Tom Friedman, taking dictation from experts!


Direct from Shanghai, an innocent abroad: Tom Friedman isn’t an expert on schools. But when has that ever stopped anyone?

Last Wednesday, in the New York Times, Friedman wrote a column about his visit to a public elementary school in Shanghai. Because of its extremely high scores on the 2009 PISA, Shanghai has become the new Finland—the place to which the journalists go on junket, hoping to find The Secret to high-scoring schools.

That was Friedman’s headline: The Shanghai Secret. For decades, writers like Friedman have been revealing The Secret which explains the latest educational miracle tale. Rather, they’ve been sharing The Secret as told to them by our education experts.

Friedman traveled to Shanghai with Wendy Kopp, a major figure in education and, in our own view, a bit of an embellisher. How savvy are major journalists when they go on these public school junkets?

Not especially savvy. First example:

When they arrived in Shanghai, Friedman and Kopp constituted a major international delegation. At one point, Friedman observed a third grade English class at Qiangwei Primary School. We note one of his observations:
FRIEDMAN (10/24/13): Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted.
Did you follow that? Friedman visited this Shanghai primary school as part of a major delegation. When he observed one class, he noted, with an air of surprise, that the lesson had been well planned!

As noted, Shanghai produced extremely high results on the 2009 PISA. No one seems to doubt that the results are real, although Shanghai is a special case within China’s educational system (see link below).

Given his international status, there was no chance that Friedman would observe a class which hadn’t been extremely well planned. But Friedman, an innocent abroad, didn’t reflect on this obvious fact in his column. Instead, he played it straight, gaping at the preparation and the skillful use of time.

But then, there were a lot of things Friedman didn’t seem to notice as he produced his column. This cluelessness is often observed when journalists cast themselves the role of innocent abroad.

What else is odd in Friedman’s column? Below, you see the longer excerpt from which the previous passage was drawn.
Friedman is discussing the brilliant way this Shanghai school executes the basics. But in the highlighted passage, do Friedman’s numbers make sense?
FRIEDMAN: Take teacher development. Shen Jun, Qiangwei’s principal, who has overseen its transformation in a decade from a low-performing to a high-performing school...says her teachers spend about 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. That is far higher than in a typical American school.

Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted. The rest of his day, he said, is spent on lesson planning, training online or with his team, having other teachers watch his class and tell him how to improve and observing the classrooms of master teachers.
According to Friedman, Teng Jiao spends 105 minutes teaching, out of an eight-hour school day. That doesn’t exactly seem to make sense—and it seems to contradict the principal’s statement one paragraph earlier, in which teachers are said to be in the classroom 70 percent of each day.

In comments, many readers of Friedman's column noticed this puzzle. They marveled at the teacher/student ratio Friedman recorded elsewhere. But as he typed the latest educational miracle column, Friedman didn’t seem to notice these things. Nor does he seem to realize that a serious journalist shouldn’t accept undocumented claims about a school’s “transformation in a decade.”

Should a journalist assume the truth in a principal’s claim about the number of students who are children of poorly educated migrant workers? Actually, no! He shouldn’t assume that either!

No one seems to doubt that Shanghai’s test scores are basically real. But a serious journalist wouldn’t take those localized miracle claims at face value. Meanwhile, do you understand the highlighted statement? We’re not sure we do:
FRIEDMAN: I’ve traveled here with Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and the leaders of the Teach for All programs modeled on Teach for America that are operating in 32 countries. We’re visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret—how is it that Shanghai’s public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they’ve learned in math, science and reading.
Does that highlighted statement mean that Friedman and Kopp ventured outside Shanghai? Did Friedman really visit some of China’s lowest-performing schools?

If so, Friedman doesn’t discuss what he saw in those schools, which would have been very different from what he saw in Shanghai. Indeed, he doesn’t discuss those schools at all.

Obviously, you can’t expect a journalist to answer all questions about a sweeping topic in an 800-word column. The problem is, Friedman almost seems to think he accomplished that task during his junket to Shanghai.

What is The Secret behind Shanghai’s high scores? In keeping with current tenets of ed reform chic, Friedman announces that there really isn’t a Secret. He then produces a list of four best practices which takes the place of The Secret. Did he notice something about his four-point list?
FRIEDMAN: After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students—grades one through five—and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:

There is no secret.

