CTB heard from their first customer, the Kansas City, Missouri school district, ordering 20,000 copies of the test.
Kansas City “purchased” 20,000 copies of this test, becoming CTB’s first “customer.” And just for the record:

From that day to this, school districts have always purchased tests and testing services from private, for-profit entities. In theory, a fair amount of expertise is involved in creating such tests; it wouldn’t make sense for each school district to undertake this task, any more than each town and city should build its own municipal buses. We mention this because a reader might get the impression from Collins’ wandering column that there’s something unusual or new about the idea that a modern-day student “could go to a public school run by Pearson, studying from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests.”

There’s nothing especially strange about that, although this practice, like all practices, could of course be abused. That said:

Is there actually something wrong with the system Collins’ describes? There certainly could be! Let’s count a few of the ways:

Pearson could be reaping unjustified levels of profit for its products and services. Pearson could be producing lousy tests filled with lousy test questions. And of course, the whole culture of testing could be abused in various ways; in recent years, there has been considerable evidence of such abuses. Or you may think that annual testing is a waste of time even when it’s done right.

Which of those claims is Collins making? Reading her piece, we have no real idea—and we get no sense that she has the first freaking idea about any of these topics. Nor do we get the sense that she has examined these questions in any serious way. Example:

Why does Pearson charge the state of Texas almost $100 million per year for testing services while it charges New York State just $6.4 million? Several of Collins’ readers wondered about that in their comments. But not Collins! She breezed right past that obvious question, failing to notice the oddity in the data she herself had recorded.

Does Collins know anything about these topics? Does she even care? Let’s repeat one of the dumbest things she says in this very dumb column:
COLLINS: 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?

Me neither.
Annual testing was already widespread in 2001, as Collins understood (click here). And profit was already part of this system. But No Child Left Behind actually required such annual testing.

No one told Collins that this might increase profits. And so, she didn’t know!

In fact, major news orgs did discuss these topics in real time. For the web site to Frontline’s March 2002 “Testing Our Schools” program, just click here. For Frontline’s report on “The Testing Industry’s Big Four” (this includes Pearson), just click this. But did someone really have to tell Collins that more testing might mean more profits?

If you believe this pseudo-journalist, the answer would be seem to be yes.

Is something wrong with Pearson’s work? Is something wrong with its level of profit? Collins shows no sign of knowing—and she shows no sign of having tried to find out. To our ear, she shows no sign of knowing the first freaking thing about any of the many topics she glosses in this insulting column—familiar topics she rattles off in best pseudo-liberal fashion.

“The pushback against privatization isn’t easy,” Collins pleasingly writes near the end of her piece. But what form should that “pushback” take? Alas! This mincing, time-killing pseudo-journalist simply forgot to say!

What’s wrong with the emerging “liberal” world? Why can’t we create a winning politics?

To our ear, Collins was playing her readers for fools, faking her way through another pseudo-column. But alas! As we will see by the end of the week, her grateful, profoundly clueless readers just flat-out couldn’t tell.

Tomorrow: Rushing right past a good question

8 comments:

  1. It's too bad that Collins doesn't know what she's talking about, because textbook publishing really is scandalous in a couple of ways. When I was in elementary school, books lasted 10 - 15 years or more. Today, they're replaced much more often. If texts are replaced five times as often, the cost obviously becomes five times as great. This is an example of how greater school spending has inflated book company profits without necessarily make education work better.

    Another scandal is that textbooks aren't very good. A retired-professor friend, who has been an advisor to many texts, gave a talk pointing out some problems. One is that the books are filled with errors. He's had the frustration of pointing out an error during his review, but finding that the final version still had the error.

    Sadly, quality isn't the most important consideration in selling a textbook. And, bad purchasing decisions are encouraged by a asystem whereby textbook spending is diffused among local, state and federal levels.

    These problems can't be blamed on George Bush or the Republicans. In fact, if one insists on taking a partison POV, the people making education decisions are mostly liberals. However, I don't think we'll ever see a Gail Collins aritcle blaming the Democrats for these real problems with education.

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    1. "In fact, if one insists on taking a partison POV, the people making education decisions are mostly liberals."

      Yet another "fact" pulled out of David's nether regions.

      Hey Dave, my baseball team got rained out the other day. I guess that's because most clouds are liberals.

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    2. "The people making education decisions are mostly liberals"? Where does that come from? It certainly downplays, to dramatic effect, the massive influence on the textbook market of the highly partisan, expert-defying Texas school board's standards -- recently seen on the Colbert Report.

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    3. It's true that I have no specific statistical breakdown. Nevertheless, I've met and dealt with lots of people. I've read articles they've written. I've seen political stands they've taken. I feel confident in asserting that liberals constitute a majority of public school teachers, school administrators, University Education department faculty and staff, and federal, state and local educational administrators.

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    4. Dave translated: Just because I pulled it out of my butt doesn't mean I don't believe it's just gotta be true!

      Moynihan gets quoted too often around here, but David, you certainly demonstrate the point he was making on a daily basis.

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  2. My wife is a retired K-8 Library Media Specialist.
    Each year she was given a budget to buy media.

    In 2006 and 2007, the Library Media budgets for her school district was 0.
    None of the libraries in her school district got any money for two years because textbooks were too expensive, and the Arizona Legislature and Administration decided that school funding was less important than tax cuts.
    As part of that policy, the library technicians were fired, and many of the Library Media Specialists were required to shuttle between two schools.
    Two thirds of the Arizona Legislature are Republicans, and seven out of ten in the Arizona Administration are Republicans.
    Arizona is 50th in school funding.

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  3. Bob writes:

    We mention this because a reader might get the impression from Collins’ wandering column that there’s something unusual or new about the idea that a modern-day student “could go to a public school run by Pearson, studying from books produced by Pearson, while his or her progress is evaluated by Pearson standardized tests.” [...] There’s nothing especially strange about that, although this practice, like all practices, could of course be abused.

    There's nothing strange, unusual, or new about a public school being run by a corporation? Insofar as a public school is "public," uh, it's pretty f'ing strange, unusual, and new.

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    1. Most public schools I know of are accountable to a duly elected board of education. Who is Pearson accountable to? Stockholders?

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