News Reporting on the ACA and Education: We Get What We Pay For

Over the weekend, some Tea Party-related bullshit ‘horror stories’ were shot down by Maggie Mahar. What’s interesting is how the bullshit was published in the first place (boldface mine):

Finally, [reporter] Yamil Berard called me. Now, the truth came out: “I was assigned the story and asked to complete it in a couple of days,” she said. She had turned it around in 1½ days, giving her little or no time to fact check.

To find sources, she had contacted a few people she knew – including an insurance broker. They spread the word, and friends of friends who had lost their policies turned up. She didn’t know that three were Tea Party members.

The young reporter also confessed that she didn’t know much about the Affordable Care Act. “I haven’t written about healthcare in a long time. We don’t have a healthcare writer. I cover about 15 other topics. Our staff is much smaller than it used to be,” she confided.

Her assignment had been clear: “To find people who were cancelled – and having some difficulty.”

After she turned in the piece, she told me that she had wanted to write a “good news” story about people who found better, more affordable coverage after their policies were cancelled. She pitched it to her editor. But he never assigned it. Despite the fact that the December deadline for enrolling in the exchanges was looming, “it wasn’t a priority.” Instead, “I got stuck on other stories” – one about an ice storm, and two business stories.”

Keep that in mind while I allow Bob Somerby to vent about poor education reporting (boldface mine):

Ever since December 2001, everyone has known the script:

When it comes to the public schools, we have to copy miraculous Finland, land of miraculous test scores! All across the spectrum, people are still repeating this manifest nonsense today.

Why do we call it nonsense? The script about miraculous Finland emerged from the release of the scores from the inaugural 2000 PISA…

Yesterday, we did something we’d never done before.

Of course! We decided to see how Finland did on those inaugural 2000 tests, as compared to white students in this country.

Finland is a small, unicultural, middle-class nation. Almost all its students are “majority culture.”

…Incredibly, these are the famous 2000 PISA scores—the scores which launched a thousand rounds of bullroar:

Average scores, 2000 PISA, math
OECD nations 492
Finland 536
United States, white students 530
United States, all students 493

Average scores, 2000 PISA, science
OECD nations 493
Finland 538
United States, white students 535
United States, all students 499

Average scores, 2000 PISA, reading
OECD nations 494
Finland 546
United States, white students 538
United States, all students 504

On that inaugural PISA, white students in the U.S. essentially matched miraculous Finland. The differences you see are tiny, given the nature of the PISA scale….


How clueless are our “educational experts?” Until yesterday, we had never seen a comparison of this type from those famous 2000 scores.

Was such a comparison ever done? If you simply look at those scores, it’s perfectly clear that Finland wasn’t producing miraculous scores on that inaugural PISA.

Quite plainly, our own white students are not miraculous, but they were matching Finland from the start, warts and all. Why are people still pretending that Finland is somehow miraculous?

I think the answer is pretty simple. First, some ‘experts’ have an agenda (the U.S. system is DOOMED!!), and they use the U.S. total scores because it suits their purposes. Second, education reporters (who too often aren’t focused on education) don’t know how and lack the needed skills to check the experts (boldface added):

Regarding the PISA scores, I think there are two issues as to why Finland = [white] U.S. is never reported:

1) Many reporters (and a fair number of education specialists) don’t understand basic statistics. The standard deviations on the numbers are huge [~100], but reporters, non-specialists, etc. too often focus on the estimate (e.g., “546”). If they [understood] statistics (or even just read the entire report), they would realize that the U.S. isn’t different from most European countries.

2) Reporters/experts et alia focus on the rankings (“The U.S. is 16th”), even though the rankings don’t mean very much (see point #1).

Rub these two things together and that’s how you get the Myth of Blessed Finland.

It would be an interesting exercise if all the scores were divided by ten and then reported with the standard deviation (~100/10). 53.6 versus 49.3 with a standard deviation of 10 just isn’t that scary sounding, but forty-three points is.

This is where the constant cost-cutting in newsrooms really hurts us. It’s not about the political angles, though shoddy reporting hurts there too, but we are dealing with issues of health and child development.

Time for a blogger ethics panel.

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