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THE THREE AMERICAS! The U. S. finished 21st on a science test. When we break down the scores, we start to see why: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2010

Your Daily Howler keeps getting results, Dana Milbank edition: Of all people! On Sunday, Dana Milbank wrote the type of piece we’ve been requesting for the past dozen years! To read his very important essay, you know what to do—just click here.

We’ll examine Milbank’s essay tomorrow. For today, consider this column by Charles Blow—a column which helps set the framework for Milbank’s long-overdue work.

In his column, Blow discusses two matters. He discusses the astonishing lack of information among the American public. And he scorns the cheek of pseudo-liberals who trash the other tribe as dumb—even though major parts of the liberal/Democratic coalition are profoundly uninformed. Here’s how he started:

BLOW (10/2/10): Whom Are You Calling Dumb?

Big-city liberals and their blogging buddies love to paint Tea Partiers as yokels with incoherent candidates and language-mauling signs. (Some have even dubbed their misspellings and grammatical gaffes “Teabonics.”) On some level, this may be true. But there is also a certain hypocrisy to these taunts.

The unpleasant fact that these liberals rarely mention, and may not know, is that large swaths of the Democratic base…are far less civically literate than their conservative counterparts.

We’ve never seen the unfortunate term “teabonics” used by actual liberals, though Gawker and Politico have gone there of late. But pseudo-liberals do love to mock the dumbness of the Tea Party crowd, sometimes without seeming to grasp how many others they mock in the process. Example: About six months ago, a survey of Texans was widely mocked for the dumb attitudes to which respondents had copped. (If memory serves, this involved culture war-related questions like the age of the earth.) Snarky “liberals” seemed to think they were mocking the dumbness of southern whites. In fact, the poll showed that many blacks and Hispanics in Texas had affirmed the same views.

Blow deals with a much simpler survey, a recent Pew effort in which adults were asked a pair of numbingly basic questions: Can they name the current vice president? Do they know which party controls the House? (For all questions and answers, click here.)

Can American adults name the vice president? (Correct answer: Biden.) A very large number cannot. Blow went on to deliver the news, turning the mockery back against liberals: Only 62 percent of Democrats were able to name Biden. Only 55 percent of blacks knew his name—and only 36 percent of Hispanics. Only 49 percent of voters aged 18-29.

Overall, only 59 percent of respondents were able to name the VP.

When it came to control of the House, the public was defiantly clueless. And this result is especially sad. You see, there are only two possible answers, and the question was asked like this:

TEXT OF PEW QUESTION: Do you happen to know which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives? Democrats or Republicans? [Party names were rotated]

Overall, 72 percent of respondents said Democrats control the House. But 18 percent said Republicans were in control, and 10 percent said they didn’t know. This was a very bad result, since respondents were allowed to choose from only two possible answers. Presumably, some people who gave the right answer had taken a lucky guess.

That said, Republicans scored higher on this question than Democrats or independents. Confronted by this A-or-B question, 82 percent of Republicans managed to give the correct response, as compared with 71 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents.

Blow pounded away at the very low scores of young voters, blacks and Hispanics.

Forget about which groups know less; let’s focus on the overall answers. Overall, only 59 percent of respondents could name the current vice president. (Five percent gave a wrong answer; 36 percent said they didn’t know.) Overall, only 72 percent said that Dems control the House, choosing from two possible answers. As always, we the people were amazingly clueless about the most basic political questions. This sets the stage for Milbank’s important, long-overdue essay.

Every survey shows it: “We the people” never know what we’re talking about, no matter how simple the issue! But journalists hate discussing this fact, and so the fact goes undiscussed. For a hint of where this syndrome leads, we’ll examine Milbank’s long-overdue piece on the morrow.

For ourselves, we’ve been interested in this topic at least since 1989, when a similar survey showed that (if memory serves) 25 percent of respondents couldn’t name the current vice president. (Correct answer: Quayle.) For a while, we did a joke in comedy clubs about that result, saying these people don’t seem to watch news or comedy programs. Quayle was high-profile with people like Leno, due to his own supposed dumbness. (Three years later, he misspelled a word!)

