Oklahoma Students Are Not Ford Pintos

Satirical image of Walter Cronkite

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.—from “This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin

The new A to F grading system for Oklahoma public schools is a concerted conservative effort to defund education, break or weaken teacher unions and shift taxpayers’ money to private schools.

As I’ve argued in the past, Oklahoma Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and her supporters actually CRAVE so-called “failing” schools so they can close them or “fix” them or parade them proudly in front of the public school executioners as examples of the progressive error. It’s a negative, abusive system designed to demoralize people, including abused children themselves. One of its insidious intentions is to create unnecessary chaos and problems, which shift attention away from teaching and learning.

All this seems so obvious to me and the conservative case on A to F is so disingenuous that it’s difficult to immerse myself in the particulars of the so-called “debate” over whether such a reductionist system has any real-world value or whether those who champion such a system care one bit about public education.

Nonetheless, I find myself compelled to do so because of yet another inane editorial on the topic by The Oklahoman, a newspaper that actually pays people to write opinion pieces that would earn big fat F’s in any decent college freshman composition class in the state. It’s a decent living, I guess, if you’re challenged intellectually and have absolutely no conscience.

The editorial, titled “More creative thinking about Oklahoma's A-F grading system for schools” (Dec. 31, 2012), is a response to a piece published on the Oklahoma Policy Institute site by Oklahoma City University economics professor Jonathan Willner. The professor outlines a cogent argument and runs the numbers on an issue that, to me, seems obvious: The A to F grading system for schools here is affected on a major level by students’ parents, their overall home lives and their socioeconomic status.

In other words, impoverished students with uneducated absentee or abusive parents are more likely to not perform as well academically as students with engaged, successful parents. They, in essence, skew the whole A to F grading system. Again, that’s a no-brainer, but what Willner does that is interesting is use a statistical formula known as multivariate regression analysis to prove his point, which he does thoroughly and admirably.

Somehow Willner’s intellectually dense and convincing argument made an editorial writer at The Oklahoman decide to put on a stupid hat and scribble some nonsense that, really, deserves more than the typical giggle and that momentary twinge of suffocation. Of course, Willner, OK Policy and others are more than capable of speaking about this issue, but I want to comment on the editorial’s inane rhetorical features.

Here’s the editorial’s first attempt at refutation: “Well, yes, it is convenient to blame schools for the educational product they produce — sort of like it's convenient to blame Ford when its Pinto model explodes on impact.”

Let’s parse that sentence. First, children are not Ford Pintos. Ford Pintos are inanimate objects without brains, feelings and bodily sensations. Ford Pintos do not have parents. Ford Pintos do not feel hunger. Ford Pintos do not feel pain if their owners slap them or kick them or hit them repeatedly with a fist. Ford Pintos don’t cry themselves to sleep.

As if this false comparison isn’t enough by itself to render the entire piece ridiculous, consider the reference itself: Ford Pinto. Ford Pinto? Really? In the 1970s, yes the 1970s, there was a controversy over the design of the Pinto’s fuel tank, which, some argued, could explode in a rear-end collision. This is the archaic reference some highly-paid editorial writer is actually using to discuss an Oklahoma educational issue in 2012, and journalists here wonder why the mainstream media is in decline.

Here’s the editorial’s next brilliant refutation: “And convenient to blame the restaurant if a meal gives you food poisoning.” Again, the false comparison is ridiculous. Schools are not restaurants trying to turn a profit. Students’ academic achievements should not be compared to getting food poisoning or not getting food poisoning. That’s absurd. It’s a fallacy. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. This editorial gets an F!

The problem here goes way beyond the fact that The Oklahoman is incapable of responding to Willner’s arguments with statistical evidence, studies and clear examples and comparisons. Any intellectual in this state knows that. The problem is that this editorial represents the absolute epitome and culmination of dumb and stupid in this state. How can you get anything done in terms of educational improvement when the state’s largest newspaper presents such glaring false comparisons as real debate? Do we really have to debate the design of Ford Pintos in the 1970s when talking about learning outcomes? I guess we do, folks.

The Oklahoman has an anti-intellectual agenda that is immoral, unethical and corrupt, an agenda that currently serves the business and political interests of its billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, a Colorado oilman, who obviously could care less about Oklahoma school children or anyone or anything else in this state.

The A to F grading system, as I’ve noted, is just the latest conservative trickery to inflict as much damage as possible on public education, and The Oklahoman is the leading voice—and it’s a voice of sheer, unadulterated ignorance—for the cabal of abusive ideologues in charge of this new system.