When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.
In that paragraph, Friedman lists four “basics” which are said to explain Shanghai’s success. He says “we know” that these four basics are the key to high-scoring schools.

Who is this “we?” Friedman doesn’t say. Sill and all, let's be fair:

In some sense, Friedman’s statement may even be true! It may be that those four basic best practices do explain Shanghai's apparent success. But did Friedman realize that two of those “basics” aren’t within the control of a public school? He shows no sign of having noticed this highly important fact.

Guess what? A public school or a public school system can’t create “a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.” Nor can a public school magically create “the deep involvement of parents.” Those may be two basic explanations for Shanghai’s apparent success. But Friedman rattles them off without seeming to see that he is describing a cultural difference between Shanghai and many parts of this country.

In fairness, Friedman does know that he has encountered some cultural differences. At one point, he alludes to a difference he observes in a particular circumstance.

But alas! It isn’t clear that Friedman knows what that cultural difference is! Can you name the cultural difference lodged in this anecdote?
FRIEDMAN: Teng said his job also includes “parent training.” Parents come to the school three to five times a semester to develop computer skills so they can better help their kids with homework and follow lessons online. Christina Bao, 29, who also teaches English, said she tries to chat either by phone or online with the parents of each student two or three times a week to keep them abreast of their child’s progress. “I will talk to them about what the students are doing at school.” She then alluded matter-of-factly to a big cultural difference here, “I tell them not to beat them if they are not doing well.”
Presumably, the cultural difference to which Friedman refers is the practice of “beating children.” A larger difference is described in that anecdote, though it isn’t clear that Friedman noticed.

Friedman isn’t an education specialist. What made him feel he knew so much, based on one quick trip to China?

Eventually, we discover his secret! Friedman believes the things he is told by “education experts.” Eventually, he cites one particular expert:
FRIEDMAN: Education experts will tell you that of all the things that go into improving a school, nothing—not class size, not technology, not length of the school day—pays off more than giving teachers the time for peer review and constructive feedback, exposure to the best teaching and time to deepen their knowledge of what they’re teaching.


In 2003, Shanghai had a very “average” school system, said Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams. “A decade later, it’s leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools.” He, too, attributes this to the fact that, while in America a majority of a teacher’s time in school is spent teaching, in China’s best schools, a big chunk is spent learning from peers and personal development. As a result, he said, in places like Shanghai, “the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them,” while also, “getting the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms.”
Earlier, Friedman told us that 70 percent of a Shanghai teacher’s day is spent in the classroom. Now, as he hurries to finish his column, he complains that a majority of a teacher’s time is spent that way over here!

Whatever! In the end, we learn this from that passage: Friedman believes (and repeats) whatever the experts tell him. In this case, one expert almost seem to be telling him that Shanghai made a miraculous gain in the last ten years due to teacher training techniques which turn “average people” into exceptional teachers.

Being an innocent, Friedman doesn’t know that he shouldn’t automatically believe the things Schleicher tells him. Schleicher is the crusader rabbit who invented the PISA, which everyone agrees to say is a test of critical thinking skills.

We assume the PISA is a useful test. Regarding Schleicher, we would be somewhat skeptical.

Along with the cult of Finland, the education world has developed a cult of Schleicher in the past decade. A serious journalist would be much more careful than Friedman with Schleicher’s all-knowing pronouncements.

A few years ago, Schleicher told Amanda Ripley that Finland’s (not so) miraculous rise was based on the way they only allow the most talented people to become teachers. Now, Schleicher seems to be telling Thomas L. Friedman that Shanghai’s (alleged) miraculous rise is based on the way they take average people and make them excellent teachers.

Each claim could be true, of course—but then, each claim could be false. Friedman doesn’t seem to know that he shouldn’t be taking dictation from Schleicher.

Schleicher is a well-known expert. He has probably given TED talks! To Friedman, this can only mean one thing. Serving as the latest educational innocent abroad, he assumes he should be writing down the things this expert has told him.

Over the past forty years, the education experts have often been wrong. They have often been amazingly clueless. One example:

A lot of cheating was transpiring on this country’s standardized tests. We discussed this problem from the early 1970s on.

