Education Politics: The Right's Data-Proof Ideologues

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Most of my colleagues and I work in some sector of educational research. We research-ers deal with data. We try to be disinterested with regard to what the data say, letting them guide us wherever possible. This neutralist stance puts us at quite a disadvantage when dealing with people whose ideologies make them data-proof. This weakness is now of great import because we're up against a group of ideologically driven, right-wing public school critics with an agenda for changing, perhaps eliminating, American public schools. Their ideologies act as prisms, blocking or at best distorting what the data on American education actually say.

They are at war with the rest of those in education. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have both issued declarations of war against the larger society. "This is an intellectual, conceptual, and ideological war," the Hudson Institute's Chester E. Finn Jr. said recently in The Washington Times. Since this exact quote also appears in a Hudson Institute publication, we may safely assume it is not a misattribution. The Times article also declared that the Hudson Institute was gearing up for war and called Mr. Finn a "bomb thrower," apparently with approbation. Bomb throwers, in any case, are not generally thought to be seeking facts that contradict their beliefs.

I first noticed the right's data-proof stance when I debated Diane Ravitch, then assistant U.S. secretary of education, at the 1992 Education Writers Association meeting. We were given the question "Are American schools as bad as they say?" I had recently published a long article, with mountains of data that compelled the answer "no." I spoke first and presented as many facts as I could in the 20 minutes allotted. Ms. Ravitch then began her "side" of the "debate" with, "That's not really an interesting question," and proceeded to deliver a tangent on the history of American education. The back and forth that followed the opening statements was no more satisfying.

A short time later I debated Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, on the same question. At one point, Mr. Doyle said that "expenditures for schools increased in the 1980's by 34 percent, in real dollars, but test scores were static." I quickly dug into my collection of overheads, threw onto the screen two slides showing test scores at all grades 3-12 had been rising since the mid-70's. At all grades save grade 8 and grade 12, scores were at all-time highs, and those two grades approached record levels.

Mr. Doyle regarded the curves and said, "Well, the important ones, the S.A.T.'s, are static." I acknowledged that the overall average of the S.A.T.'s has been flat for a while, largely because the composition of S.A.T. takers had been changing. The standards on what is now called the Scholastic Assessment Test were set on 10,654 students living in the Northeast. Ninety-eight percent of them were white, 60 percent of them were male, and 40 percent of them had received their high school educations in private schools. Currently, those who take the S.A.T. are 31 percent minority and 52 percent women, and 30 percent of them report annual family incomes under $30,000. All of these changes are associated with lower test scores. If one takes these demographic changes into account, S.A.T. scores have been rising also.

I figured this irrefutable test-score information would eventually sink into Mr. Doyle and that would be the end of it. Hardly. In 1994, a book, Reinventing Education, appeared. Of the four authors, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corporation, was listed first and Mr. Doyle third, although many of the passages were simple extracts from recent articles and speeches by Mr. Doyle. Their book propagated many inaccuracies, but I was especially surprised by a sentence on page 229: "Expenditures for public education increased in the decade of the 1980's by 34 percent (in real dollars), yet the only output measures available were test scores, which were, by and large, static." Not only had the facts not been absorbed, but the statement was also presented with virtually the same syntax as it had been two years earlier.

Reinventing Education also propounded another favorite assertion of the education right: that the United States spends more money on public schools than any other nation in the world. A mantra during the Bush years, it is still popular. The well-known policy analyst and conservative school critic Herbert Walberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago recently made this claim. When I cited him in print and said it wasn't so, Mr. Walberg rushed a letter to the editor in his defense. He referred to the U.S. Education Department's Condition of Education as validating his contention. Sure enough, one chart in the 1992 edition does show the United States spending most. The figure is in terms of dollars spent, a computation that takes no account of rate fluctuations or purchasing power. Much more importantly, the chart shows the United States and only five other nations. It is astonishing that Mr. Walberg, a man of long experience in the analysis of international data, is willing to define the world and the United States rank in it using only six countries.

If one moves to a longer list, as the Condition of Education has done in its 1994 edition, the United States loses its number-one rank very quickly. There are various ways of calculating school expenditures and there are problems with all of them in terms of their comparability across countries. Taking Mr. Walberg's preferred measure, dollars spent per year, for the 19 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States finishes sixth. Thus, even using Mr. Walberg's chosen index, the figures do not bear him out.

Other ways of calculating costs involve expenditures as a percent of gross domestic product or of per-capita gross domestic product. The first does not take into account the size of the G.D.P.; the second does. In both, the United States attains only an average, 10th place, ranking among the 19 O.E.C.D. nations. And even this ranking is misleading because in this country, fewer of the dollars make it into the classroom. U.S. schools provide many services not provided in other nations or provided to a lesser degree: transportation, food, medical services, counseling, and, especially, special education. Because of these extra services, the United States is the only nation where teachers constitute fewer than half of schools' employees.

To these comments, the conservative critics would no doubt respond, "It doesn't matter if we're number one in spending or not; it doesn't help to throw money at the problem. Money is not related to achievement." Indeed, that is precisely what the University of Rochester economist ERIC Hanushek and Mr. Finn said at a recent Brookings Institution symposium. They reiterated the claim that we're spending more money but test scores are flat. When I held up a chart showing test scores at even higher levels than when I debated Mr. Doyle two years earlier, they appeared unconcerned and unimpressed. It's because they have no intention of letting facts alter their opinions.

Those who allege that money is unrelated to achievement are fond of citing Mr. Hanushek's analysis. Yet, at least two more sophisticated analyses of his data clearly find that they do not support Mr. Hanushek's contentions. Other recent, more empirical research by Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University, Howard Wainer of the Educational Testing Service, and Robert Lockwood of the Alabama Department of Education and James McLean of the University of Alabama plainly shows that money does matter.

When not ignoring data, the ideologues use them deceitfully. In 1993, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council released yet another study demeaning the potency of money in educational attainment. In this study, directed by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the annual per-pupil cost at the state level defined expenditures, and state-level s.a.t scores defined achievement. A comrade-in-doctrinaireness, the syndicated columnist George Will, looked at Mr. Bennett's report and penned a column, "Meaningless Money Factor." Mr. Will observed that the states with the highest S.A.T. scores--Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Minnesota--all were low spenders. New Jersey, on the other hand, spent more money per child per year than anyone else and still finished only 39th in the great S.A.T. race. A few days later, the columnist and talk-show host Robert Novak tried to terrify the good citizens of California by revealing that California's S.A.T. average was lower than Mississippi's.

In addition to ignoring differences in purchasing power in the different states, what Messrs. Bennett, Will, and Novak failed to point out was that in the high-scoring states, no one takes the S.A.T. For the top five states, the percentages of seniors who bubbled in S.A.T. answer sheets the year of the study were 5, 6, 6, 4, and 10, respectively. In New Jersey, on the other hand, 76 percent of the senior class huddled in angst on Saturday mornings. Mississippi beat California because 4 percent of its seniors took the S.A.T. while 47 percent of California's did.

Along with the claims that we spend more money than anyone and that money doesn't matter, Messrs. Hanushek, Finn, Doyle, and Gerstner have also accused American students of looking awful in international comparisons. They can say this only because they don't bother to look at the data. If they looked at the data, they'd be rendered mute.

For instance, in a 1992 international study of reading skills in 31 nations, which was almost entirely ignored by the media, American 9-year-olds finished second only to Finland. That's right, those TV-drenched couch potatoes finished second only to a small, homogeneous country that spends few hours worrying about how to teach Finnish as a second language. American 14-year-olds finished eighth, still in the upper third, but the scores of all the high-ranked countries were clumped so close that, again, only Finland had significantly higher scores.

This last finding, tightly bunched scores among most nations, points to another subtlety that conservatives like to ignore. They prefer to deal in ranks, but ranks obscure performance. In the Second International Assessment of Educational Progress (the I.A.E.P.-2), American 9-year-olds finished third in the world in science among 15 nations. Our 14-year-olds didn't rank so well: 13th of 15. But both groups had scores very close to average. If the 14-year-olds had mustered only 5 percent more of the items correct, they'd have finished fifth. If the 9-year-olds had failed 5 percent more, they'd have been near the bottom. The differences among most countries in these international comparisons are so small that they have no educational or policy uses--only political and ideological ones.

Even in mathematics, where we are such putative dolts, our students perform much better than people claim. "Last or next to last," said Mr. Gerstner and company. "Dead last," said the Washington Post pundit Charles Krauthammer. Wrong again, guys. In the Second International Mathematics Study (sims) and the I.A.E.P.-2, the scores were mostly close to average.

But looking at the average of all American students is misleading (even when we do well). In sims, Japanese students had the highest average scores, but the top 20 percent of American students outscored the top 20 percent of Japanese students, and the top 50 percent of American classes had a score identical to that of the top 50 percent of Japanese classes. In the I.A.E.P.-2, Korea and Taiwan had the highest averages but Asian students in American schools scored higher and white students tied Hungary for third place. Black and Hispanic students, though, and students in disadvantaged urban areas, scored below the lowest country, Jordan, or state, Mississippi.

Why do the conservatives insist on ignoring all the complexities of the data? There are several reasons. One is that they simply do not like to deal with complexities, because complexities are messy. More than liberals, conservatives are guilty of what Harold Howe 2nd calls "millennialist thinking," thinking that a single social reform can bring the millennium. The conservatives' search for fine-sounding simple solutions brings to mind H. L. Mencken's comment, "For every complex problem there is a simple answer--and it's wrong."

In addition to an affinity for simplistic solutions, the conservatives display a breathtaking rigidity and narrowness of thought. The educational-leadership fraternity, Phi Delta Kappa, and a liberal Washington think tank, the Institute for Educational Leadership, tried to organize a conference called "Common Ground." The goal was to bring liberal and conservative education thinkers together and determine where they could agree. The Hudson Institute was asked to co-sponsor the event and initially declined. Finally, after a foundation put up the funds, the conservatives agreed to show up, but it was clear that they felt they had nothing to learn, nothing in common with the liberals. When one attendee mentioned the polls that find people approve of their local schools, Hudson's Mr. Doyle commented, "That's just scientific proof that ignorance is bliss."

And finally, while liberals often offer a diverse range of options for educational reform, and don't always agree with each other, conservatives present a narrow platform they've agreed on and they talk only to each other. The "Education Policy Committee" recently formed by Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch as part of the Hudson Institute's Educational Excellence Network contains virtually no one in its list of 45 members whose views would do anything but reinforce the narrow conceits of the political right. Those few who could broaden the discourse were identified with asterisks next to their names as not agreeing with the committee's first report. And in these narrow conceits, they have decided they can and should overlook those aspects of the data that might prove them wrong. The consequence is that they have perpetrated nasty disinformation about the condition of American schools, for which they should be ashamed. But, no doubt, aren't.

Vol. 14, Issue 18, Pages 37, 48

Published in Print: January 25, 1995, as Education Politics: The Right's Data-Proof Ideologues
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories