"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Jon Alter Kneels Again to "Micro-hard Hombre," Bill Gates

Tom Friedman and Jonathan Alter have a couple of things in common besides their principle concern for having others listen to them without interruption.

Both share an abiding faith in technocracy to solve the problems that technology creates, and both embrace a blithely-oppressive brand of self-consuming and human-gobbling capitalism that places Man squarely under the unholy, heavy Thumb of the Market's invisible Hand.  Their shared religion often brings them together to sit at the feet of high priest, Bill Gates, with their notepads at the ready to receive the Word on any number of problems, real or manufactured, that Gates pretends to know something about, while the millionaires at Microsoft scurry around developing the product lines to make Bill's wise solutions realizable in ways that increase market share

Gates had turned his eye toward the half-trillion dollars that Americans spend on education long before Rupert Murdoch hired the hapless Joel Klein to advise News Corporation on how to get in on the ed bonanza.  In fact, Gates's recent enthusiasms for hand-held data phasers led, I would guess, to Murdoch's ridiculously-overpriced purchase of Wireless Generation, the company that had NYC Schools as a client during Klein's lucrative tenure.  We must wonder how long it will take Microsoft to gobble up Wireless Generation if their ridiculous gadget can be made indispensable by the ed marketeers.

So combine Alter's worship of Gates with his schoolyard bully's attitude toward public education, and you have a very valuable propaganda weapon that Team Oligarch uses on a regular basis to soften up the ground ahead of new corporate ed campaigns.  Alter delivers in his most recent piece in the bankrupt Newsweek rag, with so many malicious distortions and sucker punches that it will take more than a single post to sort them out.  The first one comes in the lead paragraph as a familiar form of fearplay that predictably precedes the outright assault.  Ladies and gentlemen, the education crisis redux, once more, again:
Bill Gates is raising his arm, bent at the elbow, in the direction of the ceiling. The point he’s making is so important that he wants me and the pair of Gates Foundation staffers sitting in the hotel conference room in Louisville, Ky., to recognize the space between this thought and every lower-ranking argument. “If there’s one thing that can be done for the country, one thing,” Gates says, his normally modulated voice rising, “improving education rises so far above everything else!” He doesn’t say what the “else” is—deficit reduction? containing Iran? free trade?—but they’re way down toward the floor compared with the arm above that multibillion-dollar head. With the U.S. tumbling since 1995 from second in the world to 16th in college-graduation rates and to 24th place in math (for 15-year-olds), it was hard to argue the point. Our economic destiny is at stake.
Let's look at some facts before we go any further, rather than taking seriously Alter's distortions and lies that he uses to create the illusion of a disaster and, thus, making the Gates plan inevitable and urgently needed.  First off, a good reporter goes beyond Wikipedia to get his facts.  The U. S. is, in fact, 12th and not 16th in college graduation rates when compared with other developed nations.  And rather than "tumbling" down to the 12th spot, other countries, rather, have moved up faster percentage-wise in comparison to the U. S.  Finland, for instance, more than doubled the percentage of its population with bachelors' degrees from 1995 to 2007 (from 20% to 46%), while the U. S. moved up a single point from 33% to 34%.  We must wonder how much Finland's K12 reforms have contributed to this surge in college completion.  Perhaps there is some legitimacy to reforms built on rich curriculums with supportive and challenging schools for all, high-status professional teaching, and the elimination high-stakes standardized testing.

Even with eleven other countries leading the U. S. in percentages of college grads, this kind of statistic is highly misleading, as Bracey pointed out many times.  Finland's population is about 5.3 million souls, while the U. S. population exceeds 310 million.  When extrapolated from the entire population, Finland's 46 percent would represent about 2.4 million folks with degrees, whereas the U. S.'s 34 percent would represent 105 million individuals with degrees.  End of emergency, crisis, disaster, etc.

The 24th spot in math for 15 year olds is another distortion, when we take into consideration the actual numbers of American students scoring at the highest levels, when compared to Finland, Singapore, etc. From Bracey, December 9, 2008 at HuffPo:
Principle 23 of the "principles of data interpretation" that organize "Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered," reads "If the situation really is as alleged ask, 'So what?'" The question does not call for some smart-ass response, it calls for an evaluation of the consequences of the situation. So the U. S. is not #1 in mathematics or science testing. So what? So, very little.

First, comparing nations on average scores is a pretty silly idea. It's like ranking runners based on average shoe size or evaluating the high school football team on the basis of how fast the average senior can run the 40-yard dash. Not much link to reality. What is likely much more important is how many high performers you have. On both TIMSS math and science, the U. S. has a much higher proportion of "advanced" scorers than the international median although the proportion is much smaller than in Asian nations.

This was not true on PISA, another international comparison that tests 15-year-olds. Only 1.5% of American students scored at the highest level compared to top performing New Zealand at 4% and second place Finland at 3.9%. Yet the proportion of Americans at the highest level meant that 70,000 kids scored there compared to about 2,000 for New Zealand and Sweden. No one else even came close--Japan was second with about 33,000 top performers. These are the people who might end up creating leading edge technology in the future. Who cares if Singapore, with about the same population as the Washington Metro Area, and Hong Kong, with about twice that number, score high? There aren't many people there. (And, as journalist Fareed Zakariya found out, the Singapore kids fade as they become adults. More about that in a moment). The bad news is that the U. S., on PISA anyway, had many more students scoring at the lowest levels; these kids likely can't compete for the good jobs in the country.
Brief interruption:  The U. S. has much a higher ranking in another important category that is not on Gates's or Alter's radar screens:
According to data compiled by the OECD in 2008, the United States has a child poverty rate of 20.6%, which makes the United States rank fourth out of thirty OECD countries ranked in that category. Turkey ranks first, with a child poverty rate of 24.6%.  
(Click chart to feel sick).


Back to Bracey's beautiful rant:
Second, test scores, at least average test scores, don't seem to be related to anything important to a national economy. Japan's kids have always done well, but the economy sank into the Pacific in 1990 and has never recovered. The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years. The WEF examines 12 "pillars of competitiveness," only one of which is education. We do OK there, but we shine on innovation. Innovation is the only quality of competitiveness that does not show at some point diminishing returns. Building bigger and faster airplanes can only improve productivity so much. Innovation has no such limits. When Zakariya asked the Singapore Minister of Education why his high-flying students faded in after-school years, the Minister cited creativity, ambition, and a willingness to challenge existing knowledge, all of which he thought American excelled in. But, as Bob Sternberg of Tufts University has pointed out, our obsession with standardized testing has produced one of the best instruments in the nation's history for stifling creativity.

But really, does the fate of the nation rest on how well 9- and 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets? I don't think so. Neither does British economist, S. J. Prais. We look at the test scores and worry about the nation's economic performance. Prais looks at the economic performance and worries about the validity of the test scores: "That the United States, the world's top economic performing country, was found to have school attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international assessments]."

Third, even if comparisons of average test scores were a meaningful exercise, it only looks at one dimension--the supply side. Predictably, the results gave rise to calls for more spending on science instruction. This ignores the fact that we have more scientists and engineers than we can absorb. In one study, Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute found that we mint three new engineers for every new job (this is from permanent residents and citizens, not foreigners). More disturbing was the attrition rate. While educators fret over losing 50% of teachers in 5 years (and well they should), Lowell and Salzman found that engineering loses 65% in two years. Why? Low pay, lousy working conditions, little chance for advancement. American schools of engineering are dominated by foreigners because only people from third world nations can view our jobs as attractive. In fact, long-time science writer, Dan Greenberg, invented a new position for those emerging with Ph.D.'s: post-doc emeritus.

Schools are doing a great job on the supply side. Business and industry are doing a lousy job on the demand side. The oil industry, responding to increased demand for oil exploration raised the entry-level salaries for petroleum engineers by 30-60%. The number of students lining up to be petroleum engineers has doubled and enrollment at Texas Tech has increased sixfold.

As usual in these comparisons, Americans in low-poverty schools look very good, even in mathematics. They would be ranked third in the 4th grade (among 36 nations) 6th in the 8th grade (among 47 nations). This is important because while other developed nations have poor children, the U. S. has a much higher proportion and a much weaker safety net. When UNICEF studied poverty in 22 wealthy nations, the U. S. ranked 21st.

Finally, there are some curiosities that will take some time to analyze. Critics are fond of pointing to the Czech Republic as a nation that spend much less than we do on schools but scores much higher. Not this time. The Czech Republic has seen catastrophic drops in its math scores since 1995, 54 points in 4th grade, 63 points in 8th grade and is now well below the United States in both grades.

Forty-percent of Koreans reached the highest level in 8th grade math. In PISA, only 1.1% did. Note that that is fewer than the 1.5% of American students at the highest level in PISA.

Then there are the gender differences: For some countries there are huge differences in 8th-grade mathematics---favoring females. Of the eight countries with the largest differences, only Thailand is not an Islamic nation. Does this reflect which girls get to go to school in these countries? I don't know.

P. S. Overall the U. S. did pretty well in both subjects at both grades.

To be continued . . .

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