The education experts completely missed it. Forty years later, USA Today finally clued them in with their report on the cheating surrounding Michelle Rhee, whom the experts loved.

The experts’ track record is very poor. Friedman shows no sign of knowing. He is writing down what they said to an innocent abroad.

Background on Shanghai: Please note—Shanghai is producing very high test scores. So is South Korea; so is Singapore. That isn't the issue here.

For background on Shanghai’s special status within the Chinese system, see Tom Loveless’s recent piece for Brookings. Loveless is one of those rare education experts:

Good lord! He doesn't repeat what everybody else just said! In the world of education experts, is such conduct allowed?


  1. One thing we can take away from this article is that in China Friedman found teachers teaching a foreign language in elementary school - rather than just English or Math test prep. This would be unheard of here. Yet no one remarked on it, not even Friedman. No even Somerby. In the United States public school there is an attitude of fatal pessimism whether about foreign languages can or should be taught. -E

    1. It could be that this was the other cultural difference he was suggesting in the paragraph that talks about kids being beaten.

    2. I have 3 children who have either passed through or are going through the public school system in N. VA. And I can tell you for a fact that they started required foreign language in 7th grade. In addition there were introductory lessons in Spanish on a weekly basis throughout elementary school starting in 1st grade. My middle daughter is now a senior in HS and is taking her 6th year of Latin. So no, on the contrary, it is not unheard of here.

    3. um, mm? We are referring to ELEMENTARY school here. Not 7th grade. So yes, it IS unheard of here. Please try to keep up.

    4. Hey, Marcus. Can you read? They received introductory lessons in Spanish on a weekly basis starting in first grade. Is that elementary enough for you?

    5. mm, I am delighted to hear about what you're describing for northern Virginia (esp. the Latin!). But there's no way US foreign language teaching in primary or secondary schools approaches what happens in (the right places in) Europe or Asia -- or in elite schools in South America and Mexico. either.

      Maybe that's not okay, but it's not terrible, either. There may be things we do better than those others, and there's only so much time in a day.

  2. Finland also greatly stresses foreign language study, as I recall. It is a matter of survival in a country like that, where almost no one in the rest of the world speaks Finnish. Finns typically learn German, English, and French. At one point I remember reading that Finnish state-run TV typically shows foreign movies with subtitles during after school hours so children can be exposed to foreign languages while practicing reading their own language. Another cultural difference is that these countries probably don't have commercial children's TV, because children are not yet seen there as a resource to be exploited for profit. -E

  3. Foreign languages are being taught in many US elementary public schools. Singapore allows for corporal punishment of male students. Friedman is a kiss up to the billionaire class.

  4. OMB

    We are sure in six months Friedman will turn the corner and write something after a dinner with someone identified as a good friend.

    We are not so confident BOB will have finished feasting on the talented Ms. Ripley's book by then.


    1. Ah, timing is everything! Thanks m'lord! Your droppings are delicious!

    2. We're serving minnesotaroni for lunch as soon as the analysts get back in the kitchen.


    3. I wonder if any of our friends remember what the "Friedman Unit" is.

    4. How could they? Allowing gays in the military destroyed Unit Cohesion. Once you lose cohesion, unit comprehension falters and finally unit memory fails.

      Next thing you know marriage memory is out the window and people are banging box turtles in the streets.

      KZ (From Doom, Where Teachers are Kings and King's teachings are taught)

  5. Where is KZ to tell me this is a useless critique of Friedman?

    I'm *pretty* sure it is, because it *was* penned by Bob Somerby, but I can't know for certain until my hero KZ drops his daily turd.

  6. I would like to know what languages are being taught in neighborhood public elementary public schools. I sent my kids to public school in NYC and I didn't notice any such teaching. Nor was there when I attended public school. Foreign languages in the US generally start in jr. high when they are offered at all. There is or was something called bi-lingual instruction but it is not offered to everyone. And it is not the same as foreign language instruction for all (as in China). Would the anonymous poster care to provide examples. - E

    1. A couple of studies recently have suggested that those who are bilingual have cognitive advantages (e.g., are "smarter") so middle class parents are now trying to introduce their toddlers to foreign languages, especially Spanish and French. Schools catering to such parents may offer languages at early ages, as private schools have frequently done. In the US, knowing a foreign language is not a prerequisite to a good career, as it is in most of the rest of the world where a person must know English to find higher paying work. The chance to practice English with a native speaker is partly why people in other countries are so "friendly" to English-speaking tourists.

    2. Someone who has absorbed multiple languages, especially after childhood, is probably smarter than average. The question is whether teaching multiple languages improves general abilities enough to compensate for the extra time which has to be taken from other things such as math and science.

    3. People who are bilingual generally learn their languages in the home. Studies show the primary advantage comes from the need to decide which languages to use in which context in daily life, not from having classes in language in school. It isn't that smart kids are choosing to learn more languages. It is that people who grow up with multiple languages spoken around them at home and in the neighborhood, need to make extra cognitive decisions about which words to use when, and that enhances cognitive flexibility and attention to context more generally.

    4. "to compensate for the extra time which has to be taken from other things such as math and science."

      Gosh, skeptonomist habilis, you have a pretty limited view of human nature. Only math and science have value? No Marx? No Augustine? No Shakespeare?

    5. Honest question: is it worth it to study foreign language when there are so many bilinguals because of immigration? I mean for employment purposes. It seems like the employer would always be able to hire a bilingual if it was essential to have a foreign language speaker.

      If that is the case, then it really is a bad idea to take the time from courses that might help in their careers.

      We've trained a lot of language teachers so I don't expect it to change because the interests of the kids will be trumped by the interests of the teachers, sorry to say.

      If anyone is really interested in learning a foreign language, there are a lot of resources to help him/her. To keep it in the public schools, there really should be a better justification by now.

  7. Don't forget that the teachers too have grown up in a culture that beats both children and adults for failure. They would be extra motivated to do extra well in their teaching because doing a poor job in anything invites beating. Beating has been a key component of "re-education" practised by Chinese prisons. From the South China Morning Post (Feb 15, 20130: "Lijia Zhang says changing the conservative mindset that normalises domestic violence [wife-beating] in China will not be easy, but the support for two women in recent cases has been heartening."

    1. Beating is the main law enforcement technique for local police in China: “After showing us the bumbling pettiness of much of the officers’ work, [the documentary film] Crime and Punishment takes a more challenging turn when a group of young farmers are caught with an illegal load of timber. After the farmers are subject to the seemingly de rigueur beatings, a pair of officers accompanies one of them back to his village to collect evidence and photograph the stumps of illegally logged trees.”

  8. Wealthy parents have always provided their children with an edge in foreign languages, hiring au-pairs for their toddlers, etc. The teaching of foreign languages in US public elementary schools was halted as unpatriotic in the aftermath of World War I. - E

    1. There was an article in yesterday's Sunday Boston Globe about how in China parents have to bribe admissions officials and cultivate connections to get into the better public schools, aside from their kids studying day and night for years in an effort to gain admission. Students who don't get into the elite public schools wind up in inferior private schools.

  9. That the Chinese make such an effort to teach English just goes to show they expect the USA to continue to lead the world.

    American kids have never taken to foreign langueage study and it should be an elective. Very few of them will have any need for it and it is a disservice to them to waste the effort, class time and opportunity to learn something more useful or simply more to their liking.

    They expect these Chinese kids to use English a lot. American kids can major in a foreign language in college and never use it again. Of course they are going to forget it and maybe they'd have forgotten anything else they might have studied.

    1. 1. English is a common denominator so that widely disparate countries can communicate in a shared language, much as French was before it. It says nothing about China's acknowledgement of the USA's leadership. It says more about the breadth of the UK's colonization -- the British were speaking English all over the world while the USA was still a colony. 2. American kids do not learn other languages because we are isolated on a continent where they rarely encountered people speaking other languages. That is changing and now they will need to speak at least Spanish if they wish to be hired for more jobs, especially in the SW. 3. Nothing you learn is wasted effort because knowledge opens doors and permits people to take advantage of more opportunities in life. 5. Kids who major in a foreign language in college tend to visit countries where that language is spoken. That is especially true if they wind up as language teachers. 6. Bahrick (1984) showed that once learned, Spanish is not forgotten over 50 years, so no they do not forget what they've studied. Nor do college students immediately forget other info they learn in their courses. If they did, there would be no point in anyone going to college, especially not with today's tuition costs.