We the people are stunningly uninformed; such surveys constantly show it. But they the journalists run from this fact. Milbank’s essay shows where this leads. His essay is very important—and it’s long overdue.

Special report: Don’t know much trigonometry

PART 4—THE THREE AMERICAS (permalink): Within our addled public discourse, it has long been amazingly easy to spread bad information around. Last Thursday, in the New York Times, an expert showed how it’s done.

In a rare attempt to discuss a real issue, Lady Collins devoted her column to the nation’s public schools. Discussing Davis Guggenheim’s disgraceful film, Waiting for Superman, the high lady served this gruel:

COLLINS (9/30/10): On a more sweeping level, the film has sparked a great debate about American education. The United States now ranks near the bottom of the industrialized countries when it comes to reading and math. It’s not so much that schools here have gotten worse. It’s just that for the last several decades, almost everybody else has gotten better. Finland, what’s your secret?

[…]

[T]he movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.”

In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.”

Guggenheim’s film has sparked “a great debate!” No, really—that’s what she said!

How much bad information was transmitted in that passage? Let us count the ways:

“The United States now ranks near the bottom of the industrialized countries when it comes to reading and math.” To the extent that such things can be determined, this statement just isn’t true. Consider reading: There are only a few major international measures through which such assessments can be made. But in 2000 and 2003, U.S. students scored in the middle of the pack among the OECD nations on the PISA, which tests 15-year-olds. (The U.S. didn’t participate in PISA’s reading assessment in 2006. The 2009 results haven’t been released.) In 2003, the U.S. ranked a few points behind France and Japan; it outscored Germany by a similar margin. None of these differences were statistically significant. Great Britain didn’t take part. (The U.S. outscored Spain and Italy by wide margins.)

Does the U.S. score near the bottom in reading? On the PIRLS, which tests fourth-graders in reading, the U.S. finished in the middle of the pack on the most recent assessment (in 2006), outscoring both England and France. (Germany outscored the U.S., though none of these differences were statistically significant.) To the extent that such things can be measured, the U.S. does not “rank near the bottom of the industrialized countries when it comes to reading,” though figures like Collins will always say different. This highest lady is dumb, uninquisitive, as royals so frequently are.

“It’s not so much that schools here have gotten worse. It’s just that for the last several decades, almost everybody else has gotten better.” In fact, “schools here” have gotten a good deal better in reading and math in the last several decades, to judge from our most reliable domestic data. (On the NAEP, reading and math scores are massively better for black and Hispanic students during the past dozen years.) Almost surely, Collins has never heard anyone mention this fact, since no one ever does.

“About halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools ‘produce amazing results.’ ” Collins goes on to semi-dispute this claim, but she fails to note how dishonest this widely-quoted claim really is. In the study to which she refers—the study from which Guggenheim’s claim is drawn—there is no assertion about anyone getting “amazing results.” The study found something much more mundane: 17 percent of charter schools scored significantly better in math than their corresponding public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools scored significantly worse. (In 46 percent of cases, there was no statistically significant difference.) But duh. In most cases, you don’t have to get “amazing results” to outscore the local public school, and no such claim was made in the study. Unless Guggenheim is being quoted inaccurately, the gentleman simply invented this finding. Collins, quoting a bogus statement, failed to notice this fact.

Did Guggenheim put this claim in his film? (The film hasn’t come to the provinces yet.) If so, it helps show what a truly bad person he is—how deeply dishonest he’s willing to be, about a deeply important topic. But then, millionaires with movie star wives have often behaved in this fashion.

Back to Collins: “Finland, what’s your secret?” she cheekily asks, as part of a passage in which she spreads a great deal of misinformation around. Presumably, everyone knows the answer—although, in this idiocratic land, nobody wants to provide it.

