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CHANNELING PRAVDA! Why is Bill Gates saying those things? Truly, we have no idea: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 18, 2011

How not to get into college: The SATs have been in hot water this week because of the writing assignment which appeared on one-third of its recent tests. Unlucky students were forced to respond to this incoherent “prompt:”

SAT PROMPT: Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled.

How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?

Defending the assignment, the SAT’s executive director told the New York Times this: “The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills.” For that reason, we don’t know why students wouldn’t be given a choice of three or four topics. That said, we were mainly struck by the horrible writing displayed in the prompt itself.

“Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic?” We won’t attempt to pick apart the incoherence of the full prompt. But if we were scoring, no student could have received a top score unless his or her essay began with this paragraph:


(Also accepted: “Say what?”)

In our view, it’s pretty sad when the testing industry offers such mumble-mouthed confusion on one of its highest-profile tests.

Our question: If the SAT creates writing like that, do you have faith in its ability to grade the writing of others?

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

INTERLUDE—CHANNELING PRAVDA (permalink): On March 3, it fell to Jon Stewart to air an intelligent segment about the nation’s public schools. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/15/11.

Two weeks earlier, it fell to the much-reviled New York Post to report, in substantial detail, about the state of New York’s hushed-up test score scandal. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/11.

Why does it fall to tabloid newspapers, and to comedians, to make such presentations? In part, this situation obtains when the “liberal” world quits on such basic topics. The liberal world quit on black kids long ago—and it has generally sat and stared as teachers, and their infernal unions, have become big political targets.

When the liberal world refuses to care, others fill the void.

In part, this explains why the world’s second-richest person is driving our education debate. That lucky ducky is Bill Gates. Gates may be thoroughly well intentioned, but it isn’t clear he knows squat from squadoosh when it comes to the public schools. Recently, Gates began an op-ed piece in the Washington Post like this:

GATES (2/28/11): As the nation's governors gather in Washington for their annual meeting, they are grappling with more than state budget deficits. They're confronting deep education deficits as well.

Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat. Meanwhile, other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.

To build a dynamic 21st-century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve. For more than 30 years, spending has risen while performance stayed relatively flat. Now we need to raise performance without spending a lot more.

Does Bill Gates know what he’s talking about? More specifically, are the claims we’ve highlighted accurate? We’ll assume that Gates is well-intentioned, but he clearly plays an outsized role in America’s education debate. In part, this may explain why you hear so many “facts” which are grossly misleading or wrong.

How bizarre is our education discourse? Consider the column we cited yesterday—the current piece by Ronald Wolk, founder and past editor of Education Week.

Education Week is an influential publication, though you’ll never hear its work discussed at career liberal portals. Because the publication is influential, it should be amazing to see what Wolk has wrought in his current piece. As he starts, Wolk offers a gloomy assessment—the type of assessment which is constantly heard when public schools get discussed:

WOLK (3/9/11): Through the 1980s and 1990s, the mantra of the school reform movement was “all children can learn.” This sentiment was in perfect harmony with our nation’s long-standing commitment to universal education—the promise that every child would have the opportunity to be educated to the level of his or her ability.

By any measure, our education system has failed to keep that promise. Although the evidence is abundant and well known, and so need not be detailed here, consider three indisputable facts that capture the essence of the system’s failure.

According to Wolk, our education system has failed to keep an important promise. “The evidence is abundant and well known,” he says, “and so need not be detailed here.” Wolk then runs through a few alleged facts about drop-out rates and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the so-called “gold standard” of educational testing. But soon, he pens the following passage, sounding a lot like Gates:

WOLK: [H]ow do we explain that nearly 30 years of unprecedented effort and enormous expenditures has not improved student performance, reduced the dropout rate, or closed the achievement gap?

I am convinced we have made little or no progress in improving education because we misdiagnosed the problem at the outset and, consequently, our efforts to improve student performance have been seriously off course.

If anything, Wolk is even gloomier than Gates. In the past thirty years, “we have made little or no progress in improving education,” he says. More precisely, we have not “improved student performance.” We have not “reduced the dropout rate, or closed the achievement gap.”

In the present environment, you hear such claims all the time. According to Wolk, the evidence is so well known that he doesn’t have to restate it! But as far we know, all three of Wolk’s basic pronouncements are either false or misleading.

The “facts” he cites are indeed “well known.” The problem is, they aren’t true.

Let’s set aside the claim about the drop-out rate. As far as we know, Wolk’s claim is inaccurate. But the drop-out rate is famously hard to define and determine, and we haven’t attempted to study it.

Instead, let’s look at Wolk’s gloomy claims about student performance and the achievement gap.

Wolk refers to “nearly 30 years of effort.” Judging from the rest of his piece, he refers to the period since 1983, when a federal commission published “A Nation at Risk,” a famous report which he says “stunned the nation.” But is it true that “we have made little or no progress in improving education” since that time? Is it true that we have “not improved student performance” or “closed the achievement gap” since 1983?

In his piece, Wolk cites the NAEP as his primary source of data, as almost all researchers do. But if we look at results from the NAEP, one of Wolk’s claims is simply false, while the other is grossly misleading.

If we want to go back to 1983, we have to use the data from the NAEP’s so-called “long-term trend assessment” (for all such data, click here). But in those data, black students and Hispanic students are doing massively better, in both reading and math, over the period Wolk has defined. The achievement gaps haven’t closed as much as one might wish, but that’s because white students are doing better too—and the gaps have plainly narrowed in most areas. Meanwhile:

The NAEP began conducting a second survey, the so-called “Main NAEP,” around 1990. Here too, performance by black kids and Hispanic kids is strongly improved, massively so in math—and the achievement gaps have narrowed. For the reading report, click this. For the math report, just click here.

(For an overview of the relevant data in both NAEP surveys, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/10.)

Why is Ronald Wolk saying these things? Truly, we have no idea—but everyone says these things, all the time, from Barack Obama on down. Meanwhile, a small, hardy gang of billionaires have pushed their way into the discussion; they now have an outsized influence, as we’ll discuss on Monday. That said, why should Bill Gates know whereof he speaks, if a man like Wolk is parading about uttering such obvious howlers?

Given the money Gates has to dispense, is it surprising when various folk stand in line to act like his bromides are accurate?

We live at a very strange point in time—a time when truth has virtually disappeared as a basic concept. If you hear a claim being widely advanced, you can feel almost certain it’s false. In this country, we used to laugh at the Soviet Union’s procedures—at the way Pravda could make the truth disappear. But we ourselves live in a Pravda culture—and the career liberal world stares.

Do liberals care about public schools—about the deserving kids who attend them? Plainly, no, we do not. On our One True Channel, the various corporate-funded hosts would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before they would stoop to discuss our public schools or the ratty kids who attend them. Career liberals parade about the land, praising themselves for their vast racial greatness—but they wouldn’t discuss the lives of black kids if their own lives were at stake.

And so, it is left to comedians to conduct sane discussions about our public schools. Billionaires step into the void, crafting our Pravda-like discourse.

Bill Gates speaks in the Washington Post. As he does, career liberals entertain us rubes with tales of the silly Ms. Bachmann.

On Monday, we will return to Gates, the richest and perhaps most influential of the public school billionaires. But why is Ronald Wolk saying those things? Truly, we have no idea.

Gates rebutted: To see Bill Gates’ column rebutted, you know what to do: Just click here.