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The catch in the lesson

March 1, 2011 - Jim Anderson
Bill O’Reilly’s eighth grade class in southeastern New York in the early 1960s must have been an ultra-impressive group.

Either that, or the performance of students attending Catholic schools has dropped off dramatically since O’Reilly was an adolescent.

“... In my eighth-grade class at St. Brigid’s School on Long Island, there were 60 students and one nun in the classroom,” O’Reilly wrote in a column in Monday’s Daily News. “We could all read proficiently ... .”

O’Reilly bragged about his “no nonsense” teacher to draw a comparison to Wisconsin's public school teachers — the ones O’Reilly says are failing to teach effectively and yet are demonstrating to keep their “generous union benefits.”

The Fox News host introduced his piece by citing “sad” statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. Those test results, he said, show that two-thirds of Wisconsin’s eighth graders cannot read proficiently.

As is often the case with O’Reilly, there’s more to the story. My point is not to choose sides in Wisconsin’s so-called “budget fix,” but merely to ask that commentators refrain from twisted smears.

Here’s the catch in O’Reilly’s lesson. “Proficiency” — in the test results he’s citing — is no simple standard.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) defines “proficient” reading skills as “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.”

“Basic” reading skills, on the other hand, reflect “partial mastery” of the knowledge and skills that are “fundamental for proficient work” at the grade tested.

Indeed, only 34 percent of Wisconsin eighth graders earned an NAEP proficient rating or better in the 2009 reading tests.

According to state-defined standards, however, 85 percent of those same Wisconsin eighth-graders were proficient or above.

O’Reilly argues that spending more on education doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of teaching. That argument may or may not be valid.

What’s clearly unreliable is his judgment that Wisconsin teachers are failing to give students a fighting chance to succeed.

By neglecting to define “proficiency,” he gives readers the impression that two-thirds of Wisconsin’s students can’t read worth a lick. That’s not true.

“Proficiency,” as presented by the NAEP, is a challenging goal.

O’Reilly chose not to reveal this: Wisconsin’s test results are better than the national average. Nationwide, 30 percent of public school eighth graders earned an NAEP rating of proficient or better in reading. In Wisconsin, as noted previously, 34 percent of public-school eighth graders were proficient or better.

And what about private schools? The 2009 NAEP results show that 52 percent of eighth graders in the nation’s Catholic schools taking the test scored proficient or better in reading. That’s impressive in comparison to public schools, but also a dramatic fall-off from the ultra-impressive 100 percent claimed by O’Reilly from his schoolhouse days.

(Seriously, private schools do consistently score higher in NAEP tests. On the other hand, studies that attempt to adjust results for student characteristics — such as income levels and disabilities — show that the gap is narrower or in some cases non-existent.)

There’s room for improvement, everyone might agree, in all facets of education.

As for O’Reilly, I have to wonder if he could pass muster as a “proficient” reader. Under the NAEP standards, students performing at the proficient level should be able to “fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.”

Here, in part, is what O’Reilly did in his column. He took some statistics about reading, assumed that he understood the meaning of “proficient,” made an anecdotal comparison to his past experience, and surmised that the teachers protesting in Wisconsin are underachievers. (Even though he “immensely” respects people who devote their lives to teaching.)

Maybe you’re fine with O’Reilly’s conclusions. Or maybe it makes your blood boil.

Perhaps O’Reilly should next write a column about how sad it is that Catholic schools are failing to properly educate nearly half of their highly-motivated, tuition-paying clientele.

Oh, wait. That would be an unfair, anecdotal slap in the face to legions of dedicated professionals.

Not that O’Reilly had any qualms about doing just that to Wisconsin teachers.

Jim Anderson’s e-mail address is



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