GATEKEEPERS DOWN: Thomas L. Friedman expounds on the schools!


Part 4—Letting the amateurs try: You live in a world without journalists.

On the street where you live, an education reporter with a fine pedigree can be so preternaturally clueless that she doesn’t even know how to access the simplest educational dats.

She doesn’t know why D.C. schools display an unusually large black-white achievement gap. That said, such cluelessness is quite routine within the guild we still describe as the American “press corps.”

Alas! In fact, your mainstream “press corps” is a guild and a club—a club whose members no longer function as actual journalists. This week’s performance at Slate gives us a taste of how our specialists function.

But uh-oh! In such a world, things can also get rather messy when non-specialists start to opine about the public schools.

Last summer, Gail Collins embarrassed the world with her deeply clueless ruminations about the Texas public schools. No apology, explanation or correction has followed.

In fairness, you can’t expect a non-specialist to be an expert on public schools. But when our specialists are utterly clueless, tremendous mischief may emanate from those who may know even less.

Yesterday, two non-specialists wrote columns in the New York Times about issues involving the public schools. Let’s consider what happened when Thomas Friedman gave this game a try.

Friedman’s column dealt with a very significant topic. He described an attempt to compare the performance of middle-class American high school students to their socioeconomic peers around the globe.

How well do American middle-class students fare when compared to their global peers? Early on, Friedman offered a gloomy assessment:
FRIEDMAN (4/4/13): The pilot study was described in an America Achieves report entitled “Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?” that is being released Wednesday. The report compares U.S. middle-class students to their global peers of similar socioeconomic status on the 2009 PISA exams.

The bad news is that U.S. middle-class students are badly lagging their peers globally. “Many assume that poverty in America is pulling down the overall U.S. scores,” the report said, “but when you divide each nation into socioeconomic quarters, you can see that even America’s middle-class students are falling behind not only students of comparable advantage, but also more disadvantaged students in several other countries.”
It should be noted that U.S. students tend to score more poorly on the PISA than on the other two major internationals tests, the TIMSS and the PIRLS.

We’ve seen some experts argue that the TIMSS and the PIRLS are the better tests; we’ve seen experts argue the opposite case. We have no opinion on this matter ourselves, and we doubt that Friedman has ever heard of this debate.

That said, you will see this issue examined in your “press corps” at some point in the 39th century. That topic is light-years beyond the reach of the modern American journalist.

That said, let's return to our question:

How well do American middle-class students perform as compared to their global peers? We think that is an important question. We’re not sure that Friedman, for all his pomposity, really knows how to assess it.

Consider what happens as Friedman proceeds. As he continues, Friedman quotes Jon Schnur, a high-ranking “education reformer” from the Bloomberg circle.

Nobody ever went broke advancing the favorite claims of this sector. That said, we were struck by the piles of piddle Friedman happily purchased.

If you want an example, start here:
FRIEDMAN: The good news, though, said Schnur, “is that, for the first time, we have documented that there are individual U.S. schools that are literally outperforming every country in the world.”
Let’s stop this nonsense right there. Only a fool would be surprised by the good news this apostle of education reform has stated.

According to Friedman’s tail-wagging puppy, “there are individual U.S. schools that are literally outperforming every country in the world.” Schnur is thrilled to announce this fact; Friedman seems to share his excitement.

And yet, this ranks with the claim that the sun just rose in the east.

Duh! Of course there are individual schools which outscore entire nations. In making that comparison, Schnur is comparing the average score of some individual school with the average score attained by the entire student population of entire nations.

The individual school may be upper-class. Almost by definition, the student populations being outscored are not.

