Punchback: Answering Critics

Dispelling a Prize-Winner’s Disinformation


Thomas L. Friedman is no mean authority when it comes to analysis of the global economy, if an Amazon ranking of No. 1 in history and science for The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century is any basis for judgment.

But when it comes to analyzing education policy, you have to wonder what he has been reading lately. In a widely read New York Times op-ed column, “Swimming Without a Suit,” on April 21, 2009, he opined “… educationally, we are not a nation at risk. We are a nation in decline. … ”

Glass.jpgGene V Glass

Friedman quotes extensively from “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” a report produced by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Friedman’s performance in a field far removed from his expertise only demonstrates how difficult it is to avoid being swept away in the roaring streams of education disinformation. Among Friedman’s claims are these:

•  “In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. dominated the world in K-12 education. … In the 1970s and 1980s, we still had a lead, albeit smaller, in educating our population through secondary school, and America continued to lead the world economically. … Today, we have fallen behind in both per capita high school graduates and their quality.”

•  “… in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment that measured the applied learning and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, the U.S. ranked 25th out of the 30 in math and 24th in science.”

•  “We are a nation in decline, and our nakedness is really showing,” playing off a Warren Buffett observation that a serious recession will reveal which of the swimmers are not wearing suits.

Jeremiads about U.S. public education gush from the many transnational tests of achievement upon which politicians and other ideologues feast. These comparisons are senseless and invidious.

Testing Vagaries
In 2006, nearly 500,000 15-year-olds in 57 countries took a two-hour test, PISA. PISA 2006 had its share of absurdities and inconsistencies. The United States scored above Israel and Norway in science but below Azerbaijan and Ireland in math. From 2003 to 2006, Mexico gained 21 points in math while France lost 15 points.

What possible policy implications could such data hold? When such gyrations have been examined, they have been found to result from vagaries in test administration, sample selection, nonresponse rates and other details.

Friedman might want to take a look at “Top of the Class: High Performers in Science in PISA 2006,” a report released this summer by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that reveals the number of students by nation scoring at the top level of the exam. The United States has 25 percent of all the top PISA scorers in the world followed by Japan, 13 percent; Germany and the United Kingdom, both 8 percent; the Russian Federation, 6 percent; South Korea and France, both 5 percent; and Canada, 4 percent. Not quite the impression conveyed by Friedman. (See http://tinyurl.com/dedssr for the “Top of the Class” report, notably Figure 1.2.)

If Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, can allow himself to be misinformed by a few think-tank briefs, what hope is there for the average school administrator to separate fact from fiction in the buzzing confusion of the education policy wars? Help is on the way. But first, two morals can be drawn from Friedman’s mishap.

Bracey’s Combat
First, education research is political, and why not. It’s one of the biggest investments of any industrialized society. When reading any think-tank policy piece, ask, “Who is saying this, and what stake do they have in education?”

McKinsey & Co. is a management consulting firm that advertises on its website, “We help people and companies explore extraordinary opportunities, manage and sustain growth, and maximize revenue.” Maximize revenue? Sustain growth? What about “Foster the development of our nation’s youth”?

Perhaps McKinsey & Co. would not be my first choice for advice on how to manage schools. Even knowing that the latest emanation of a well-endowed think tank is not necessarily a nonpolitical analysis, you still may not be adequately armed to guard against being bamboozled by disinformation. For that, the average school administrator needs help, which is available from the contributors to the Think Tank Review Project .

Second, disinformation, like that passed on by Friedman, is endemic in today’s sharply politicized society. It’s not just think-tank policy briefs that need close monitoring, but communications on education of many sorts.

No one is more tireless in fighting the dissemination of disinformation on education than Jerry Bracey. He posts commentary and analysis on bad education information in the media and elsewhere almost daily at his Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency . Bracey’s analyses are free to read by educators everywhere.

Gene Glass is Regents’ professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute at Arizona State University and author of Fertilizers, Pills, and Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America. E-mail: glass@asu.edu