Margaret Spellings, propagandist!


The Washington Post rides again: Margaret Spellings was education secretary under President George W. Bush.

She’s also a propagandist. The Washington Post doesn’t care.

Last Friday, the Post published this hapless column by Spellings. Because the column is riddled with errors, it shouldn’t have gone into print.

That said, Spellings’ column followed a set of scripts the mainstream press has long found quite congenial. This has especially been true at the Post, which has a financial conflict of interest with respect to certain types of education “reform.”

Does Spellings know she’s a propagandist? We have no idea. For today, we thought we’d show you two types of script-friendly errors which drove her unfortunate column.

As Spellings started, so did the gloom and the doom. In this passage, she seems to make obvious errors. Headline included:
SPELLINGS (12/27/13): For better scores, tighten standards

This month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released its review of global educational achievement. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is one of the most comprehensive global school surveys, assessing half a million 15- and 16-year-olds every three years. This year's results contain a profoundly important insight into what works in U.S. education reform.

At the start of 2000, U.S. students were average or below average. In 2012, their scores were almost exactly the same. Meanwhile, students in China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong made steady gains, particularly in math and science.
It’s true that U.S. scores have shown little change on the PISA over those twelve years. Is it true that “students in China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong made steady gains, particularly in math and science?”

Uh-oh! With the exception of special districts (like Hong Kong), the PISA doesn’t offer scores for “students in China.” Let’s adjust our question:

Is it true that “students in Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong made steady gains” on the PISA, “particularly in math and science?”

Uh-oh! In fact, Singapore didn’t take part in the PISA until 2009.

Spellings’ error-riddled presentation is now down to three jurisdictions. Let's adjust our question again:

Is it true that “students in South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong made steady gains, particularly in math and science,” between 2000 and 2012?

Below, you see the relevant math scores. All three jurisdictions were high scorers in both 2000 and 2012. That said, Japan dropped 21 points in math during that period. No significant gains are apparent:
Average scores, math, 2000 PISA
Hong Kong: 560
Japan: 557
Korea: 547
OECD average: 492

Average scores, math, 2012 PISA
Hong Kong: 561
Japan: 536
Korea: 554
OECD average: 494
Do you see the “steady gains” to which Spellings refers?

In science, a similar pattern obtains. All three jurisdictions have been high scorers ever since the inaugural PISA. But we see no signs of the steady gains Spellings seems to have conjured:
Average scores, science, 2000 PISA
Hong Kong: 541
Japan: 550
Korea: 552
OECD average: 493

Average scores, science, 2012 PISA
Hong Kong: 555
Japan: 547
Korea: 538
OECD average: 501
When one repeats a societal script, one feels free to embellish a bit. Spellings seems to have done just that with respect to this point.

Spellings’ second error strikes us as much more significant and as baldly dishonest. The Washington Post should never have put this passage in print:
SPELLINGS: The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), another major evaluation of student achievement, shows similar significant gains among U.S. students in 2008 and 2009 compared with the previous decade. But as with PISA, the growth in NAEP scores has slowed dramatically since 2009. Fourth-grade math scores, for instance, climbed 14 points between 2000 and 2009 but only two points over the next four years.


[T]he substantial gains through 2009 coincided with states widely adopting rigorous accountability policies. Throughout the mid- to late-1990s and early 2000s, the nation embraced accountability. By 2000, more than half the country had adopted some form of consequential accountability policies, and these efforts were extended and expanded nationally through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), President George W. Bush’s landmark education legislation, passed in 2001.
In this passage, Spellings blows the horn for No Child Left Behind. A bit later, she attributes the drop in the growth of NAEP scores after 2009 to the work of slacker Obama. (“Sadly, federal policymakers have loosened standards since 2009.”)

There is no doubt that score gains have slowed on the NAEP. Spellings says this slowdown started after 2009. She blames Obama.

These self-serving claims are patently bogus. They never should have been published.

Assuming minimal competency, Spellings seems to be lying. “The growth in NAEP scores has slowed dramatically since 2009,” she says. Then, she gives her prime example:

“Fourth-grade math scores, for instance, climbed 14 points between 2000 and 2009 but only two points over the next four years.”

Assuming minimal competency, Spellings seems to be lying. Below, you see the actual record of fourth-grade scores on the NAEP. Question:

At what point does the growth in NAEP scores slow dramatically?
Average scores, Grade 4 math
NAEP, all students, public schools

2013: 241.18
2011: 240.11
2009: 239.09
2007: 239.06
2005: 237.10
2003: 233.95
2000: 224.21
It’s absurd to say that the growth in those scores “has slowed dramatically since 2009.” If we take these scores at face value, the growth stops cold after 2007, with George Bush still in the White House.

Please note—for various reasons, it’s foolish to over-interpret these scores. But Spellings chose Grade 4 math as her specific example.

