Stossel presented skewed 20/20 segment on “stupid” public schools

ABC's John Stossel presented a “special report” on the failure of American public schools that included a series of misleading claims, a lack of balance in reporting and interviews, and video clips apparently created primarily for entertainment to argue for expanding “school choice” initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools.

On the January 13 broadcast of ABC's 20/20, host John Stossel presented an hour-long “special report” on the purported failures of public schools in the United States. Titled “Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids,” the report tilted heavily in favor of those who advocate for expanding such “school choice” initiatives as voucher and charter school programs, ostensibly as the means for increasing academic achievement.

Through a series of misleading claims, a lack of balance in reporting and interviews, and video clips apparently created primarily for entertainment, Stossel's report failed to offer viewers an accurate picture of the debate over charter schools and voucher programs, and gave significantly greater coverage to the arguments of “school choice” proponents, with Stossel frequently criticizing public schools. At one point, the reporter warned, “Most Americans don't know what stupid schools are doing to American kids.”

School voucher programs, such as those highlighted by Stossel, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and enroll them in private schools with the help of vouchers for a set amount of public funding that is then transferred to the private school. Such programs are usually promoted under the rubric of “school choice.” According to, the website of Editorial Projects in Education (publisher of Education Week and Teacher Magazine): “At its most basic and uncontroversial, school choice is a reform movement focused on affording parents the right to choose which school their child attends.” In recent years, with the advent of school voucher programs and charter schools, the issue of “school choice” has become more contentious. According to the ERIC Digest, proponents of school choice incentives such as vouchers argue that, among other things, the resulting “increased competition from voucher schools will force public schools to improve, or risk closure”; opponents worry that such school choice initiatives will “drain money from public schools, cull the most highly motivated students and parents, violate church-state separation, be costly to administer, and raise property taxes.”

Another facet of “school choice” is that of charter schools, which are public schools that are often freed from the regulations that apply to their non-charter counterparts, ostensibly to better serve a specific and often narrowly defined mission adopted by the school as part of its “charter.” From the U.S. Department of Education:

A public charter school is a publicly funded school that, in accordance with an enabling state statute, has been granted a charter exempting it from selected state or local rules and regulations. A charter school may be newly created, or it may previously have been a public or private school; it is typically governed by a group or organization (e.g., a group of educators, a corporation, or a university) under a contract or charter with the state. In return for funding and autonomy, the charter school must meet accountability standards. A school's charter is reviewed (typically every 3 to 5 years) and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or the standards are not met.

Stossel's “evidence” of poor public schools

Throughout his report, Stossel repeatedly presented out-of-context material in making derogatory statements about the state of public schools, teaching methods employed, and students' general knowledge.

For example:

  • Responding to a disgruntled student's comments that his school was like a “hellhole,” Stossel aired footage taped at a different high school of a teacher using the board game Monopoly to teach students geography.
  • After airing the results of a Stossel-administered “international test” in which students in a Belgian classroom scored significantly higher than students in an “above-average New Jersey school,” Stossel questioned whether American students were “stupid.” He showed a clip of the "Jaywalking" segment from NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno, in which Leno roams the streets asking people “totally simple questions” and airs clips of those who make notoriously ill-informed responses. Stossel then attempted to imitate Leno's routine by asking a class of New Jersey students such basic history questions as, “What is the purpose of the Bill of Rights?” and, “What was the major cause of the Civil War?” The only response Stossel aired to his history quiz was one student saying, “I don't know.”
  • Stossel also aired clips from the 1989 film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and the 1995 film Clueless, then asked, “Is school as bad as the movie suggests?”

Misleading claims

As Media Matters for America has previously noted (here and here), Stossel has a history of making misleading or false claims to make his point, and in “Stupid in America,” Stossel and his guests made a series of false or misleading claims in support of school choice:

  • Competition improves schools. Stossel spent a significant portion of the program endorsing the concept that school choice would improve public schools as a whole because the resulting competition between public, charter, and private schools, Stossel claimed, “forces schools to try harder.” To illustrate this point, Stossel interviewed Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby about her studies of the effects of competition among schools on student performance. Using a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, voucher program as an example, Hoxby claimed that after its implementation the test scores of students at both public and private schools improved “by leaps and bounds.”

    “Of course they did,” Stossel added. “That's what competition does.” But, contrary to the definitive way in which Stossel presented the results, Hoxby's studies are far from conclusive and some have garnered significant criticism. While Milwaukee students' test scores have improved (though they recently appear to have leveled or slowed), other research studies have yielded conflicting explanations for the improvement in test scores. For instance, Cecilia Elena Rouse, a Princeton University economics professor, noted that three different studies on Milwaukee schools all reached different conclusions. Rouse concluded that “the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is too small to provide insight into the potential student achievement benefits of an unrestricted voucher program.” Also, Helen F. Ladd, Duke University professor of economics and professor of public policy, criticized the findings in one of Hoxby's studies. Ladd claimed that Hoxby, in touting the academic achievement of students attending private schools via voucher programs, neglected to note that there were “no statistically significant average differences between the achievement of voucher and non-voucher students”; additionally, Ladd noted that other research from Texas and North Carolina “indicates that students in charter schools experience smaller gains in achievement than they would have had they remained in the traditional public schools.”

