Episode 12: Avery Kolers

Everybody’s talking about “fake news,” but is this really a new problem that started with Trump and the 2016 election? We briefly look back at the long, ugly break-up between reality and its representation.

Notes on Episode 12:

Dr. Avery Kolers:

Download episode 12 here.

When China’s press does it, it’s propaganda. When our press does it, it’s heartwarming human-interest storytelling.

The New York Times published a story about the propaganda value of “Frost Boy,” a Chinese lad whose nearly 3-mile trek to school in bitter winter weather left him with frozen hair and rosy cheeks.

As Adam Johnson pointed out back in August — and as Bailey Stuber discussed on Episode 9 of the podcast — U.S. media outlets love stories like these but usually fail to pursue the bigger questions that these stories raise. Johnson put it this way:

A healthy press would take these anecdotes of “can do” spirit and ask bigger questions, like why are these people forced into such absurd hardship? Who benefits from skyrocketing college costs? Why does the public transit in this person’s city not have subsidies for the poor? Why aren’t employers forced to offer time off for catastrophic accidents? But time and again, the media mindlessly tells the bootstrap human interest story, never questioning the underlying system at work.

But when this kind of story goes viral in China, the New York Times has no trouble immediately discerning that there are in fact two contradictory aspects to this story: first, the propaganda value of this “symbol of the raw determination of rural residents” (as the NYT reporter put it), and second, the “plight of the tens of millions of so-called left-behind children who grow up in impoverished rural areas largely on their own after their parents leave to work in big cities” (again in the words of the NYT reporter).

We don’t get this kind of nuance when it comes to the U.S. versions of these stories. As Johnson and Stuber pointed out, we get two versions of this story: the original version, where some impoverished worker walks ten miles uphill in the snow both ways to work every day, and then the follow-up where the news media congratulates itself for telling this inspiring story by reporting on the groundswell of public support for the impoverished worker, who (thanks to a GoFundMe campaign or a generous anonymous donor) can now afford a car to get to work.

Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but it would be nice if the news operations that run these types of “perseverance porn” (Johnson’s term) stories read the NYT’s China example and realized that their own puff pieces about these diligent, obedient individuals who gratefully schlep to their grueling, underpaid jobs every day are actually part of a larger narrative serving a specific political perspective and propaganda purpose.

State by state comparison of factors correlated (or not) with assessment scores

On a whim, I decided to compare school performance data with other measurable characteristics.

I chose two sets of achievement data: the Education Week Quality Counts State Report Cards Map (K-12 achievement), and the Nation’s Report Card for 8th grade reading and math.

I looked for correlation with multiple data sets: state-by-state rankings of charter school laws from a pro-charter perspective (source), state-by-state union strength rankings from a conservative think tank (source), per-student expenditures in each state according to the NEA (source; look for table H-11), percentage of people in each state who identify as Democrats (since people often blame educational dysfunction on Democrats)(source); and finally, median income per state according to the U.S. Census (source).

Median income had the strongest correlation with test scores, with r values of 0.5 and 0.38. The other factors had no appreciable correlation at all.

If you’d rather not scroll around in the little embed window above, here’s a direct link to the spreadsheet.

Episode 11: Rob Pennington

Are all charter school supporters really doing it because they care about educating all kids? Probably not. The show starts with a brief overview of the tax benefits that come with supporting charter schools.

Notes on Episode 11:

Dr. Robert Pennington:

Download episode 11 here.

Episode 10: Jon Fleischaker

Episode 10

Another week, another threat against the free press from the President of the United States. The show starts with a discussion of Trump’s latest proposal to “open up libel laws” so that petulant politicians can sue watchdog media organizations into oblivion.

Notes on Episode 10:

Jon Fleischaker:

Episode 9: Larry Steinmetz

Episode 9

At the top of the show: a special commentary by Bailey Stuber on the news media’s obsession with the underdog and why these types of stories fail to live up to the obligations of journalism.

Notes on Episode 9:

Larry Steinmetz: