Part 1—Every pundit a king: Huey Long had a famous vision: “Every man a king!”
A version of this vision obtains inside the modern press corps. When it comes to American public schools, every pundit’s an expert!
The latest savant to embody this theme is CNN’s know-nothing know-it-all, the expert Fareed Zakaria. On each of the past two weekends, the famous channel has aired an hour-long special, “Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education.” In this program, Zakaria—who doesn’t know squat about public schools—serves the highly standardized stew which comprises the modern “educational special.”
Everyone knows what such an hour must include to satisfy Hard Pundit Law. Zakaria takes you through the standard progression—a progression every American pundit can rattle off in his sleep.
First, he offers standardized words about the way we’re getting our clocks cleaned by other countries. By law, the pundit must then express stupefaction about this peculiar state of affairs. You’ve heard this rap a million times. Here’s how the new expert puts it:
ZAKARIA (11/12/11): Other countries are outsmarting us. On a recent international test, U.S. students ranked only 15th in the world in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math. Overall, the World Economic Forum ranks the quality of our education at 26th.With apologies to Brother Foxworthy: If you can’t recite those words in your sleep, you may not be an overpaid cable "news" pundit!
What's odd is that we've been outspending most developed countries by a long shot. In 2007, we spent over $10,000 per student versus the $7400 average for rich countries.
How can we spend so much money and have so little to show for it?
Having advanced the requisite puzzle, Zakaria takes us through the stations of the non-expert’s standardized cross. You could perform these familiar stops too. Everyone knows how to do this:
First, he jets off to South Korea and Finland. We’re invited to marvel at those countries’ educational brilliance. We’re invited to puzzle over the way these countries are kicking our keisters in their public schools.
After that, he sits with Bill Gates, “the man who's spending billions of dollars to answer those questions.” Gates offers his familiar brand of mumble-mouthed non-expertise.
Then, it’s time for a standardized talk with Michelle Rhee, one of the biggest frauds in the entire American discourse. Rhee tells us that teachers have to be fired. Zakaraia doesn’t mention the various scams, hoaxes, boondoggles and cons which have followed his guest all around.
At this point, it’s time for a change! As always, Diane Ravitch is called; she too recites her standard crap. Videotape of Gates’ pronouncements are marbled through this segment.
A college sophomore could have scripted this program after two hours of research! But at this point, Zakaria gets creative. He sits his ass down with Sir Ken Robinson, “a professor emeritus at the University of Warrick and the author of several books on creativity.” Before too long, our know-it-all know-nothing non-expert expert is excitedly telling us this:
ZAKARIA: Meet Sal Kahn. He's the accidental creator of Khan Academy. A not-for-profit Web site that's turning heads.It's great to see Gates is a fan! At any rate, this story adheres to standard requirements. If possible, the inventor of the new educational system should be an “accidental” creator. He should have stumbled into his revolutionary techniques in a humble, unassuming, heartwarming way, just as you might have done it.
KHAN (videotape): We want to figure out what BDC is.
ZAKARIA: Seven years ago he was working at an investment firm when he began tutoring his little cousin in math. When scheduling time got difficult a friend of Khan's made a suggestion.
KHAN: Yoo said, “Well, why don't you just put your—put your lectures on YouTube?” And I said, “No, YouTube's for dogs on skateboards, it's not for serious mathematics.”
ZAKARIA: Five years later Khan has produced almost 3,000 videos that have been viewed over 80 million times. Bill Gates is a big fan and donated seed money. The videos cover every level of math.
At any rate, Zakaria is soon unveiling the new nirvana. “The key to overcoming” our educational problems “is to let students learn at their own pace,” the know-nothing expert is soon announcing. Then this:
“Last fall, Los Altos, California, agreed to use Khan Academy in five classrooms,” Zakaria says as he continues. Soon, our know-it-all pundit has jetted off to this place, where he explores this exciting new world with a humble but creative public school teacher. The hint of an educational miracle is plainly in the air:
ZAKARIA: Kami Thordarson allowed her students to experiment with the program to see what it could offer.Wow! Little girls are racing ahead and giving the calculus a try! Sal Khan’s exciting new system is scoring big points in Los Altos!
THORDARSON: We saw kids exploring areas that we didn't know they could. I mean, it was—it was surprising to them and to us that the levels that they were reaching and it was fascinating just to watch them be free, to have that freedom to explore on their own.
ZAKARIA: One crucial discovery Thordarson made was that it made a lot of sense for students to watch the videos at home.
ZAKARIA: It is the reverse of the current system where students spend valuable class time simply getting the basic information from the teacher, copying notes.
KHAN: Now they're able to do the problems, which are really the most important part of the learning process, they're able to do the problems with other people around them. With the teacher around them. With their peers around them. They can actually tutor each other.
ZAKARIA: When her students get stuck, Thordarson tells them to write their name on the board. Another student soon comes to the rescue.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Add this to it.
ZAKARIA: The classroom buzzes with little tutors who are learning themselves through the act of teaching. And if a particularly gifted student gets bored, she can race ahead and try calculus if she wants.
Zakaria forgets to tell us that Los Altos is one of the nation’s richest communities, a high-end part of Silicon Valley. According to Forbes, our clueless new expert was getting his silk stockings knocked off in America’s 15th most expensive ZIP code, a place where the average home price is more than $3 million.
The late Steve Jobs lived in Los Altos. According to Wikipedia, so do an array of other high-IQ luminaries and CEOs.
Earth to Huey Long: A lot of educational systems would likely work well in Los Altos! This doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with Kahn’s accidental educational system. But it didn’t seem to enter our non-expert’s head that what works in Los Altos may have to stay in Los Altos—that it may not be a solution in other ZIP codes which aren’t real far way.
By now, we’re almost done with our hour-long show. We’re pretty sure you know what comes next—a recitation of the latest standardized expert solutions! If you’re asked to compose such an hour, be sure to mention the folk at McKinsey. Try to work Malcolm Gladwell in—and you know where your garbage must end:
ZAKARIA: The global consulting firm McKenzie estimates that if the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better performing nations like Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher. This represents a 9 to 16 percent jump in GDP.America needs to improve its ratty-assed teachers! Michelle Rhee was right all along!
So how do we get there?
Some elements of the solution seem obvious. The writer Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at anything. It's really just another way of making Thomas Edison's famous point that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
Now if our kids spend two years less in school than in many other countries, they will find themselves behind in many areas. We don't have to go to the lengths that South Korea has gone to lengthen the school day and the school year, but we can't do the least work and hope for the best results.
Whether you look at South Korea or Finland, getting great teachers is obviously at the heart of good education.
We had great teachers until the mid-1970s. The most talented, hard-working and ambitious women in America could only go into a few professions. And teaching was top among them. The good news is that women can now succeed in any profession. The bad news is the quality of America's teachers has declined.
Zakaria doesn’t mention an awkard fact—American test scores are much higher today than they were in that golden era when we had those spectacular teachers. Trust us: This Potemkin expert doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know squat or squadoodle. But when it comes to the public schools, everyone knows how to pose as an expert. Every pundit a king!
People should loathe this kind of work—this fraudulent posing about public schools. Two weeks back, the nation’s latest test scores were released. If we want to understand the real state of American schools, we might start by reviewing those data.
But uh-oh! Over at the New York Times, Sam Dillon reported these latest test scores. American children do lack basic skills. But so do big “journalistic” players like Zakaria and Dillon.
American children are nine years old. What are the experts’ excuses?
Tomorrow: Sam Dillon’s basic skills