“Finland, what’s your secret?” Duh. Finland is a middle-class nation whose children come from high-literacy backgrounds. There is little poverty in Finland; there is virtually no immigration. Beyond that, the Finnish people didn’t spend four centuries directing brutal racial oppression against a despised minority, working to eliminate literacy from this group. As such, Finnish teachers have a fairly easy task when they show up for school in the morning. It isn’t hard to get good test scores from kids who grew up in middle-class, high-literacy homes. Teachers in American public schools accomplish this task all the time!

Finland’s “secret” is the following: Overwhelmingly, Finland’s students are middle-class kids who come from high-literacy homes. In this country, by way of contrast, teachers confront at least Three Americas. (John Edwards counted wrong.)

In the arena of education, what are these Three Americas? In the broader sense, this country has a great deal of poverty, even within the white majority. More specifically, we have a large and growing student population made up of the delightful children of low-income immigrants; these children come from low-literacy backgrounds, and may not speak English. Beyond that, we have a large black student population; for centuries, our benighted ancestors worked very hard to deny literacy to this population. As recently as 1967, Jonathan Kozol was writing about the way black children were whipped in the basements of Boston’s schools—whipped by teachers who openly insulted them.

Finland’s teachers aren’t working from history like that.

Duh. From an educational standpoint, Finland is a big, middle-class suburb. It really takes a giant fool to fly to Finland to learn how to solve the challenges facing our own public schools. But high-ranking people like Lady Collins don’t like to discuss brutal history, or its ugly effects. Let us treat her to some facts about our (at least) Three Americas:

On that 2006 PISA science test, the U.S. finished 21st out of 30 OECD countries in science literacy (15-year-old students). This statistic is featured in Guggenheim’s film. It has been recited by a legion of dumb-rube reviewers, driving a monumentally stupid war against American teachers and their infernal unions.

Presumably, we might have better schools if we find ways to attract “better” teachers—if we fire more teachers who aren’t any good. Presumably, our teachers unions may have dragged their feet too much in these areas. But teacher quality doesn’t explain the difference between Finnish and American test scores. You have to be deeply disconnected from reality to imagine something so foolish.

Disconnected from reality? The term virtually defines the journalistic discourse in this country over the past many years.

What does brutal American history actually look like in the schools? What is the shape of its effects? For the full list of national scores from the 2006 PISA science test, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/10—or look below. But when it comes to education, our country is at least Three Americas. To help people like Collins and Guggenheim grasp the shape of our brutal history, let’s look at some truly ugly data. Let’s look at the way those test scores look when they are “disaggregated.”

This has been normal procedure in examining American test scores for lo, the past many years—except among a range of high-profile hacks, who haven’t quite learned how to do it.

How did American 15-year-old students score in science literacy on the 2006 PISA? In the list of scores we offer below, you see the overall American score—and you see the U.S. performance broken down into the scores of our three major student groups. Warning! When you look at these data, you are visiting centuries of brutal history—and you’re looking at recent immigration policy. Because that may not produce a pretty sight, people like Guggenheim hand you prettier, simpler tales. They pretend that our teachers unions created our PISA scores.

Brutal history, and recent policies, largely explain that PISA score—the score which embarrassed the horse’s ass O’Hehir at Salon, the score which led the horse’s ass Guggenheim to make his deeply unintelligent film. When you look at these “disaggregated” test scores, you’re looking at the actual shape of America’s actual educational challenges. (For links to all data, see below.) And no, the realities reflected in these scores were not invented by America’s teachers, or by their infernal unions:

Combined science literacy scale, PISA, 2006:
Finland 563
Canada 534
Japan 531
New Zealand 530
Australia 527
Netherlands 525
[United States, white students: 523]
Korea, Republic of 522
Germany 516
United Kingdom 515
Czech Republic 513
Switzerland 512
Austria 511
Belgium 510
Ireland 508
Hungary 504
Sweden 503
OECD average: 500
Poland 498
Denmark 496
France 495
Iceland 491
United States 489
Slovak Republic 488
Spain 488
Norway 487
Luxembourg 486
Italy 475
Portugal 474
Greece 473
[United States, Hispanic students: 439]
Turkey 424
Mexico 410
[United States, black students: 409]

Gaze on the shape of your nation’s history! White students scored fairly high, despite the drag of a certain sub-group; if they were a separate nation, they would have finished seventh out of thirty developed nations. And how about a hand for our teachers? This score was achieved despite the drag of a sub-population whose parents and ministers tell them not to believe the things they hear in science class! (This just in: Finland doesn’t have a “creation museum” where children are taken to see cave men living with the dinosaurs. Finland doesn’t have a major state whose school board is working hard to muck up the nation’s textbooks.)

There is also much more poverty among the American white student population than can be found in Finland. Within parts of that white student population, there are pockets of endemic poverty and low literacy which simply don’t exist in that far-off, middle-class land.

White kids did pretty well on the PISA, despite the drag of certain sub-groups. But when it comes to literacy and education, alas! On average, black kids and Hispanic kids form two additional Americas. (On average. Many black and Hispanic kids do extremely well.) Centuries of brutal history went into forming one of these “Other Americas.” A very un-Finnish immigration policy has gone into forming the other. Whatever one thinks of our immigration practices, they have presented a major new challenge to American schools in the past thirty years. Such challenges simply don’t exist in the schools which comprise Finland’s “ideal educational system.” (Thus spake Brian Williams.)

It’s painful to look at data like those; this largely explains why no one does. But there is an upside to disaggregation. If we look at our PISA scores in this form, we might find ourselves asking a smarter series of questions about the challenges facing our schools. We’ll look at such questions all this week, starting tomorrow.

Presumably, American schools could have “better” teachers. But that is only one small part of the massive challenge we face. Hollywood types are too dumb to know such things, or too dishonest to say them.

Those data are painful, ugly. High lords like Guggenheim, fine ladies like Collins, prefer not to gaze on such fallow fields as they gaze out from the palace. Guggenheim prefer to drive around L.A. in his fancy car, motoring past its public schools and thinking moronic, pretty thoughts about how much prettier things could be if the proles who work in such schools would just get their asses in gear. But then, millionaires married to movie stars have always “thought” this way.

Guggenheim drives by L.A.’s public schools every day, he says. We’ll only say this: It shows.

Teachers in Finland don’t teach deserving children who belong to an historically brutalized racial minority. Nor do they teach the deserving children of low-income, low-literacy immigrants—children who come to school years behind traditional norms, perhaps not speaking the language. For ten years, American pseudo-elites have been flying off to Finland to learn how to address these challenges. Surely, this is one of the dumbest things a human being could do.

It’s a bit like New England’s governors flying to Hawaii to learn how to keep home heating bills low. The state has such low heating bills! Hawaii, what’s your secret?

How can Americans schools help low-income, minority kids succeed? As the week proceeds, we will suggest some of the questions which may be relevant if someone like Guggenheim wants to explore such a topic. (We see no sign that he does.) But don’t bother asking the teachers in Finland! They’ve never taught children from poverty or low-literacy backgrounds. This is not a criticism of the Finns; it’s a comment on the actual world, the world our highest lords and ladies work so hard to avoid.

Guggenheim strikes us as a moral and intellectual disgrace. Starting tomorrow, we’ll work our way through a list of the high-profile fools who have pimped his disinformation and his hopelessly limited framework.

In the meantime, go ahead—take a look at those data! Those data were fashioned by brutal history. The effects of that history won’t go away because a perfumed fellow like Guggenheim wants to continue his Hollywood style while telling himself that he’s good—so much better than the serfs who work very day in the field.

Links to PISA and PIRLS data: For national science scores on the 2006 PISA, click here, scroll down to Table 2, page 6. For scores of American demographic groups, see page iv.

For national scores on the 2006 PIRLS (fourth-grade reading), click here, scroll down to Figure 3, page 7.