A BASIC LACK OF SKILL: Et tu, President Clinton?


Epilogue—His statement advances the script: Many parts of our national discourse are controlled by hard right-wing scripts.

One such controlling script involves our public schools. According to tenets of Hard Pundit Law, you aren’t allowed to tell the public that American test scores have been improving rather strongly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our most reliable measure. People! To say such a thing would undermine the Bloombergian desire to demonize the nation’s teachers. How can we privatize the schools if progress is being achieved?

Now, even Bill Clinton has swallowed this scam! Early last week, we racked our brains, trying to remember where we had seen him say it. And then, of course! We had it at last! He said it as part of his C-Span interview about his new book, Back to Work.

To watch the full interview, just click here. But this is part of the very first Q-and-A:
QUESTION: President Bill Clinton, in your new book, Back to Work, you talk about the fact that the U.S. “should get back in the future business.” What do you mean by that?

CLINTON: ...We still have a lot of enormous advantages in America, but we’ve lost ground relative to a lot of other countries in the percentage of our young adults with college degrees, in our performance in standardized tests, in the competitiveness of our health care system—what we get for what we pay, in our ability to generate manufacturing employment, in our ability to export, in our research and development capabilities in the areas that we know are growing in the years ahead. And I think it’s because we’ve been asking the wrong questions.
For the record, Clinton’s overall perspective is very strong in this part of his interview. But has the U.S. lost ground relative to a lot of other countries in our performance on standardized tests?

As far as we know, that’s inaccurate. (For one set of examples, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/10.) But in its tone, in what it seems to imply, President Clinton’s statement here advances those ubiquitous scripts:

Due to our lazy, god-awful teachers, we have just kept losing ground! Nothing has seemed to work!

Has the United States lost ground compared to other countries on standardized tests? If we’re not mistaken, the U.S. has tended to gain ground in the past decade on the major international measures. (We're willing to be corrected.) But what does it mean when even someone like President Clinton emits this careless talking-point without including the corresponding good news, including this remarkable fact:
BILL CLINTON, REWRITTEN: Now, do you want to hear the good news? According to our most reliable national testing program, black fourth-graders are scoring higher in math than white fourth-graders were scoring when I first ran for president, in 1992! The same is true of our Hispanic fourth-graders. That isn’t good enough. But it’s remarkable progress!
What force keeps a decent person like President Clinton from making this fact-based statement? Shouldn't the public be told about this apparent progress?

Just a guess: It may be that President Clinton has never heard those facts! In a discourse driven by hard pundit scripts, the bogus claims get repeated so often that people end up assuming they’re accurate. It doesn't even occur to them that other key facts are being withheld. In today’s New York Times, Bill Keller quotes Politifact’s Bill Adair describing one part of this gruesome process:

“The talking points drive the discourse,” Adair is quoted saying. “They repeat the talking points so often I think they start actually believing them.”

In context, Adair is describing the way political players end up believing their own bogus claims. But in a world where no one ever repeats certain facts, even a player like President Clinton may end up misled, disinformed.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you something Clinton says in his book about test scores from across the pond. In this instance, the president’s key statement seems to be just flat inaccurate. But it does advance the script!

Et tu, President Clinton? Even you have swallowed the twaddle about dear Finland’s schools?


  1. When twaddle is almost all you ever hear, it's pretty hard to resist, as Bob's crusade recounting the war on Gore amply demonstrates.

    I think it's especially easy for folks with no recent public school experience or contact to fall prey to anti-teacher and anti-kid disinformation such as the context-free (and often fact-free) discourse about reading and math scores. Does anyone imagine Bubba or Hillary or NBC "reporter" Chelsea have the slightest clue about what public school students in US cities and suburbs are capable of doing? C'mon, man!

    Does anyone imagine Nick or Maureen or her clueless former assistant have spent any time in a public school classroom anywhere? If they actually had first-hand experience, it might impede their readiness to pour out all that twaddle. Might.