It would be amazingly strange if no such schools were found in the U.S., but Friedman doesn’t seem to see that he is repeating a fatuous claim. Nor does he bat an eye as he quotes the report which describes these American schools, leading cheers for "education reform" as it does so:
FRIEDMAN (continuing directly): BASIS Tucson North, a nonselective high school serving an economically modest middle-class student population in Arizona, outperformed the average of every country in the world in reading, math, and science,” the report said. “Three nonselective high schools in Fairfax, Va., outperformed the average of virtually every country in the world.” One of them, Woodson, outperformed every region in the world in reading, except Shanghai.
Three nonselective high schools in Fairfax outperformed the average of virtually every country in the world? It’s hard to know why this is surprising, since Fairfax County is one of the most affluent jurisdictions in the U.S.

How well-heeled is Fairfax County, Virginia? “Judged by household median income, Fairfax County is among the highest-income counties in the country, and was first on that list for many years,” Wikipedia deftly explains. “According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2005, it had the second-highest median household income behind neighboring Loudoun County.”

The Fairfax County school district operates 22 high schools. It is hardly surprising if the top three schools in this group are able to best the average score achieved by the entire student population of entire nations.

BASIS Tucson North is also non-selective, Friedman and the report he is quoting say. But the students who attend the school have volunteered for a very challenging academic program. Along with some very good teaching, self-selection is almost surely a part of this tale.

Did Friedman know what he was talking about in this cheerleading column? He was talking about an important subject. Was he qualified to assess it?

Schnur, who’s part of the Bloomberg group, engages in some silly cheerleading about the success of a handful of schools. Friedman doesn’t seem to see that what Schnur is saying is silly.

In how many other ways can this big blowhard be conned?

In fairness, you can’t expect a person like Friedman to be an expert on public schools. Nor can you expect expertise from a useless know-nothing like Collins.

But Collins and Friedman are part of a world which has long had its gatekeepers down. At their paper, the New York Times, the reporting by the educational specialists is often incompetent, awful. Meanwhile, over at Slate, a lovely child of the upper class is permitted to pose as an education reporter, even though she doesn’t know how to find the most basic information.

Education reporting in the Times has been a joke for years. But then, you live in a world with its gatekeepers down. No one protects you from bogus ideas.

Bogus ideas therefore prosper.

We’d love to know how American students compare with their global peers. But people like Friedman don’t know how to tell—and in truth, his guild doesn’t care.

Tomorrow: What the Hayes panel said.

About the bogus talking-point we liberals have adopted: Friedman’s topic is very important, in part for the following reason:

In recent years, a highly misleading talking-point has spread through the “liberal” world—or at least, all through those parts of the liberal world which stoop to discuss public schools.

This talking-point makes it sound like American students do very well on international tests once you adjust for this country’s high poverty rate.

That talking-point is highly misleading, but we liberals have adopted it fondly. Have we mentioned the fact that we pseudo-liberals can be quite Hannity-esque?


  1. This is Thomas Friedman, a sham and a willing fool to begin with. Really disgraceful that such a person could be writing on education for the NYTimes.

  2. And... bring on the parade of Somerby-haters now, right away.

  3. "This talking-point makes it sound like American students do very well on international tests once you adjust for this country’s high poverty rate."

    Will be interesting to see how TDH thinks this is highly misleading. (P.S. Demonstrating that receiving free or partially subsidized lunch is not the same as poverty is not going to cut it.)

  4. "This talking-point makes it sound like American students do very well on international tests once you adjust for this country’s high poverty rate."

    Like commenter urban legend is, I too will find it interesting to see how The Daily Howler thinks this is highly misleading, though perhaps for different reasons.

    I read The Daily Howler faithfully and agree with almost everything Bob writes. His is the best media-criticism (and despite his protestations, political) blog out there, bar none.

    Yet, I thought I'd read in this very blog many times that American students don't do nearly so bad as mainstream educational "reformers" would have you believe, when you account for different demographics. I thought I'd read that when you look in the PISA data at a sub-sample comprising schools where fewer students are eligible for subsidized lunch, then in that case U.S. students leap almost to the head of the pack. I thought I'd understood what Bob was saying. Now, I'm not so sure.

    Maybe I'm just dense because I was an American student.

    Eagerly awaiting an explanation, nonetheless.

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