Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fact Checking Obama's Educational Speech

The president made a lengthy speech on education last week at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The overall immediate intent of the speech was to outline some of the pressing issues for education of Hispanics today, and how those issues are hurting the community succeed. But Obama went beyond focusing on the Hispanic population and looked at the "educational epidemic" as a whole. has an excellent analysis of Obama's speech. In it, while there are some points that Obama's information is accurate, they found several inaccuracies:

We certainly wouldn't argue that education can't be improved, but some of the figures Obama used painted a bleaker picture than actually exists:
  • The high school dropout rate hasn't "tripled in the past 30 years," as Obama claimed. According to the Department of Education, it has actually declined by a third.
  • Eighth-grade math scores haven't "fallen" to ninth place compared with other countries. U.S. scores have climbed to that ranking from as low as 28th place in 1995.
  • Obama also set a goal "of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" by 2020. But in terms of bachelor's degrees, we're nearly there. The U.S. is already second only to Norway in the percentage of adults age 25 to 64 with a four-year degree, and trails by just 1 percentage point.
All of this is in direct contrast with the words of George Bush a year ago, who boasted of the nation's success since passing the NCLB legislation. This has sent the blogosphere ablaze with postulates of why Obama said these items, many being quick to identify Obama as a foe to public education.

I'm not so sure of this; given that Obama has repeatedly asked for more money for public education, this seems to be plain old politics at its "best". Obama isn't going to gather much support for increased spending in education with the statistics that show the U.S. is doing fairly well. And Bush isn't going to use statistics that make his landmark public education bill look like a failure. The truth is somewhere in the between.'s analysis does raise some questions. Even if I'm right and Obama's major intention was to garner support for funding, will there be unintended consequences of the speech, ostracizing those in the educational community? Will he continue to cherry-pick data as other presidents have, using it for political purposes?

And, how can we do apples-to-apples comparisons using TIMSS data? FactCheck pointed out well that when you compare front-running Norway to Massachusetts, where population and per-pupil expenditures are roughly equal, Massachusetts leads Norway in graduation. When comparing the U.S. to the European Union (again, a more apples-to-apples comparison) the U.S. leads in all but one category. Plus, as we've discussed, the TIMSS data is not necessarily the most valid measure to begin with.

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