Stossel's 'Stupid' Schools

A beginner’s course in deceptive reporting

If there were a John Stossel School of Journalism, reporters-intraining would be taught a simple template for any story: Free markets are good. Unions are bad. When consumers get to “choose,” everyone wins; if governments try to regulate, everyone loses. No matter what the assignment, a Stossel-trained reporter would be instructed to merely plug in a few relevant factoids to back up the propositions and—perhaps more importantly—to exclude any that undermine the predetermined conclusion.

As subtle as its title, Stossel’s January 13 report on public schools, “Stupid in America,” hewed completely to that template. The one-hour special served up everything one has come to expect from ABC’s 20/20 anchor: anecdotes presented as fact, lopsided sourcing, constant editorializing and the exclusion of information that would challenge its premise—namely, that public schools are resounding failures, that complaints about inadequate funding are bogus, that teachers’ unions are the most significant barrier to school improvement, and that school privatization (in the form of vouchers) presents the best if not only hope for American children.

Evidence, Stossel-style

With a touchy argument like “U.S. kids are stupid,” you might imagine Stossel would start with his best evidence. But the program’s opening sequence actually consists of clips from Hollywood movies, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, along with Stossel’s comments:

Stossel:“Stupid in America.” That’s a nasty title. But some nasty things are going on in America’s public schools and it’s about time we face up to them. We see so many movies showing us wild kids. [Movie clip.] Kids arriving in school doped up. [Movie clip.] The movies tell us kids are stupid. [Movie clip.] And the teachers boring. [Movie clip.]Are real teachers that dull? Students told us, yes.

Unidentified female student: Some teachers are very boring, so everybody falls asleep.

Stossel: Is school as bad as the movie suggests?

Unidentified male student: You see kids all the time walking into school smoking weed. You know, it’s a normal thing here.

Remarkably, this is how much of the program proceeds: uncontextualized, one-line comments from unidentified students and parents, interspliced with Stossel’s off-camera commentary. Viewers are required to take the host at his word when he attests that a single soundbite reflects what “students tell us.” And the presentation of movies as journalistic “evidence” is par for the course: Stossel goes on to cite segments from The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (to demonstrate the stupidity of U.S. kids) and a sketch from Saturday Night Live (as “a good description of monopoly service”). To illustrate his claim that “when monopolies rule, little gets done,” Stossel dusted off old tape of himself documenting the frustrations of Soviet life: “In this Moscow restaurant, I waited endlessly while waiters sat or talked to each other. Because with no competition, there is no incentive to wait on me.”

Tripled, doubled, whatever

Stossel’s paean to privatization entails a special contempt for the idea that U.S. public schools are underfunded. The program cited a charter school principal, Ben Chavis, calling that “the biggest lie in America.” That assertion was seconded by Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute (but identified only as author of a book on education reform), who was brought on to say, “We doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet schools aren’t better.” Stossel, unsurprisingly, agreed: “Here’s a graph of the increased spending; the line goes straight up. But student achievement, flat. Graduation rates, flat. The extra money didn’t help the kids.”

In a previous attack on public schools (11/12/99), Stossel claimed such spending had tripled; he doesn’t clarify why he doesn’t re-use that particular factoid here. In any event, now as then, there are education scholars, like Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute (American Prospect, 3/21/93), who have long pointed out that much of the increase in school funding is directed to things like special education, nutrition and transportation—essential services, but not directly related to improving performance. Rather than focus on that context, Stossel illustrated supposed extravagance by showing how schools in Kansas City “built this Olympic-sized swimming pool, state of the art gyms with indoor tracks. These computer labs and more.”

Stossel complained early on that “it’s hard to get our cameras into schools. . . . We were turned down in state after state.” The implication was that schools were ashamed of their boring teachers and their stupid, doped-up kids. But another reason might be the fact that Stossel angered some parents after convening interviews with school kids for his 2001 anti-environmentalist “Tampering With Nature” special. The parents claimed they were misled about Stossel’s involvement, and that the host asked the children leading questions in order to elicit answers that fit with his show’s thesis (New York Times, 6/27/01).

In any event, Stossel didn’t allow the lack of access to keep him from drawing bold conclusions, one of which is that parents who think their children’s schools are okay are deluded. “The people in the suburbs say, ‘Our schools are great,’” Stossel said, but, in fact, “American schools on the whole just aren’t that good.”

As proof on this point, Stossel said, “We gave parts of an international test to some high school students in Belgium and in New Jersey,” with the result that “the Belgian kids cleaned their clocks.” (Belgian student: “The test was so easy, I think if the kids in America couldn’t do this, they’re really stupid.”)

Such international testing comparisons, while popular fodder for pundits, are fraught with complications, often failing to account for vast differences in the educational systems in other countries. (See The Manufactured Crisis, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle.) A more evenhanded report would at least allow that the results are far from clear. The education journal Phi Delta Kappan reported (5/1/05), for example, that U.S. performance on a wide range of such tests does not bolster the impression that the United States is woefully behind its international counterparts: “Based on our review of the results of six international achievement surveys conducted from 1991 to 2001, we conclude that U.S. students have generally performed above average in comparisons with students in other industrialized nations.” Of course, they’re no Jay Leno.

But there’s something else going on here: When he’s making the “everyone’s stupid” point, Stossel states categorically that U.S. schools, even the good ones, are failing students. But later, when he wants to argue that vouchers are necessary to address inequities in schools, suddenly there are good public schools, and the problem is that not everyone has access to them: “If you’re a parent with money, you have choices. You can pay for a private school, or buy into a neighborhood that has a better public school.” This was illustrated with a sequence about parents who “cheat” to get their kids into, for example, Fremont Union schools in San Jose, California, which are “so much better than neighboring schools.”

Likewise, when he was discussing Kansas City, Stossel scoffed at spending on things like indoor tracks and computer labs. Minutes later, when he was illustrating the superiority of a Belgian school, “extras, like cooking, more sports programs, furniture building [and] electronics,” were good things, evidence that these schools care more about children.

The real problem—unions

Public schools supply Stossel with one of his favorite targets: organized workers. “The school system isn’t calcified just because it’s a government monopoly. There is another stumbling block,” Stossel told viewers. “It’s a union-dominated monopoly.”

Of course, the problem is not just with teachers: “Everywhere, unions resist the practice that made GE and other organizations successful—weed out the bad. The rules must stand, say unions everywhere.”

To show just how bad the teachers union really is, Stossel took viewers to something known as the “rubber room,” a building where teachers accused of incompetence or worse bide their time while claims against them are processed. Stossel and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein agree that union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers—even those accused of serious infractions. “And what do they do with those teachers? Well, they put them in the rubber room,” Stossel explained, implying that this was the union’s idea, or something the union supports: “Today, the city pays $20 million a year to house teachers in rubber rooms. Insane as that is, at the union rally, teachers told me they support the firing rules.”

Were Stossel interested in fairness, viewers would have been told that the New York City teachers’ union put forward a plan to more swiftly dismiss incompetent teachers and do away with the “rubber room” system—as the New York Times reported (1/15/04).

The marketplace solution

For all this stupidity and delusion and whining about funding, Stossel’s solution was, unsurprisingly, vouchers. Charter schools, he declared, have more academic success while operating with smaller budgets than their mainstream public school counterparts. Again, the reporting relies on a few anecdotes, specific charter schools that are thriving in places like Oakland, California and South Carolina.

Here the anecdotal approach would seem to be a necessity, since more extensive and representative studies of public and private schools frankly undermine Stossel’s thesis. A major research project sponsored by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, recently addressed the achievement of students from similar backgrounds in conventional public schools, charter schools and private schools. The researchers found that fourth-graders attending public schools scored higher than students attending either private or charter schools on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a standard measurement for evaluating student progress (New York Times, 1/28/06).

How did Stossel handle the problem? By not mentioning that research. According to one report (State School News Service, 1/26/06), ABC went to the trouble of getting the data, but chose not to include it.

Stossel did cite some voucher research approvingly. After stating that “competition makes everything better,” Stossel turned to Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby, who has researched voucher programs in Milwaukee. Hoxby is unequivocal, claiming: “No one lost in Milwaukee. Everyone did better. The kids at the regular public schools did better, and the kids who went to the voucher schools did better.” Stossel’s response: “Of course they did. That’s what competition does.”

But viewers surely deserved to know that Hoxby’s research has come under intense criticism (Wall Street Journal, 10/24/05; Economic Policy Institute, 4/15/05) for, among other things, failing to control for demographic differences (like race) when comparing schools. And a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (6/12/05) suggested that the research on the benefits of vouchers was mostly a mixed bag. Stossel navigated around these controversies by pretending they didn’t exist.

Stossel’s sunny view of school choice steers clear of almost any dissenting views. As noted by Media Matters for America’s tally (1/19/06), Stossel featured eight sources who were either pro-voucher or supportive of Stossel’s line on privatization, with just two sources arguing in support of public schools.

Such selectivity left out those who note, as the American Federation of Teachers pointed out in a response to Stossel (2/06), that charter schools in Milwaukee and California have been exposed for misusing public funds. For Stossel, the schools, like one in Washington D.C., are paragons of virtue: “At the charter school, there is order. The kids are on task and doing better.” Clearly, to Stossel, the whole matter is simple—given money and choice, students will steer themselves to good schools.

“We hope this starts a debate,” Stossel claimed in the program’s close. But there already is a debate over the privatization of public schools; you’d just never know it, or understand it, from watching stacked-deck reports like this one.

Unsurprisingly, Stossel’s one-sided harangue didn’t sit well with public school teachers, who took to the streets outside ABC’s headquarters. That led Stossel to do a follow-up report (3/10/06) in which he noted that some teachers suggested he give teaching a try. “It sounds good to me,” Stossel concluded. “So maybe I will teach for a week.” Hopefully it won’t be a journalism class.