I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Mustache of Understanding Tries To Do Education

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that Tom Friedman - the NY Times's own Mustache of Understanding - was in danger of losing his Wanker-In-Chief title to Frank Bruni. The bald-faced food critic, you see, had attempted to opine on education, with predictably disastrous results; how could bushy-nosed Friedman ever top Bruni's stunning display of ignorance and laziness and stay on top of the wankeriffic heap?

Oh, me of little faith. If there's one thing I think we've come to learn over the years, it's that Tom Friedman will never give up in his battle to remain the least well-informed bloviater in our nation without a fight:
THE latest results in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compare how well 15-year-olds in 65 cities and countries can apply math, science and reading skills to solve real-world problems were released last week, and it wasn’t pretty for the home team. Andreas Schleicher, who manages PISA, told the Department of Education: “Three years ago, I came here with a special report benchmarking the U.S. against some of the best performing and rapidly improving education systems. Most of them have pulled further ahead, whether it is Brazil that advanced from the bottom, Germany and Poland that moved from adequate to good, or Shanghai and Singapore that moved from good to great. The math results of top-performer Shanghai are now two-and-a-half school years ahead even of those in Massachusetts — itself a leader within the U.S.”
So how many times do we have to point out that "x number of years of learning" is a phony metric that has little to no basis in reality (it's not as if all the kids in Shanghai take calculus while the kids in Massachusetts are still taking algebra)? And how many times do we have to point out that Shanghai is an economically segregated province of China and, therefore, wholly inappropriate for comparison to a state as heterogeneous as Massachusetts?  Or that comparing rankings - ordinal measures - hides variations in scores? Or that the curvilinearity in US PISA results punishes poor children in our country more than poor children in other countries? Or how premature the analysts of test scores have previously been in praising other nations' education systems? Or how there may be large technical flaws in the PISA methodology? Or the host of other cautions and concerns with international test score comparisons that should keep any thinking person from making sweeping assumptions about the relative strength of American education?

How many times do I and others have to point this stuff out before educational tourists like Tom Friedman stop for a moment and think about what they are actually saying?

Friedman could have used his extremely valuable real estate within the Sunday Times's op-ed page - perhaps the most influential print media space in the country - to explore these topics. Instead, he regurgitates for us more of his renowned 21st Century, tech-infused, faux-cosmopolitan babble:
Not good. We’re now in an era in which globalization and the information technology revolution have merged to drastically shrink what was the basis of our middle class for so many years: the “high-wage, middle-skilled” job. In a less integrated and less automated world of walls, where unions held more sway, many Americans could live an average middle-class lifestyle with average skills. In today’s hyperconnected world without walls — when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs — the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs. “Over the last decade, job growth in the industrialized world has almost exclusively been at the top end of the PISA skill distribution,” explained Schleicher, “while routine cognitive skills, the kinds of things that are easy to teach but also easy to digitize and outsource, have seen the steepest decline in demand.”
Dear, lord, where to begin?

1) Tom, when it's time to clean the pool or scrub the toilets at your fabulously opulent mansion...

...are you concerned that the workers you hired are lacking in higher education credentials? Would you be willing to pay them more if they went on and got their BAs at Brandeis? Would they be better at mowing the lawn if they had pursued degrees in Mediterranean studies? Or do you only employ domestics who use a year of vacuuming the Maison de Mustache as resume builders on their way to "high-wage," "high-skill" jobs?

Folks like Tom Friedman must train themselves to look past the many millions of people who do tough but necessary work that does not require higher education: bricklayers, factory workers, home health care aides, janitors, clerks, truck drivers, domestics, cashiers, and so on. These Americans work hard, they play by the rules, and they do work that is important; however, our country has left them behind.

Does Friedman honestly think we are going to educate ourselves out of this situation? Is he willing to have a world where everyone is so highly educated that no one will be left to wash his dishes? Or do maybe, just maybe, we really have a problem with workers in this country who are doing necessary jobs, yet are unable to live their lives in dignity?

2) Tom's worried about those damn "hyperconnected" Chinese and Indians catching up to our middle class. I would suggest he ought to be more worried about the notion that we are competing with China and India for which nation can have the most unequal society:

The GINI index hardly tells the entire story, but there is no doubt that China and India are highly unequal societies - and we are right up there with them. Seeing past this, however, is a necessary part of taking Friedman's worldview. If you can't acknowledge the exploitation of workers doing necessary work in the US, how can you possibly see the same thing in the rest of the world? Better to distract yourself with dreams of non-existent robots...

3) I don't know where Schleicher has been living, but even the well-educated are scuffling in our brave, new, reformy world. We've got more underemployed college graduates than just about ever; over 40 percent of low-wage workers have some college education. Even the vaunted STEM jobs - Science, Technology, Engineering, Math - have more qualified graduates than openings. Yes, there's been job growth at the top - but it's too slow to accommodate all the workers who are qualified for the positions.

Is this a result of slow economic growth?

Guess not. Well, all that growth must have meant more money for the American worker, right?

Guess not. Golly, where has all of that money gone?

^DJI Chart
^DJI data by YCharts

Anyone who tells you that chronic poverty and the erosion of the middle class is due to poor economic growth as a consequence of educational stagnation is massively ignorant, a liar, or both. This country has seen historic gains in economic growth over the last several decades, but it has all gone to the already wealthy.

Meanwhile, as Diane Ravitch points out in Reign of Error, high school graduation rates and tests scores as measured by subgroups are at historic highs. She also makes the very good case (p.87) that the reason more people won't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting college degrees is because it no longer makes sense. Why would anyone in their right mind buy into Friedman's fairy tale of economic utopia through education when it's not working right now?

But leave it to the man who created the absurd "terrorism bubble" metaphor to mangle the language in his own special way and completely misdiagnose the problem:
To his credit, Obama has also been calling for more investment in preschool, tech-ed and affordable colleges, but Republicans will only talk about tax cuts. Tax cuts alone won’t cut it either. Our kids face three big adjustments. First, to be in the middle class, they will need to be constantly improving their skills over their lifetime. Second, to do that, they will need a lot more self-motivation. The “digital divide” will soon disappear. Fairly soon, virtually everyone will have a screen and an Internet connection. In that world, argues futurist Marina Gorbis, the big divide will be “the motivational divide” — who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn. And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs. [emphasis mine]
And so we're back to the moral authority the wealthy and influential accrue to themselves. You see, the reason people "succeed" is because they are better than everyone else! They have more "grit" and "talent" and "self-motivation!" All you need is some cheap digital crap and a broadband connection, and the world is your oyster! What are you sitting around for, kids? It's not like there's anything that holding you back, amiright?

Oh, yeah, that...

Of course, the corollary to the M.O.U's theory is that the people who are currently living in big houses and spewing ill-conceived nonsense in the pages of the NY Times are there because they are so bloody "talented" and "persistent" and "gritty." It couldn't possibly be because the game is rigged and only those lucky enough to be born to circumstances in which they acquired needed social capital are allowed to reach the upper echelons of society, where they can generate hegemonic claptrap to their hearts' content.

I've said it over and over, and I'll keep saying it on this stupid little blog until I croak: the education "solution" to inequality is nothing but a big, fat con. It is a distraction to keep the conversation off of the tax policies, the political corruption, the institutionalized racism and sexism, the rigging of the capital markets, and the media complacency that are dooming the American middle- and working-classes and, consequently, our nation's entire democratic experiment.

Tom Friedman's insipid feints at political partisanship are nothing more than a ploy to maintain the status quo and place the blame for the consequences on people who are losing more of their rights, more of their freedom, and more of their ownership in our society every day.

Feels like the right time for George to come back and spread some truth:

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying -- lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want -- they want MORE for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They DON'T want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that, that doesn't help them. That's against their interests. That's right. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting ****** by system that threw them overboard 30 ******' years ago. They don't want that. You know what they want? They want OBEDIENT WORKERS. OBEDIENT WORKERS. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly ******** jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. 
ADDING: The consistently excellent Arthur Goldstein sees Friedman's column differently than I do. Read the whole thing, but here's a taste:
Friedman is probably wrong that PISA predicts anything whatsoever about the economy, and as he knows little or nothing about education, he's probably better off not writing about it. But what he's suggesting here, that teachers ought to determine what goes on in their classrooms, is actually a great idea. It's ridiculous to say that no one should read To Kill A Mockingbird beyond grade six. It's absurd to suggest teaching Lincoln's Gettysburg Address without historical context. Good teachers know that.

Particularly offensive and stupid is the notion that "rigor" is what's needed to make kids read. Making kids love to read is about making connections, about instilling passion, and it's almost an act of seduction. There have been few things more gratifying in my teaching career than having kids thank me for forcing them to read their first novel, saying they'd never before read a book in English and that they never thought they could do it. If I'd been required to teach some tedious Common Core Crap that would never have happened.

It's our job to shape instruction to inspire our students, and Friedman is actually advocating for that. I'm not altogether sure whether he knows it. But it's time to take his advice. It's time to empower teachers, not with reformy crap and busy work, but in allowing us to write curriculum, to design lessons specifically for our students, and to design our own tests that will give feedback on how to help them even more.
Can't argue with that. But let's be clear: this is one of those "stopped watch being right twice a day" moments.


Giuseppe said...

This is an excellent take down of T. F. in particular and the whole garbage nonsense that we don't have enough qualified, educated or technically trained people in this country. We have hordes of skilled, trained and educated folks who are looking for employment in their particular field. But the corporate oligarchs are not interested in paying Americans living or decent wages for their skills. It's so much easier to insource H1b visa people or to outsource jobs to Indian call centers. Great job, it's an instant classic.

rd said...

Brilliant skewering of a predictably banal Friedman article. I like that you also posted Goldstein's reaction as that was the one thing I enjoyed about Friedman's piece: seeing him go "off message" by suggesting actual teachers should make decisions about what to teach and how to teach it.

If we truly lived in a meritocracy, this Jersey Jazzman piece would appear in the Sunday Review section of the NYTimes. It could replace the Mustachioed Marauder and Goody Dowd's worthless attempts at wit, too.

Unknown said...

It's so much easier to insource H1b visa people or to outsource jobs to Indian call centers. Great job, it's an instant classic.

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Giuseppe said...

For the most part, I agree with Arthur Goldstein's assessment of the NY Times Op Ed page: "I'm not a big fan of any NY Times columnist, particularly when they write about education. Recently, even Paul Krugman, my favorite by far, has been whoring himself out writing pro-Common Core nonsense." I practically worship Krugman when it comes to his views on economics, politics and the deficit hawks like Paul Ryan. Sadly, Krugman is clueless when it comes to education. I do miss Bob Herbert and Frank Rich. Bob Herbert wrote an excellent column in 1995 about Whitman and her almost criminal underfunding of the pension fund in order to give tax breaks to the rich. It's such a prescient column, worth googling. One thing you do have to admit about these billionaire pundits, they live in much bigger homes than we ordinary mortals. Geezus, Friedman's mansion/palace/compound is beyond belief and that's probably just one of his castles.

Unknown said...

Great article! We can all use a positive break from the tough job of teaching. PHP Training

Mrs. King's music students said...

Love every bit of this article Jazzman - from overqualified/underpaid to turning creative geniuses into obediant employees.