How much does Thomas Friedman know about public schools?

Bob Somerby

Special report: From the Finland Station!

BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: When it comes to low-income schools, big pundits report from the Finland Station. Why not read each thrilling installment?

PART 1—THE LATEST DATA: Isaacson got his data the old-fashioned way—someone was handing them out. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/22/09.

PART 2—PLEASE COME TO FINLAND: When Big Dogs write about public schools, they seem to love pimping the Finns. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/23/09.

In this morning’s conclusion, a Big Dog pundit sings a hit song. Please come to Aspen, he says:

PART 3—PLEASE COME TO ASPEN: How much does Thomas Friedman know about public schools? We’ll take a quick guess: Not much—and there’s no reason why he should. But there are always “cheat sheets” floating around—cheat sheets which let ambitious fellows write essays on unknown topics. One such sheet has been provided this week by the consulting firm McKinsey.

McKinsey’s “cheat sheet” is a new study, entitled “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.” Yesterday morning, we had to chuckle when Javier Hernandez reviewed the new study in a Times news report. Boys and girls, raise your hand if you didn’t already know this:

HERNANDEZ (4/23/09): The study, conducted by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, pointed to bleak disparities in test scores on four fronts: between black and Hispanic children and white children; between poor and wealthy students; between Americans and students abroad; and between students of similar backgrounds educated in different parts of the country.

The report concluded that if those achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, or $3 billion to $5 billion more per day.

Really? Poor kids do less well in schools, as compared to kids who are wealthy?

We’ll grant you this: The framework here is slightly new. Rather than trying to talk about justice, the McKinsey report takes the angle that our prevailing achievement gaps hurt economic output. (That’s the focus of Hernandez’s opening paragraph.) Still, Hernandez seemed to be writing a report designed for folk newly arrived from Mars. Who else wouldn’t know this?

HERNANDEZ (continuing directly): This was the second report on education issues by the firm’s social sector office, which said it was not commissioned by any government, business or other institution. Starting in fall 2008, the researchers reviewed federal and international tests and interviewed education researchers and economists.

In New York City, an analysis of 2007 federal test scores for fourth graders showed strikingly stratified achievement levels: While 6 percent of white students in city schools scored below a base achievement level on math, 31 percent of black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students did. In reading, 48 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students failed to reach that base level, but 19 percent of white students did.

If this study can be believed, these educational achievement gaps can even be found in New York!

It almost seems that Hernandez’ report was pried from a 1960s time capsule. But Hernandez was only doing his job, reviewing the deeply tedious findings of the latest official “new study.” For sheer absurdity, you have to peruse the work of the corps’ Big Dogs—famous scribes who know little about public schools, but like to declaim on them anyway.

Case in point: On Tuesday, Friedman devoted his New York Times column to this new approved study. Friedman doesn’t spend much time writing about public schools. In this column, we thought it showed:

FRIEDMAN: It is not that we [the US] are failing across the board. There are huge numbers of exciting education innovations in America today—from new modes of teacher compensation to charter schools to school districts scattered around the country that are showing real improvements based on better methods, better principals and higher standards. The problem is that they are too scattered—leaving all kinds of achievement gaps between whites, African-Americans, Latinos and different income levels.

Does Friedman know what he’s talking about? From that passage, you’d think that improvement is occurring here and there—but the improvement is modest and scattered. But in both reading and math, the basic data of the endlessly-ballyhooed National Assessment of Educational Progress show improved scores, at all ages tested, among whites, among blacks and among Hispanics—with those “achievement gaps” significantly closing from where they were in 1971. (Click here, then click some more.) We’d love to see a more careful discussion of these NAEP data, conducted by people who might actually know what they’re talking about. But that’s not the way things work in this country. Instead, we let Big Dogs run free, offering utterly silly thoughts derived from the Latest New Study. Eventually, Finland appears:

FRIEDMAN (continuing directly): Using an economic model created for this study, McKinsey showed how much those gaps are costing us. Suppose, it noted, “that in the 15 years after the 1983 report ‘A Nation at Risk’ sounded the alarm about the ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in American education,” the U.S. had lifted lagging student achievement to higher benchmarks of performance? What would have happened?

The answer, says McKinsey: If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

Is something gained by dreams of this type? Why not simply say like this:

If America had invented a magic wand in 1983, we could all have whatever we want!

Duh. Of course this nation would be better off if our children learned more in school. But how do we achieve this goal? Go ahead—read his full column! Friedman forgot to say!

Oh wait! Unfair to Big Dogs! Friedman did offer this:

FRIEDMAN (continuing directly): There are some hopeful signs. President Obama recognizes that we urgently need to invest the money and energy to take those schools and best practices that are working from islands of excellence to a new national norm. But we need to do it with the sense of urgency and follow-through that the economic and moral stakes demand.

How can we realize those $670 billion dreams? Easy! We should “take best practices that are working” and make them the “national norm!” Translation: Friedman doesn’t have the slightest idea what the heck he’s talking about. Adding injury to insult, he’s soon quoting Wendy Kopp about the greatness of her young Princeton grads.

If America had closed the achievement gap, the achievement gap would no longer exist! Over at Time, the other Big Dog, Walter Isaacson, was prepared to be even more daft.

Painful! Isaacson decided to talk about—what else?—the need for “better standards.” (Judging from context, “better” means “higher.”) There’s little sign, at any point, that he actually knows what he’s talking about; we especially enjoyed his “Lake Wobegon” reference, in which he took a funny phenomenon from the 1980s and suggested it followed from No Child Left Behind (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01). But “standards” sound like very good things, and “better” standards sound very good too. Big Dogs love tossing such easy phrases around, producing standard nonsense like this:

ISAACSON (4/15/09): How to Build Better Standards
The drive toward common national standards should begin, I think, with math and reading. Algebra should be the same for a kid in Albany, N.Y., as it is for one in Albuquerque, N.M., or for that matter in Beijing or Bangalore. (We can save for later the debate over whether that should be true for more subjective subjects like history.) These standards should define precisely what students are expected to know by the time they complete each grade and should be accompanied by tests to assess their level of proficiency. The process should be quasi-voluntary: states should not be forced to adopt the common standards, but they should be encouraged to do so through federal funding and public pressure. In states that shy away from holding their schools accountable to these standards, parents and business leaders should hold the elected leaders accountable.

These 21st century American Standards should be comparable to, and benchmarked against, the standards of other countries so that we can determine how globally competitive our nation’s economy will be in the future. Forty years ago, the U.S. had the best graduation rates in the world. Now it ranks 18th. In math scores on international tests, the U.S. ranks 25th; in reading, 15th. As Obama said in his speech to Congress a few weeks ago, “This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that outteach us today will outcompete us tomorrow.” We can already see the signs. Major drug companies such as Merck and Eli Lilly used to outsource much of their manufacturing to India and China; now they also outsource much of their research and engineering.

Isaacson proposes creating standards which “define precisely what students are expected to know by the time they complete each grade.” The standards will be accompanied by tests; presumably (Isaacson’s prose grows murky), these tests will let us determine who has actually met these standards. At this point, the flight of fancy occurs, as is typical in such discussions: According to Isaacson, these standards will somehow let us “determine how globally competitive our nation’s economy will be in the future.” But that seems to assume that our children will actually meet these gloried new standards—and Isaacson hasn’t said a word about how we can make that occur! But then, the Big Dogs always “reason” this way: If we set higher standards, kids will meet them, they say! How easy it is to baffle such gab from a conference room high above Aspen.

Until now, we’d only thought that Isaacson can’t explain Einstein, the subject of his latest best-selling book. Sorry! As it now turns out, he can’t explain fourth grade either. But Isaacson is a major Big Dog; he’s president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, the famous repository of upper-class baffle-gab. (As such, he runs the Aspen Festival of Ideas, the conference named for the sort of thing you’ll least likely encounter there.) When we read his piece this week, we almost thought we heard him crooning another adaptation of that old hit song:

Please come to Aspen in the springtime,
I’ve got a panel full of big names, you would fit right in…

Or as Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast: Then the rich came into our lives. (“Then you have the rich and nothing is ever as it was again.”) Granted, “Hem” was explaining away his own conduct. But the principle he employed was quite strong.

Do Friedman and Isaacson have the first clue about the way our public schools work? Hemingway’s spring was famously false. So are the endless happy outcomes pictured in the posturing prose of this well-reviewed know-nothing class.

Clear mountain prose: We don’t think we’ve ever suggested that you should judge someone’s ideas by the strength of his prose. But we had to chuckle when Isaacson, one of those former Rhodes Scholars, helped limn Ed Sec Duncan:

ISAACSON: As a candidate, Barack Obama was ambiguous about his commitment to the education-reform agenda of standards, testing, accountability and greater choice. But such doubts were quelled by his pick for Education Secretary: Arne Duncan, who was a cool and driven reformer as CEO of the Chicago public-school system and is also a basketball player from the South Side who knows how to move the ball. Duncan’s position on common standards is clear: “If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America,” he says. “I know that talking about standards can make people nervous, but the notion that we have 50 different goalposts is absolutely ridiculous.”

Duncan has a new arrow in his quiver. Buried in the President’s stimulus package is a $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” education fund that the Secretary can use to give incentives to states that make “dramatic progress” in meeting goals that include improving standards. States that fail to give assurances that they will improve standards are at risk of losing education funding from other parts of the stimulus bill.

According to Isaacson, Duncan’s a former basketball player. He doesn’t want too many goal posts—and he has a new arrow in his quiver! Quick guess: Big Dogs who publish such purple prose have spent perhaps ten seconds on it.

Edit –
Tom Friedman, McKinsey and TFA.

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