      American kids during Revolutionary times learned French, Latin and Greek as part of a normal education.

    2. I think it was LBJ who said it: "An education is what you've got when you forgot everything you learned."

      Maybe it has to do with British colonization,whatever, the Chinese expect those kids to use that English so they'll try harder to teach English than here in the US where practically all the kids are required to take foreign language but hardly any will use it. Even when they travel, they don't use it because most places they go, the people who deal with tourists speak more and better English than the Americans speak whatever they took in school.

      And there is a tremendous cost to forcing American kids to take foreign language. If they don't like it and/or don't do well, its one more thing turning them off to school. They might have been able to take something else and it might make a difference in their whole life experience. Maybe taking Spanish means missing out on a course that could have life changing.

      60 years of telling Americans their kids need to learn a foreign language. Look at the results. If its really necessary to learn Spanish in the SW, people will learn Spanish just like immigrants have to learn English to get by here where I live in the NE. They don't have to be able to read Don Quixote in Spanish.

  10. Having given up on The Moustache of Wisdom's wisdom many years ago, I have no problem seeing that Bob has deconstructed Friedman very well. Friedman is simply a mouthpiece of the 1% using the megaphone of the nyt to spread his message. As Bob points out, the time spent teaching in the Shanghai school doesn't make sense when you look at three 35 min classes taught, but supposedly 70% of the teacher's time is teaching. Then, in the US the majority of the time is teaching is a bad thing. I'm glad that Bob reads Friedman for me so I don't have to.

  11. Friedman: earnest re-stater of the status quo. IOW, a waste of time.

  12. WTF?

    So what if Shanghai did well on PISA? How did they do on TIM&PEARL? And WhyTF haven't we been told about it by Somerby?

  13. America is an insular country because of the isolationist movement at the end of World War I. Commenters here may not believe it, but it is historical fact. Before that there were many bi-lingual children, mostly German speaking, whose mother tongues were supported in school. French and Latin were also required until the 1960s. Physicians had to take German when my relatives were studying medicine in the 1960s. - E.

  14. We used to compare our education system – disfavorably – to Japan. That comparison didn't hold up well. And neither does the comparison to "China."

    As Tom Loveless notes, China gets very favorable treatment in deciding which small number of its provinces are sampled for PISA, and invariably, it only selects ones in which there are "families strongly committed to formal education and able to afford the tuitions and fees of high school." Moreover, Shanghai is NOT China. In Shanghai, parental' "expenses for tutoring and weekend activities the high school level...exceed what the average Chinese worker makes in a year." Too, "Shanghai has an economically and culturally elite population with systems in place to make sure that students who may perform poorly are not allowed into public schools."

    The bigger point here is Tom Friedman, and what a tool he is. He and the "talented" and oh-so-privileged Amanda Ripley are birds of the same faux feather, two peas from the same poser pod, two cuts from the very same charlatan cloth. And the big question is why anyone pays attention to them? Why indeed.

    We already from the Daily Howler just how bad Amanda Ripley. But if you doubt what the DH says, go to the source herself. On her website, Ripley tells us she's an "investigative journalist" who provides "groundbreaking research." But she cites Eric Hanushek. And she tells us that here’s been absolutely no increase in “academic performance” over the last 50 years in the U.S. Cowabunga.

    And Tom Friedman? I think Matt Taibbi described him well: "It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up...Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity."

    If only the members of the "punditry" class would practice the critical thinking they deem to be important for others.

  15. There really is a secret. Or at least a partial explanation for part of the reason the Finns and Chinese students appear to be highly motivated in the higher grades. Both countries have a bone-breaking college entrance exam that is actually based on content learned, rather than being designed to pin-point some mystical quality called "aptitude", disconnected to curriculum. Moreover the Finnish and Chinese tests also appear center on language study, foreign and domestic. They also appear to be paid for, designed, and administered by university professors in consultation with the central government rather than being outsourced to newspaper publishers peddling test-prep and "educational economists" in the pay of ideologically slanted "Institutes".

    Learners can excel when they and everyone else know exactly what is expected of them. - E