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Trashing to the Test

Editor Terry Jeffrey leads in dishonestly reporting on proficiency ratings for Wisconsin students in an apparent attempt to smear teachers fighting to keep union rights.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/3/2011

As a conservative website, toes the party line in regularly disparaging labor unions and public education. For instance:

  • CNS' Fred Lucas penned numerous articles baselessly portraying waivers to health care reform provisions granted to unions as political payback for union support of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Lucas largely ignored the fact that most waivers have gone to businesses, at least some of which, such as restaurants, actually opposed health care reform.
  • Last September, CNS editor in chief Terry Jeffrey called for the abolishment of public education, asserting: "County by county, state by state, Americans should begin functionally abolishing government-run schools and replacing them with a free market in schools."

So when the opportunity to combine its hatred for both entities popped up, CNS ran with it.

In an apparent attempt to denigrate Wisconsin teachers and other public union employees battling a Republican governor who wants to effectively eliminate the right to collective bargaining for teachers and most other public employees in the state, Jeffrey penned a pair of articles that dishonestly portrayed the level of student achievement in Wisconsin.

Jeffrey began one Feb. 22 article this way:

Two-thirds of the eighth graders in Wisconsin public schools cannot read proficiently according to the U.S. Department of Education, despite the fact that Wisconsin spends more per pupil in its public schools than any other state in the Midwest.

It's not until the ninth paragraph that Jeffrey noted this:

Nationwide, only 30 percent of public school eighth graders earned a rating of “proficient” or better in reading, and the average reading score on the NAEP test was 262 out of 500.

In other words, the level of eighth-graders reading proficiently in Wisconsin is actually above the national average -- not that Jeffrey ever explicitly stated that, of course.

Jeffrey kicked off a companion article in similar alarming fashion:

Only 39 percent of the eighth graders in Wisconsin public schools are proficient or better in mathematics, according to the U.S. Department of Education, despite the fact that Wisconsin spends more per pupil in its public schools than any other state in the Midwest.

This time, Jeffrey waited until the seventh paragraph that he tells the full story:

Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education, public schools are not doing a good job teaching children to be proficient in math. The average American eighth-grade public school student scored 282 out of 500 on the NAEP mathematics test in 2009, with only 25 percent earning a “proficient” rating and only 7 percent earning an “advanced rating.” The other 68 percent of American eighth grader were rated less than proficient in math.

Again, Wisconsin achievement is above the national average -- this time significantly above it. Again, Jeffrey failed to explicitly state that.

There is no reason for Jeffrey to for write these stories in this fashion unless he was deliberately trying to falsely distort the record of teachers in Wisconsin. And there's no reason to think that he had any other goal in mind.

Indeed, Jeffrey repeated the teacher-bashing statistics in his Feb. 23 column, though this time he surprisingly conceded that the numbers are "are slightly better than the national average for public-school students."

Jeffrey also portrayed students at Catholic schools as doing better on tests, adding that Catholic and private schools "can also teach students that there is a God, that the Ten Commandments are true and must be followed, that the Founding Fathers believed in both and that, ultimately, American freedom depends on fidelity to our Judeo-Christian heritage even more than it depends on proficiency in reading and math."

Jeffrey, of course, didn't mention the fact that private schools, by their selective nature due to their tuition fees, tend to attract a more affluent and arguably higher quality student than public schools do, and that students who fail in private schools typically end up in public schools, thus skewing achievement figures.

Nevertheless, Jeffrey repeated his call to destroy public education: "It is time to drive public schools out of business by driving them into an open marketplace where they must directly compete with schools not run by the government or staffed by members of parasitic public employees’ unions."

CNS even based one of its notorious gotcha questions on the dishonestly presented data, sending a reporter to ask Education Secretary Arne Duncan "if he thought the low percentage of Wisconsin eighth graders who tested 'proficient' in reading and math, despite the increased school spending in the state, meant the Wisconsin public schools had failed." CNS also asked Duncan if teachers were to blame for "struggling schools." CNS did not tell Duncan that Wisconsin's proficiency scores are, in fact, above the national average.

CNS' dishonest reporting spread elsewhere in the Media Research Center empire. A Feb. 23 MRC Business & Media Institute article by Julia Seymour asserted: reported on Feb. 22 that two-thirds of Wisconsin's eight [sic] graders (in public schools) cannot read proficiently. Only 32 percent of those eight graders earned a "proficient" grade on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Forty-four percent earned a "basic" rating, while 22 percent received a "below basic" rating.

Seymour did not note that Wisconsin's proficiency levels on both reading and math are above the national average.

The bogus story even made it out of MRC headquarters; both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh referenced the proficiency scores without noting that they were above the national average. Lesser right-wing lights, like WorldNetDaily columnist Barry Farber, seized upon Jeffrey's work as well.

In that sense, Jeffrey achieved his presumed goal of getting widespread notice for a story that originated at CNS. But like the Smithsonian museum exhibit controversy similarly launched from CNS, it's based on a fundamental dishonesty and geared to generating page views, not telling the entire truth.

That may be one way to manufacture popularity, but it certainly is no way to run a so-called news organization.

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