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AS STOSSEL DOES! Stupid is as John Stossel does. Here—let ABC prove it: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 17, 2006

AS STOSSEL DOES: How stupid is the public discourse about America’s public schools? Consider John Stossel’s amazingly stupid 20/20 report. The hour-long effort—titled “Stupid in America”—aired on ABC Friday night.

In fairness, Stossel raises a string of worthwhile questions in his addled report. How well do American children read and cipher compared to kids from other countries? That’s a question well worth asking—and Stossel asks it early on. But then, “Stupid in America” also asks a series of worthwhile policy questions. For example, would expanded “school choice” improve public ed? Early and often, Stossel swears that it would. And Stossel asks other worthwhile questions during this remarkable program.

But alas! The thing that makes this show remarkable is Stossel’s unyielding stupidity. Its catchy title is supposed to refer to America’s pitiful, dumb-ass kids. But just how stupid are American kids compared to those in rest of the world? Stossel makes his case in the following clip, part of his program’s opening segment. We apologize for the length of our excerpt. But when someone produces work this stupid, it must be seen to be believed:

STOSSEL (1/13/06): Most Americans don't know what stupid schools are doing to American kids. We gave parts of an international test to some high school students in Belgium and in New Jersey....What did the Belgian kids think?

BELGIAN STUDENT (videotape): Considering the tests we usually get here, this was kind of a piece of cake.

BELGIAN STUDENT (videotape): It's very easy.

STOSSEL: The New Jersey kids were also confident. How was the test? Easy? Hard?

NEW JERSEY STUDENT (videotape): It was actually pretty easy.

NEW JERSEY STUDENT (videotape): I think I did good.

STOSSEL: They have reason to be confident. New Jersey students in general test above average. And these kids attend an above-average New Jersey school. But the Belgian kids cleaned their clocks.

STOSSEL (to New Jersey students): They got 76 percent correct. You got 47 percent correct.

NEW JERSEY STUDENT (videotape): I'm shocked. Because it just shows how much advanced they are compared to us.

STOSSEL: This boy got the highest score among the Americans, but didn't come close to the top scoring Belgians.

BELGIAN STUDENT (videotape): The test was so easy, I think if the kids in America couldn't do this, they're really stupid.

The test “shows how much advanced they are compared to us,” one New Jersey kid glumly says. But while we’re talking about “really stupid,” let’s review what Stossel says in this remarkable segment.

What does Stossel say in the passage we’ve quoted? He says he gave “parts of an international test” to these two groups of students—but he never says what the test was. In the same vein, he never gives us any way to judge who these two groups of kids really are. In the case of the American students, he says they attend an above-average school—but that, of course, doesn’t mean that the students themselves are above average. (Nor can we verify his claim about their school, since he never names it.) And how about the Belgian students? How average (or above-average) might they be? There is absolutely no way to know. Stossel says nothing about them or their school; they may be the brightest students in Belgium, attending that nation’s most selective school. In short, this episode is like a ludicrous parody of the way information is actually gained. It’s astounding to think that ABC News would even consider airing such nonsense. Indeed, if it’s “Stupid in America” you want, the names of this show’s producers—and its clowning correspondent—should go at the top of your list.

Indeed, how cosmically dumb is John Stossel—and how dumb does he take his viewers to be? For a bit of comic relief, let’s consider where he goes as he continues this ludicrous segment. Yes, the nonsense which follows was actually broadcast—broadcast by ABC News:

STOSSEL (continuing directly): Stupid? Really? Jay Leno's routines make you think it's true.

LENO (videotape from the Tonight Show): And what state holds the Kentucky Derby every year? Think about it.

STOSSEL: The Tonight Show says these are not staged. These are their real answers.

INTERVIEWEE: Kansas.

LENO (videotape from the Tonight Show): Finish the name of this book: War and—

INTERVIEWEE: Sex.

LENO: War and Sex!

“The Tonight Show says these are not staged,” says Stossel. But of course, these segments are selected—selected for airing because of their dumbness. But then, that’s also what happens when ABC News decides to air John Stossel.

How do American students compare to students in a country like Belgium? As we’ve said, that’s an excellent question—but Stossel’s approach to this worthwhile question is an insult to the news process. As any reporter would surely know, there’s no way to answer a question like that by testing two small groups of kids in just two schools. But then, such world-class clowning is manifest in almost every part of this ludicrous program.

ABC News insults the public interest by airing a ludicrous show of this type. And go ahead—search the dial. See if anyone bothers to say so. Sadly, it’s now assumed that our big news orgs are engaged in burlesques of this type.

AS ROBERTS DOES: Stupid is as Stossel does—and then, there’s ABC’s Robin Roberts. On Friday morning’s Good Morning America, Roberts previewed that evening’s report. Incredibly, she aired the very part of the program we’ve excerpted—the segment about New Jersey and Belgium. And having viewed this clownish presentation, the half-witted anchor said this:

ROBERTS (1/13/06): I tell you, it stings to hear a kid from another country call one of our kids “stupid.” So why—we're spending so much more money in the US. Why are other kids smarter than ours?

STOSSEL: Because those kids have a choice. They can take the government's money and pick their school. In America we're assigned to a school. America is one of the few countries where it's a government monopoly, no choice. That breeds mediocrity.

ROBERTS: Okay, John. I know you're going to have so much more. And you know how to raise some eyebrows, I'll give you that. And you can see more of John Stossel's report, “Stupid in America: How We Are Cheating Our Kids" tonight on 20/20 at 10:00PM Eastern right here on ABC.

Poor Roberts! It stung to hear our kids called “stupid”—especially when we’re spending so much money on our schools.

For ourselves, we had a different reaction. Here was our question: When we’re spending so much money on network anchors, how can they be so world-class stupid? Could any news professional fail to see the sheer absurdity of Stossel’s procedure? But Robin Roberts failed to see—or she was prepared to pretend. But so it goes as our big news orgs—and their millionaire anchors— pretend to care about American schooling.

THE STOSSEL RULES: Those Jersey kids attend an above-average school, Stossel said—failing to say if the students themselves were above average academically. But then, should we trust Stossel when he rates schools? Consider his silly, gong-show rating of Washington, D.C.’s Wilson High. It was a typical Stossel moment, in which a string of utterly clownish procedures commingled to produce preferred points.

In this instance, Stossel wanted to show how stupid things are even inside our best public schools. So he aired footage in which students seem to be clowning inside a classroom at Wilson. Once again, here’s a clip of Stossel hard at work:

STOSSEL: We wanted to tape typical classrooms. We were turned down in state after state. Finally Washington, DC, did allow us to give cameras to a few students they hand-picked at two schools they hand-picked. One was this one, Woodrow Wilson High. Newsweek says it's one of the best schools in America. Yet what the students taped wasn't confidence-inspiring.

STUDENT (videotape): This is Wilson High School. We dance.

STOSSEL: Note that the teacher is in the class when he does this. On that day, this teacher had his world geography class playing Monopoly.

STUDENT (videotape): Right now we're going to ask Mr. Reiner what Monopoly has to do with world geography.

TEACHER (videotape): Like Monopoly, we have countries that do better than others, based on where you live.

STOSSEL: It was after finals, and I don't know if Monopoly can help teach geography. I do know this teacher didn't have much control over his class.

TEACHER : Phil, get off the desk and sit in your seat. Ladies and gentlemen, listen up—

STUDENT: Mr. Reiner?

TEACHER: Raise your hand.

STOSSEL: It's hard to believe you can learn much while this is going on...And this is one of America's best public schools.

But is that true? Is Wilson “one of America's best public schools?” The Newsweek rating to which Stossel refers is based on one factor only—the number of AP exams taken by a school’s students. Judging by this single measure, Wilson ranks 318 on the Newsweek “Top Thousand”—right ahead of Clarence High School of Clarence, New York. Beyond that, there’s no apparent reason to call Wilson one of the nation’s best public schools—unless you’re playing the public for fools, as Stossel so casually does here. How great are things at Wilson High? The school’s overall test scores are defiantly average, despite the presence of high-powered “school-within-a-school” academies (presumably, this accounts for the number of AP exams). Meanwhile, here’s part of a column by Hilda Labrada Gore, a Wilson parent, in the Washington Post last November:
GORE (11/17/05): We have considered moving [out of Washington]. The idea was especially immediate to me the evening I attended the back-to-school night at Wilson Senior High School this fall. As I went from classroom to classroom, I was dismayed at the state of the building.

Paint is peeling off the walls. Each classroom had little to distinguish it from the rest. There were no textbooks for three out of seven subjects. As I walked down the halls, I had to tell myself over and over that I was not in a developing nation. I would expect these conditions in a Third World country, but not in the nation's capital.

Does that sound like “one of the nation’s best schools?” And this parent didn’t seem to be dreaming. Earlier in the year, Post reporter Valerie Strauss described appalling conditions at Wilson—conditions which had parents threatening to turn the school into a charter:
STRAUSS (2/17/05): Staff and parents at Wilson Senior High School have learned not to expect help from the District's central school administration when a problem arises.

Multiple orders to fix the roof have been ignored, so water cascades into the building during thunderstorms. The communications system works only sporadically, so sometimes nearly half of the school's teachers have no e-mail access to contact parents or one another. A desperate plea for copy paper had to be posted on a parent Internet listserve.

"Al Qaeda is better supplied," quipped Chuck Samuels, co-chairman of Wilson's Local School Restructuring Team.

The final straw came when the central administration ordered Wilson to cut $1 million from its budget last year because of a systemwide budget shortfall, forcing the school to lay off 15 percent of its teachers.

Such appalling conditions should be part of any discussion of American education. But Stossel is a circus clown, maintained by one of our biggest news orgs. He had funky footage from a Wilson classroom (a final note on this footage below). Result? He called Wilson “one of the nation’s best public schools”—so he could claim that, even at the nation’s best schools, the inmates now run the asylum.

Final note on that footage from Wilson. As Stossel slickly notes-in-passing, this oddball footage occurred “after finals.” In short, this could be footage of the last day of school—a day when normal procedures are often abandoned. (The students are wearing summer clothing.) Meanwhile, is “Mr. Reider” even a regular teacher? There’s no way to tell from this laughable piece. But so it goes when Stossel plays his own board game—a board game known as “Stupid in America.” So it goes when the millionaires at ABC News make a joke of American life.