Assuming minimal competency, she was lying in her assessment about the growth in scores. The rapid growth in those scores stopped at some point on her watch, not after Obama took over.

A similar pattern obtains in the other three areas tested. Here are the data:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
NAEP, all students, public schools

2013: 220.67
2011: 220.03
2009: 219.60
2007: 219.66
2005: 217.30
2003: 216.46
2000: 211.31

Average scores, Grade 8 math
NAEP, all students, public schools

2013: 283.62
2011: 282.73
2009: 281.67
2007: 280.17
2005: 277.52
2003: 276.12
2000: 271.83

Average scores, Grade 8 reading
NAEP, all students, public schools

2013: 266.02
2011: 263.59
2009: 262.29
2007: 261.01
2005: 260.40
2003: 261.33
2002: 262.75
1998: 260.66
In all three areas, progress slows or stops during the Bush/Spellings years, not under slacker Obama.

Please note: Growth is better if you disaggregate these scores by race and by income. But no matter how you slice it, a slowdown occurs during the Bush years.

Assuming even minimal competence, Spellings would of course know this. If the Washington Post fact-checked familiar scriptural claims, they would have seen this too.

One last note about Spellings’ basic competence:

In the passage we have cited, she says fourth-grade math scores rose fourteen points between 2000 and 2009. But if you look at the data we have posted, you see that they actually rose 14.88 points. That rounds off to fifteen!

Why did Spellings say fourteen points? We’ll take a guess—she may have been using the NAEP scores for public and private schools combined.

That would have been very dumb, of course; No Child Left Behind didn’t apply to private schools. But her 14-point claim is correct if we talk about public and private combined. We’ll guess that may be what she did.

Back to the larger point:

Whether Spellings knew it or not, her column is pure propaganda. An honest and competent newspaper wouldn’t have put it in print.

The Post was happy to publish her piece. The piece supports a familiar script, a script the Post has long adored.

So what if it’s based on bogus claims? We live in a world where such concerns don’t stop the promulgation of script from the corporate elite—or even from those who promulgate script from “the left.”

Tomorrow: Equal but opposite bullroar

For all NAEP data: For all NAEP data, just click here. From there, you're on your own.


  1. Spellings uses the typical politician tactic of taking credit for anything good that happened on her watch, except that she doesn't even get the numbers right. I'm not sure that the focus on change is appropriate. Suppose NCLB worked and was responsible for the gains from 2000 to 2007. One would expect the period of gains to be temporary. At some point, the scores would stabilize at a higher level, because of the continuation of NCLB. If that's so, maybe Obama deserves credit for maintaining the NCLB gains and adding somewhat to them.

    Let me emphasize that the above paragraph is theoretical. IMHO nobody really knows what amount of credit or blame either President deserves for these scores.

  2. I have been listening to the book Factory Girls (Leslie Chang), about migrant workers in the factories of China. These girls typically come from rural towns. They leave middle school at age 15-16 and go illegally to the city where they use false ID to get jobs as assembly line workers. They have to do this because the legal working age is 18 and they have no residence permits for the city. They are poorly educated but learn job skills to make themselves more employable and to move into better paying jobs. If they do not advance, they return to their small towns and marry. I doubt these girls are reflected in any of the education test statistics for the PISA. They consider themselves too poorly educated to qualify for a university education, or their families have no money to send them to further schooling. Drop out rates affect scores for the US, but this migration phenomenon is happening on a larger scale than our own drop outs and there does not appear to be an effort on anyone's part to keep these girls in school. China is benefitting too much economically from the cheap labor they are providing in the factories which supply goods to American and other companies.

  3. I have read that according to Chinese law these girls still reside in the rural provinces from which they originally came and are thus not eligible to attend schools in cities like Shanghai, which score so highly on the PISA exams. In effect, they are legally cut off from getting an education.

  4. OMB (BOB, hypocritist!) Part 1

    There must be a logical explanation why BOBfans are avoiding commenting on this fine post.

    Perhaps they are following one of BOB's often state points: by their silence they are showing their assent. We don't know.

    Perhaps they were busy watching Texas Tech wallop Arizona State
    and wondering how this could happen to a team clearly better than Auburn. ( ) We just don't know.

    Or could it be that they have figured out that this post, while demonstrating how bad Margaret Spellings is, also verfies the basic
    point we have been offering in our mysteriously motivated but relentless commentaries on the blogger sent to save us from or shame us as we fall into a state of intellectual paralysis.

    Spellings is indeed a propagandist BOB. But she is also you.

    Bob previewed this post by calling Spellings out for "clownishly cherry-picking her data." He is right. In our view he didn't go nearly far enough in calling her out on this score. We'll save that for Part 2 below. Cherry picking is, unfortunately, a practice demonstrated at this fine blog as well. BOB did it when he tried, unsuccessfully, to prove Amanda Ripley was conning readers by selecting Poland as an example of an educational system surpassing the U.S. Just like Spellings, he made factual errors. And he cherry picked the years he used to measure score gains in a effort to demonstrate U.S. PISA gains in recent years exceeded those of Poland. This is what Spellings did, selecting years to make it appear great progress was being made under Bush then lost by Obama.

    We are amused at BOB for noting almost casually that Spellings picked only one test subject (math) and a single grade level (4th) to try and make her case specious claims about NAEP test score gains during the Bush years compared to Obama. BOB could have pointed out she deliberately cherry picked here as well, because she obviously selected the subject and grade level at which the greatest gains during the "Bush era" could be claimed. Did BOB not savage her on this point because he himself did the same thing just last week to savage Valarie Strauss, using only 8th grade math NAEP scores? We just don't know.

    BOB certainly felt compelled to laboriously present the results for both tests and both grades in this post when it reinforced his point. He left them out earlier when such data didn't enhance his script.

    But the parallels which are present pale compared to what BOB left out.


  5. OMB (BOB, hypocritist!) Part 2

    We are most curious at what BOB seems to have missed in this seemingly through dissection of the error plaugued piece by Margaret Spellings. Assuming minimal competence on his part, we thought surely someone debunking propaganda would have seen this missing item as important. (As important, for example, as the lengthy chiding of Spellings's one point error in calculating fouth grade score gains).

    Spellings made a far more ludicrous claim regarding PISA than the one about the progress of the nations BOB lovingly calls "the Asian Tigers." It equals or exceeds, in our view, the claim she tried to make about NAEP progress under Bush compared to Obama. We know the lengths BOB went to to debunk that claim. Correctly, we might add, in our view.

    She writes about U.S. PISA scores: "had our students continued to improve in 2012 as they did in 2009, the picture of national education achievement would be much different.

    In 2009, U.S. PISA scores improved notably in math and science, increasing by 13 points in each area. But they then fell back in 2012. Had U.S. students’ math scores made another 13-point gain in 2012, our students would now be well above the PISA average....the headlines would be about improvement, not stagnation."

    The US test scores in 2009 in both math and science on PISA were indeed 13 points higher than the previous test in 2006. Unfortunately that big gain was made possible in part because the math scores fell by 19 points from 2000 to 2006 and by 10 points in science during the same period. In fact, the year before Bush took office, U.S. PISA scores in both math and science were already above the OCED average. They fell below that average during both tests administered while he was President.

    Why didn't BOB point that out? Could it be because someone close to him had already employed the tactic of starting to measure score gains on PISA beginning with the test year immediately after the lowest recent scores on record? We don't know, and neither does our Polish Uncle.

    And speaking of our Polish Uncle, have you seen the recent PISA scores from his kiddos, our little kuzzes from Krakow? It's a Polish miracle, we're telling you! Of course, you won't be seeing them here.


    1. What the heck we said to ourselves, why not let BOBfans see them here:

      PISA Math 2012

      Poland 518 (Up 23 from 2009)
      USofA 481 (Slacking Off 9 Under HopeyChangey)

      PISA Science

      Poland 526 (Plus 18 in three years)
      USofA 497 (Minus 5 since the Transformation)

      PISA Reading

      Poland 518 (Gain of 18 since 2009)
      USofA 498 (Down only 2 in our strongest subject)

      Extra Credit: Practical math test question on PISA. If 75000
      cars are blocked from gaining access to a bridge, is traffic on the bridge

      a) Increased
      b) Decreased
      c) We just don't know
      d) Both True and False


    2. If 75000 cars are blocked from access, there is no change in the traffic on the bridge. Why is that not one of your multiple choice options?

    3. Anon. @ 10:15.

      The answer is because my qiuz is PISA not NAEP. I do not want to hear the answer you have been taught to memorize rom Teacher BOB in "Lesson 3: Imaginary Traffic Studies from New Jersey." Using what you learned in that lesson you would pick the No Change Answer automatically. With critical skills picked up from a Polish of Finnish Educator or a Teacher of Tigers, you would deduce that answer is contained within answer d).

  6. KZ - hilarious.

    choice (f) should be

    librulz lied about Zimmerman,

  7. Having taught in an "at risk" school during those NCLB years, it appears to me very likely that the reason the NAEP scores began to flatten out at the end of the decade is the fact that schools had essentially maxed out on teaching to whatever high stakes test their students had to take. If there is a sense of urgency in the minds of both schools and students about the results of such tests, teaching to the test will most likely improve the skills of the average and below-average students. This level of improvement could easily be reflected in NAEP scores as well as state-mandated tests. Currently, Texas is engaged in the introduction of supposedly more rigorous state tests. One good reason to make the tests more demanding is the belief that the schools had more or less mastered teaching to the old test.

  8. "Teaching to the test" is the real scandal. Kids are not motivated to take tests which there is such a hoo-hah about, but rather to enrich their lives with learning. Cutting them off from doing that is the real point of the tests...something I am sure The Shrub knew well.