  • Charter schools are succeeding. Touting the success of charter schools, Stossel misleadingly claimed, “Many charter schools are succeeding.” In fact, as a whole, charter school students have actually posted lower test scores than their public school counterparts. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) --the “primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education” -- found (NAEP data is compiled here) that charter school fourth-graders had lower average reading and math test scores in both 2003 and 2005 than non-charter school fourth-graders. Eighth-grade non-charter school students nationally posted 2005 NAEP average scores that were 10 points higher in math and five points higher in reading than their charter school counterparts. Although some advocates of charter schools argue that this is because they have significant populations of students who have failed at public schools, Stossel never informed his viewers that the debate even existed.
  • Insufficient funding is not the problem. Stossel also attempted to debunk educators' concerns that low funding is “the biggest problem facing public schools” with his interview of Jay Greene, senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research, who offered data purporting to show that increased funding has no effect on student achievement. “We doubled per-pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years and yet schools aren't better...,” Greene claimed. “We now spend more than $10,000 per pupil per year,” he said.

    In fact, according to the latest U.S. Census Data from 2003, per-pupil spending in the United States averages $8,019, with an average of $4,902 going toward instruction. Also, an analysis of several research studies exploring the roles of school funding and student achievement by researchers Bruce J. Biddle, professor emeritus of psychology and sociology at University of Missouri, and David C. Berliner, regent's professor of education at University of Arizona, found that most "strong studies" -- research studies whose methodology is not disputed -- concluded that school “funding has substantial effects” on student achievement. And because of new demands on schools outside of their academic mission, Biddle and Berliner argued that to view school funding only in terms of an increase in dollars over the last 30 years does not adequately address the issue of the impact of funding on educational achievement:

Another claim sometimes made by critics of public schools is that aggregate funding for schools has increased sharply in recent years, but this increase has not generated achievement gains.


[R]ecent legislative mandates and court decisions have created a host of new responsibilities for our schools designed to meet the needs of disadvantaged students -- those with physical and mental handicaps, those from impoverished homes, those representing racial and ethnic minorities, those from immigrant families who do not speak English at home, those who are unruly and unmotivated, and the like -- mandates that have often been underfunded but, taken together, have raised costs for public schools significantly. As a result, Miles and Rothstein found, about one-third of net new dollars during this period went to support special-education students; 8 percent went to dropout prevention programs, alternative instruction, and counseling aimed at keeping youths in school; another 8 percent went to expand school-lunch programs; another 28 percent went to fund increased salaries for a teacher population whose average age was increasing; and so forth. In contrast, during these years very few additional dollars were provided for needs associated with basic instruction.

Stossel provided no evidence to counter Greene's assertion, nor did he identify Greene's affiliation with the Manhattan Institute or Greene's fellowship there. According to Media Transparency -- a website that tracks grants made to conservative organizations -- the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research is heavily funded by the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, Inc. and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Inc.-- three of the top four conservative foundations known as the Four Sisters. Together with the Carthage Foundation -- another foundation controlled by the Scaife family -- the three foundations granted the Manhattan Institute more than $11 million between the years of 1985 and 2003.

Stossel complains of cherry-picking, but does his own

During his “Stupid” report, Stossel complained of difficulties he said he had gaining access to public schools with news cameras, claiming, “It's hard to get our cameras into schools.” Stossel continued: “New York City's school district wouldn't allow us in at all. Washington, D.C., steered us to the best classrooms, like this one taught by Jason Camorras, the national teacher of the year. ... But we wanted to tape typical classrooms. We were turned down in state after state. Finally, Washington, D.C., did allow us to give cameras to a few students they hand-picked at two schools they hand-picked.” Yet Stossel himself cherry-picked the charter schools he chose to highlight in his special, apparently choosing only schools with reported successes and ignoring studies that, again, show that in the aggregate, charter schools posted lower test scores.

Lack of balance

The 20/20 “Stupid in America” report skewed heavily in favor of “school choice” and school vouchers, both in the number of people interviewed and of time devoted to allowing them to make their argument. While Stossel's report included portions of interviews with eight “school choice” or school voucher advocates, he interviewed only two who opposed either vouchers or charter schools. (See table below.)

Stossel placed those two opponents of “school choice” at a further disadvantage by providing significantly more coverage to charter school and voucher supporters, as shown in the second table, below.

School choice advocates

School choice opponents

Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby

South Carolina state Rep. J. Todd Rutherford (D)

Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay P. Greene

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Moore Tenenbaum

Kevin Chavous, a former Washington, D.C., councilman and current fellow at the pro-school choice organization Center for Education Reform

Ben Chavis, charter school principal

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R)

New York City School Chancellor Joel I. Klein

Gompers Charter Middle School teacher Lisa Young

Michael Cordell, chief academic officer of Friendship Charter School

Word count -- public school critics

Word count -- public school supporters

About 1,400

About 360