Nel's New Day

May 25, 2012

Conservatives Display Ignorance

While some authors are writing about how conservative minds are hard-wired to believe the way that they do (a really scary thought!), Eric Alterman writes about their ignorance. He doesn’t claim that conservatives are stupid; they just refuse to believe facts and reality. Maybe call it a “war on knowledge.” His position matches the survey last year that Fox watchers, known to be largely conservative, are not only much less knowledgeable but also more misinformed that those who get their news from other media.

Most of the people I know (other than a few family members) agree that global warming is a serious problem caused by human activity; 97 percent of climate scientists with credentials have the same opinion. Yet every one—yes, every one—of the 21 Republican candidates who ran for Senate in the last election deny any global warming. They call it “fraudulent science” (Sharon Angle – NV) or “sunspot activity” (Ron Johnson – WI). Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), on the short list for Mitt Romney’s vice-president said, “The climate is always changing.” Some claim a global “conspiracy,” although they may be closer to the truth of a conspiracy to not believe in it because most of them received lots of oil money for their campaigns.

Conservatives starting building this monumental ignorance when the Reagan administration considered defunding government support for social science through the National Science Foundation. People who formed the Consortium of Social Science Associations saved it, but conservatives are currently trying to eliminate all government funds for political science research. Newt Gringrich did manage to destroy the Office of Technology Assessment that provided Congress from 1972 to 1995 with nonpartisan analyses of complex scientific and technical issues.

Recently the House tried to abolish the American Community Survey—a crucial government data collection that has existed in various manifestations since 1850. As Catherine Rampell of The New York Times Economix blog explains, it “tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on.” The government uses this source to annually appropriately allocate $400 billion in government funds.

Showing the swelling ignorance of Congressional legislators, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) said, “This is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.” He obviously has no idea that scientific surveys are “random surveys.” Nor does he understand that law enforcement relies on this data to predict such crimes as meth production and private industry uses the results of the American Community Survey. In addition, the money that legislators think would be saved is then spent on the census because the annual survey makes the ten-year survey much cheaper.

These issues are far more serious than the ignorance shown by past potential presidential candidates such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) who thinks that the shot supposedly beginning the American Revolution was fired in Concord, New Hampshire, not Massachusetts. According to Bachmann, the authors of the Constitution in the late 1700s “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” despite the fact that these were the men who agreed, in that same Constitution, that slaves were equal to three-fifths of free men for the purposes of a voting population. She also declared that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s passage of the “Hoot-Smalley Tariff” caused the Great Depression despite the fact that Herbert Hoover passed the Tariff, and the Depression started three years before FDR was elected. And on and on, including Bachmann’s declaration that global warming is “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.”

Congressional conservatives don’t understand how computers work, as shown by the questions that they ask when considering blocking rights to websites. They don’t even understand how “babies are made,” as shown by their explanation of why they want to pass a “personhood” amendment to the Constitution.

The conservatives’ ignorance just doesn’t stop. “Asking a conservative pundit for advice on race is like asking an ayatollah for advice on preparing the Christmas ham,” said Leonard Pitts. Lawrence Krauss said, “It is not too late for the public to turn their back on candidates that turn their back on empirical reality and scientific progress.” (I really hope so!) Conservatives’ total ignorance this spring about women’s policies has inundated the media. Their only solution is to keep women from making any decisions.

Conservatives want others to be ignorant too. Although they sometimes talk about the importance of education, as Romney has done recently, they don’t want youth to have any sex education. They want teenage girls to get pregnant  and then force them to have the child in the conservative world where the government refuses to help the uneducated pregnant teens and the young mothers.

As for college, Santorum finally backed down on his comment about what a snob Obama is to want all young people to have some sort of higher education. Romney, on the other hand, sticks to his suggestion that young people who can’t afford college should join the military. He also goes along with the rest of the conservatives to make the interest for federal student loans twice as much as the interest on mortgages is at this time.

The ultimate ignorance that will destroy this country is the conservatives’ denial of the reasons behind our poor economy and the answers to solving it. Lack of regulations and far lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations have led to extremely high income inequity between the top 1 percent and the rest of the people in the country. This in turn has led to increased polarization between political views with the far-right refusing to compromise. The nation is moving toward the far-right because the wealthy can now afford to buy the deniers and the ignorant who make the economic situation worse by eradicating the middle class through their attacks on unions.

According to economists, austerity is not the answer, but conservative legislators refuse to recognize this fact. They stick to their misguided belief that lowering the taxes and make massive cuts to the safety net–certainly not the defense, though–will save the country, the same way that global warming will go away if people just ignore it.

The ignorant conservatives who refuse to recognize expert knowledge have one goal: to undermine government programs and move more taxes into the hands of the wealthy.

“Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence.”—Jonathan Haidt. That’s the movement we have in the United States.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

December 4, 2011

Education Headed in Wrong Direction

Education is one of the most instrumental parts of the polarization in our nation. Complaining about the ignorance of young people, adults manifest great ignorance themselves. The “historian,” Newt Gingrich, has said that the French Revolution is responsible for all these ignorant liberals who are driving the country in the wrong direction. At the Iowa Thanksgiving Family Forum, he asserted “what we have now [in American society] is an outgrowth of the French Revolution,” which the former House Speaker defines as the wholesale “rejection of the larger world in favor of secularism.” This is the same anti-faith decadence that pollutes the U.S. court system, Hollywood, public education, and so on, Gingrich insisted.

