03/10/2009 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Education, Obama Blows It, Part II

OK, there were some good things in the talk to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I especially liked an expansion of early childhood education having worked in the field and recently surveyed a meta-analysis of how well it works. It works, but overall it produces nowhere near the $10 return for $1 of investment. A figure given for the Perry Preschool Project from the 60's was $7 and from the Abecedarian project, $4. The difference being that when Perry was operated there was no preschool for the control group and when the Abecedarian project came along later, children who didn't get admitted had other preschool options.

But a lot of the speech contained flat out errors. He said that graduation rates had fallen from 77% to 67%. Huh? Graduates are a contentious topic, but the U. S. Department of Education says the best method for estimating it puts it at 74.5% nationally (a short treatise of the topic can be found in Paul Barton's 2009 "Chasing the High School Graduation Rate." Free copies at

He said dropout rates have tripled over the past 30 years. Come again? A 10% decline in graduation rate = a 300% increase in dropout rate? Talk about fuzzy math.

He said, "In 8th grade math we've fallen to 9th place." Actually, we've come a long way, baby. The reference here has to be to the most recent TIMSS which tested in 45 nations. But in the original TIMSS from 1995, published in 1996, U S 8th graders ranked 23rd in math among 41 nations. If that's falling, let's go down some more, fast.

"Just a third of our 13- and 14-year-olds can read as well as they should." This is outright garbage. The reference here has to be to NAEP achievement levels which, as I have shown over and over again, as have others, are outrageously unrealistically high ("A Test Everyone Will Fail" shows this in an international context, "Oh, those NAEP achievement levels" shows this in a domestic context. The first is from the Washington Post but both can be obtained simply by putting the titles into Google). Richard Rothstein and colleagues demonstrated that, were kids in other countries to sit for our NAEP exams, NO country would have a majority of students proficient in reading using NAEP achievement levels. Sweden, the top-scoring country, would be just ahead of the U. S.--with one third of its students proficient.

He raved about South Korean schools but neglected to say that thousands of South Korean families sell their children--yes, sell--to American families so their kids can a) learn English and b) avoid the horrible rigidity of Korean schools. And while the US trails Korea on average test scores, it has a higher proportion of students scoring at the highest level on the Program of International Student Achievement (PISA). Moreover, it has the highest number of high scorers (67,000) of any country. No one else even comes close. Top scoring Finland has a proportion that gives them about 2,000 warm bodies at PISA's Level 6 (Lowell & Salzman, "Making the Grade," Nature, May 1, 2009). It's the top performing students, not the average ones, who are going to lead the way in innovation.

After evaluating public schools on test scores, he then turns around and praises charters for creativity and innovation. But study after study of charters has come away saying they were surprised at how much the charter schools look like regular public schools. And charter schools don't score as well on tests as regular public schools ("NAEP gap continuing for charters," Eric Robelen, Education Week, May 21, 2008). You can't bash the public schools on test scores then praise the charters which have lower scores. That's hypocritical.

By the way, he said, "We have the best universities, the most renowned scholars." True. But if the public schools are so awful, how can that be? How can you get that silk purse college from that sow's ear high school? (And don't say it's because of foreigners in the colleges, because it wasn't and isn't).

Similar to his inaugural address he said, "Of the 30 fastest growing occupations in America, half require a bachelor's degree or more." But, as in his inaugural, he neglected to say these occupations account for few jobs. Wal-Mart, McDonald's, etc., are the great job machines in this country. Today he added, "By 2016, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training." There's that weasel phrase again, "advanced education or training." It's meaningless except as propaganda.

I voted for Obama. I canvassed for him. I registered voters for him. But on education, he has yet to hit the basket. Diane Ravitch, never once called a bleeding-hear liberal and assistant secretary of education for George H. W. Bush, recently said that, from what she's seen, Obama is a third term for George W. Bush and Arne Duncan is Margaret Spellings in drag. She was not doling out compliments to either man. (