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Daily Howler: Obama misstates about the schools. The Washington Post doesn't notice
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DAY FOR NIGHT! Obama misstates about the schools. The Washington Post doesn’t notice: // link // print // previous // next //

The one percent computation: Good God! By paragraph 17 (of 19 total), Shailagh Murray finally notes the relative size of the earmarks in the spending bill which just passed the Senate—although she doesn’t seem to know how to compute a percentage. Are you sure that Murray, and her editor, are really flesh of this earth?

MURRAY (3/11/09): Earmarks account for just 1 percent of the bill's overall cost, but House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said they had become wrapped into the larger debate about the size of the federal government, along with concerns about the soaring deficit.

Speaking to reporters, he tallied up $2 trillion in spending in five months, including the omnibus spending bill, the stimulus and the financial bailout...

In fact, those earmarks account for just under 1.9 percent of the overall cost, as any human being can see from figures which appear in Murray’s report. Among humans, that would round off to two percent. Are you sure that Murray (and her editor) are actually flesh of the earth?

We don’t ask that challenging question just because these tyros don’t know how to compute a percentage. That type of D-plus intellectual bungling defines your modern “press.” We wondered today if Murray is human because of the way she featured those earmarks all through her report. By the end, Murray herself is saying (incorrectly) that they amount to just one percent of the cost—and she’s noting all that other recent spending (see above). So why did she build her entire report around those modest measures?

Good God. In paragraph 2, Murray builds her initial description of the bill around its “thousands of controversial earmarks.” By paragraph 6, she’s letting us know that the bill contains “8500-plus spending provisions, known as earmarks.” In paragraph 15, she nails it down: “The independent watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense found 8,570 disclosed earmarks in the bill.” At the end, she unloads the good news—these measures add up to just one percent [sic]! Why then did she hammer us with them all through her report? Does paragraph 13 explain it?

MURRAY: The debate also gave renewed prominence to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chief critic of the bill's earmarks. "This evil has grown, and it has grown, and it has grown," said McCain, who called the earmarking process a "gateway drug" to more egregious, and possibly illegal, forms of influence peddling.

Murray has always channeled McCain’s views on “evil.” This includes 2005, when she repeatedly wrote that the “bridge to nowhere” (to quote one report) would “link the small town of Ketchikan to sparsely populated Gravina Island.” That was technically accurate, and grossly misleading—and it was Prime McCain Shtick. (Of Murray’s seven reports on this topic, only two mentioned the airport found on that lonely island.)

In today’s New York Times, David Herszenhorn reports the Senate’s action on this bill, but he restricts discussion of those earmarks to paragraphs 6 and 7 (out of 15). For Murray, though, the earmarks are the heart of the story, even though she mistakenly thinks they’re just one percent of the bill! And oh yes—Murray and/or her editor don’t know how to compute a percentage! Are you sure—are you really sure—that your Big Scribes are flesh of this earth?

The physics behind our question: The rise of the theory that we live in a megaverse/multiverse may have increased the odds that ETs could be among us—even in newsrooms. (If we may borrow from Paula Poundstone: Did we learn nothing from “Men in Black?”) In his current book, Physics of the Impossible, big-time physicist Michio Kaku soberly assesses the chances that ETs have already visited earth (perhaps from somewhere in our universe, perhaps from some “parallel universe”). Strange presentations in the Post don’t seem to have affected his thinking. But uh-oh! After noting the fact that big reporters can’t even seem to compute a percentage, we wonder if Kaku has overlooked the best evidence we currently have.

DAY FOR NIGHT: Scott Wilson’s report of Obama’s speech appears on the Washington Post’s front page. With an unerring instinct for error, Wilson begins with Obama’s remarks about the decay and decline of our schools:

WILSON (3/11/09): President Obama sharply criticized the nation's public schools yesterday, calling for changes that would reward good teachers and replace bad ones, increase spending, and establish uniform academic achievement standards in American education.

In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama called on teachers unions, state officials and parents to end the "relative decline of American education," which he said "is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children.”

When Big Pols gives speeches about public schools, does some unwritten law forbid them from telling the truth? Does some law restrict the press from noting their vast overstatements? So it sometimes seems. Obama’s statements about that “relative decline” are very hard to square with the facts. But they’re written from a Familiar Old Script, a script which continues to lead us.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Obama’s (interesting) remarks about the need for higher standards. But is there some unwritten law requiring Big Pols to make misstatements? Obama turned day into night with his remarks about that “decline.” And the press corps has twiddled its thumbs today, staring off into air.

Wikipedia always says it best: “Day for night is the name of a cinematographic technique to simulate a night scene.... [O]utside scenes can instead be shot during the day, with special blue filters and under-exposed film to create the illusion of darkness.”

Ah yes, the “illusion of darkness!” We thought we saw some “day for night” at the start of yesterday’s speech!

Let’s look at what Obama said about that “relative decline.” This extremely gloomy passage came early in his speech:

OBAMA (3/10/09): Let there be no doubt: the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens...

And yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us. In eighth grade math, we’ve fallen to ninth place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds can read as well as they should. And year after year, a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African American and Latino classmates. The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children—and we cannot afford to let it continue.

That came quite early in yesterday’s speech. In this passage, Obama makes a string of Standard Complaints about “the relative decline of American education.” Let’s consider two parts of his presentation. Was he constrained by an unwritten law which forbade him from telling the truth?

Educational decay: First, Obama painted a Gloomy Picture of educational decline and decay. “We have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” he gloomily said. “In eighth grade math, we’ve fallen to ninth place.”

Obama painted a gloomy picture. But were these claims accurate?

Consider the claim about eighth grade math, the most specific claim he made. Presumably, Obama refers to the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the widely-ballyhooed “gold standard” for such international comparisons. (An exceptionally useless White House “fact sheet” fails to explain this statement, and others.) The TIMSS was last conducted in 2007—and American eighth-graders did finish ninth in math, just as Obama said. (Among 36 nations. For the relevant table, click here.) The U.S. scored far behind five Asian tigers, marginally behind three other nations. On the other hand, the U. S. scored slightly ahead, even well ahead, of quite a few countries you’ve probably heard of. The U.S. outperformed countries like Australia, Sweden, Scotland, Italy and Norway by significant margins. And we massively kicked Kuwait’s *ss.

(How representative are various national samples? We can’t tell you. Journalists should.)

None of this contradicts what Obama said in yesterday’s speech. But have our eighth graders fallen to ninth place, as the gloomy chief executive told us? Sorry. Before 2007, the TIMSS was last given in 2003; U.S. eighth graders finished 15th that year (out of 45). In the previous testing (1999), the U.S. had finished 18th. Indeed, U.S, eighth graders have steadily gained against the rest of the world since at least the mid-1990s, at least if we are going to judge by the measure Obama selected.

Have U. S. eighth graders fallen to ninth, as the gloomy president said? This table shows the twenty countries which participated in eighth-grade math in the TIMSS in both 1995 and 2007. Of the nineteen other countries, only three showed more improvement in average scores than the U.S. did. Sorry! In eighth grade math, the U.S. has risen to its current ninth place. We may feel that rank isn’t good enough. But must we persistently trade day for night? Does some sort of unwritten law require these gloomy misstatements?

A stubborn achievement gap: According to the gloomy president, it isn’t just that American kids have “fallen to ninth place” in math. Obama also based a gloomy observation on a purely domestic measure. “[Y]ear after year, a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African American and Latino classmates,” he said. But that claim doesn’t quite seem accurate either. Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of “stubborn” or “persists” is.

Again, we’ll refer you to the ballyhooed “gold standard” for such declarations, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). As we recently noted, long-term results in this federal program show those achievement gaps narrowing in reading and math, though significant gaps remain. For example, this chart shows reading results from 1971 through 2004 in the part of the NAEP called the Long-Term Trend Assessment. The gap between white and black scores has substantially narrowed in all age groups, though significant gaps still exist. And the same sort of narrowing between white and Hispanic scores can be seen in this table. “Year after year, a stubborn gap persists?” Gaps persist, but they seem to be somewhat less stubborn than Obama suggests.

No one’s a bigger grouch than we about educational topics. But we’re also prepared to defer to the record; Obama’s statements about that “relative decline” seem derived from Famous Old Scripts, not from real observations. Gerald Bracey has long been The Man when it comes to critiquing these Standard Old Claims. This morning, we see that Bracey has posted about Obama’s speech at The Huffington Post. Go read it; Bracey goes into more detail about Obama’s statements than we have. (Please note: Bracey has persistently claimed that the NAEP sets an unrealistically high standard for “proficiency.” This doesn’t undermine use of the NAEP as a measure of progress over time.)

Tomorrow, we’ll look at what Obama said about the need for higher standards. But first, a note about the political uses of Gloomy Scripts.

Why do politicians paint this Gloomy Portrait of American schools? In some cases, they may not know what they’re talking about; everyone has heard these Standard Claims, and people tend to believe them. But yes, there can be political uses for such gloomy misstatements. As Bracey has noted, gloomy claims have long been used by educational “conservatives” to undermine faith in the public schools; vouchers and charters are more appealing if you believe that the public schools are a wreck. On the other hand, a president can set himself up to be a star if he overstates the mess which predates him.

Then too, a president may not want to admit that progress occurred under those before him. That said, we of course have no idea why Obama said what he did.


Obama’s statement about U.S. math score seems to be simply inaccurate. His statement about those achievement gaps would seem to be misleading. Is it true? “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world,” have we really “let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short?” Have we “let other nations outpace us?” And have we “fallen to ninth place” in math? That’s a very gloomy picture—a picture that’s largely inaccurate.

This morning, that picture appears on the Post’s front page. In some ways, Obama traded day for night. Wilson doesn’t notice.