Grant Robertson is far more on target. A sophomore at Sunset High School in Beaverton (OR), he wrote in an op-ed piece, “Events leading up to the French Revolution parallel the social and economic concerns we’re facing in our country today. In modern America, as in historic France, an unequal tax system, in which the middle class pays more effective taxes than the rich, has created a barrier of wealth between the rich and the poor. In part because of this system, middle-class citizens today feel little hope of reaching the desired upper-income tier, much like the Third Estate felt going in to the French Revolution.”

Gingrich’s information is as invalid as that provided on the Fox network. A survey in New Jersey by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that people who watch Fox News are 18 points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all and 6 points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news. This is only one of several surveys that show how ignorant the one-hundred-million Fox watchers are about news.

Perhaps the scariest misinformation about education for young people is that standardized tests should be used to evaluate students and schools. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 decided that guidelines of schools could be determined by a number of criteria with standardized test scores dominating in these. Now schools may opt out of these requirements, but Obama’s administration developed the Race to the Top with $5 billion of grants being awarded to states if they would have more privately managed charter schools, teacher evaluation by test scores, and bonuses for higher student test scores.

What many people don’t know is that the United States has 50 distinct definitions of “proficient” on standardized tests for students, one for each state. Last summer the National Assessment of Education Progress released a study that found students described as “proficient” by a state standard might be ranked as “basic,” defined as “partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade,” by a national test. Thus test scores used for not only teacher hiring and firing but also school funding are subjective, based on individual state determination. The lowest standard in 2009 for fourth-grade reading was inTennessee, whereas Massachusetts had the highest. In eighth-grade reading,Missouri had the highest standard, although its proficiency rating was well lower than the national test standard, while Texas had the lowest bar for proficiency. In Arkansas a fourth-grader might be proficient in reading but fail if s/he moved to Missouri.

The federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that 100 percent of students must be “proficient” under state standards by 2014, a goal universally described as impossible to reach but easier in some states than others. With the emphasis on standardized tests, teachers in many school districts around the nation may provide the test and the answers to their students. They may also change the answers on the tests to guarantee right answers. Those schools that don’t go that far are concentrating only on math and English basics to the exclusion of even science and social studies. Fine and performing arts classes disappeared in many places long ago.

Over ten years ago, Alfie Kohn published an article in Education Week  about what’s wrong with standardized tests. That was a year before the No Child Left Behind Act, and things have gotten worse since then. Following is a short summary of this article.

1. Students are tested to an extent unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Few countries use standardized tests for children below high school age—or multiple-choice tests for students of any age. (This remains true.)

2. Instructional factors account for only 11 percent of the variance among test scores. A study of math results on the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the combination of four such variables (number of parents living at home, parents’ educational background, type of community, and poverty rate) accounted for a whopping 89 percent of the differences in state scores. Other studies during the last decade continue to show this trend. Research a decade after this article was written shows that the most consistent predictor of test scores is family income. Children living in economically secure homes show a much greater readiness to learn than those who lack the basic necessities of life—including a home.

3. Norm-referenced tests were never intended to measure the quality of learning or teaching. The Stanford, Metropolitan, and California Achievement Tests (SAT, MAT, and CAT), as well as the Iowa and Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS and CTBS), are designed so that only about half the test-takers will respond correctly to most items. The main objective of these tests is to rank, not to rate; to spread out the scores, not to gauge the quality of a given student or school.

4. Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking, correlating results with a shallow approach to learning. (Now standardized tests are generally multiple-choice, and teachers are discouraged from providing any other education to students because they need to practice for the test.)

5. Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old. The author could not find a single reputable scholar in the field of early-childhood education who endorses such testing for young children.

6. Virtually all relevant experts and organizations condemn the practice of basing important decisions, such as graduation or promotion, on the results of a single test. These tests, however, determine not only the future of the students but also the teacher and sometimes the school itself.

8. The time, energy, and money devoted to preparing students for standardized tests requires that schools reduce or eliminate programs in the arts, recess for young children, electives for high schoolers, class meetings (and other activities intended to promote social and moral learning), discussions about current events (since that material will not appear on the test), the use of literature in the early grades (if the tests are focused narrowly on decoding skills), and entire subject areas such as science (if the tests cover only language arts and math).

8. Educators are leaving the field because of what is being done to schools in the name of “accountability” and “tougher standards.” (Ten years after this article was written, new teachers stay in the field no more than an average of five years.)

9. The tests may be biased. Many standardized tests are unfair because the questions require a set of knowledge and skills more likely to be possessed by children from a privileged background especially with norm-referenced tests.

10. More affluent schools can afford to purchase test-prep materials. If poorer schools decide to do this, they give up books and other educational resources that they need.

11. Standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acquisition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, more than genuine understanding.

12. Poor scores may come from lack of resources, particularly in schools with poor and minority students. Explanations about very real obstacles such as racism, poverty, fear of crime, low teacher salaries, inadequate facilities, and language barriers are frequently written off as mere “excuses.”

Diane Ravitch, a former U.S.assistant secretary of education, points out that students came in 12th out of 12 on international testing in 1964, the first year that this test was given. Like many other educators, she says that our country may have succeeded because of “the freedom to create, innovate, and imagine,” a freedom that is rapidly disappearing in favor of test scores. The anti-regulation conservatives should consider this possibility as they bemoan the loss of creativity from dreaded regulations.

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