A BASIC LACK OF SKILLS: Let’s pretend to discuss public schools!


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.

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?
With apologies to Brother Foxworthy: If you can’t recite those words in your sleep, you may not be an overpaid cable "news" pundit!

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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!

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.

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.
America needs to improve its ratty-assed teachers! Michelle Rhee was right all along!

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


  1. Stupefying, isn't it? But that's what makes a script a script...the readiness of every member of the pundit club to follow it without ever thinking a new thought or asking a new question.

    We owe Bob S a lot of thanks for his willingness to call out this crap every time someone else tries to push it on us.

  2. Good post Bob. You've identified the standard formula very well.

  3. To me, Bill Gates represents the Boomer generation perfectly. He was gifted all sorts of wealth and opportunity from his parents' generation . . . and top among the gifts from earlier generations was the public school system that was free to all.

    Now the capitalist cultists, neoliberals and free market fundamentalists (but I repeat myself) want to devour this public school system and turn it a profit. They've turned a great socialist institution (free education for all children) into their the next battleground for attack.

    They are coming for all our public goods. It doesn't matter how many sacrifices previous generations made. Neoliberals like Gates and their conservative partners in crime want to take everything that's good about America and turn in into a capitalist venture.

    I have more hatred toward neoliberals like Gates and Rhee and Obama than I do people like Gingrich that admit right out front that they want to dismantle our public education system. Both the Democrats and Republicans are working together to steal the commons . . . whether it's Social Security, Medicare, or our public school system that we have spent decades investing in and is being sold off to the capitalist masters of both parties.

  4. IIRC, Gates and Obama are products of the private school system (Lakeside and Punahou), which might explain some of the anti-public- school bias. Why can't everyone be just like they and their classmates were?

  5. Walter Wit Man, education reform of some sort is needed. Our public schools aren't working well for many students. Columbia University Teachers College reports that:

    By the end of fourth grade, African American, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, they have slipped three years behind, and by twelfth grade, four years behind.


    George Bush/Ted Kennedy's No Child Left Behind may or may not have been designed properly, but the problem it was attacking is very real.

  6. The "problem", David in Cal, is that even before these kids get to kindergarten (indeed, long *before* they get to kindergarten), there are already striking and easily measurable skill disparities between socio-economic groups. Indeed, the socio-economic status of the parents is the most reliable predictor of childhood achievement. And this situation is getting worse, not better: ours is society with very little social mobility, compared to other industrial democracies.

    But you won't find the likes of Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg arguing for income re-distribution. They'd much rather support the latest "reformer, and the more anti-union, the better.

  7. Anonymous -- IMHO the socio part of socio-economic is a lot more important than the economic part, as regards educational success. By "socio", I mean the culture. Asian and Jewish immigrant children have done very well in school at times when most of them were poor and when they were discriminated against. They came from cultures that favored education. Income redistribution won't change the culture of blacks and Hispanics.

    As a side issue, I think our media ought to do a better job of promoting a different kind of black culture. It distresses me that the media uses race hustlers Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as black spokesmen, rather than people of real intellectual achievement, like David Blackwell and Thomas Sowell. Sowell is considered one of the very top conservative pundits. I think he should be lauded for his achievements, even by liberals.

    Why the media paid so little attention to brilliant mathematician, the late David Blackwell, is another story. I suspect it's because the media has been so focused on seeing blacks as victims.

    In any event, a school takes children as it finds them. Yes, certain children enter school with educational disparities. But, it's the school's job to overcome those disparities, not to use them as an excuse for failure. IMHO using the educational disparities as an excuse is like a doctor excusing bad results because the patients who came to him were ill.

  8. "George Bush/Ted Kennedy's No Child Left Behind may or may not have been designed properly, but the problem it was attacking is very real. "

    So when is Congress going to attack racial and socioeonomic disparities in health outcomes and judicial sentencing with No Patient Left Behind and No Defendant Left Behind Acts?

  9. "But, it's the school's job to overcome those disparities, not to use them as an excuse for failure. IMHO using the educational disparities as an excuse is like a doctor excusing bad results because the patients who came to him were ill."

    So doctors manage to treat all their patients successfully? Hmmm. Wonder why our health care markers are mediocre in spite of the fact that we outspend every other OECD country. I would love to see you and like-minded education 'reform' pundits lecture health care workers in public hospitals and clinics about taking patients as they find them and not using socioeconomic disparities as an excuse for failure.

  10. Per David in Cal: "In any event, a school takes children as it finds them. Yes, certain children enter school with educational disparities."

    Not "certain children". Virtually *all* children from what used to be called "disadvantaged backgrounds", but which we can just call "poor". The fact that, at various times in our history, immigrant children of indigent parents (or not so indigent, as in the case of many Asian immigrants) manage to succeed is neither here nor there. That example proposes no solutions for actually dealing with the kids "as the school finds them", to use your phrase.

    "IMHO using the educational disparities as an excuse is like a doctor excusing bad results because the patients who came to him were ill."

    But of course we know that medical outcomes for the poor are in fact a good deal worse than they are for the rich. Do you really want to maintain that wealth and privilege (not to mention comprehensive health insurance) have nothing to do with it?

  11. Steve Jobs lived in Palo Alto, not Los Altos. They are next to each other, and yes both are nice / expensive cities in Silicon Valley