John Stossel Rides Again

There aren’t enough people like John Stossel on television: smart, curious, cantankerous, and very willing to shoot at sacred cows. I say this not because Stossel hosted the recent hour-long 20/20 program on Freakonomics, but because I’ve always admired his reporting and especially his attitude. His recent 20/20 special on education, “Stupid in America,” is a particularly good example.

A couple of years ago, he wrote a best-selling book, Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media. (Yes, he has his own FAIR page.)

Now he has followed up with Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity, which challenges conventional wisdom in a number of arenas, especially the media, medicine, parenting, and gender. The book is already a New York Times best-seller; here’s more information on Stossel and the new book. I am guessing that most people who hang on out would agree that Stossel has a lot to say that is worth hearing.



I agree with everything you said except Stossel's special on "Stupid in America."

Poor facts, poor reporting, poor analysis.



qualityg - I completely agree. He's really proud of his idea that teachers are, if anything, overpaid, but I hope he has more to back up his claim in his book than he did in the 20/20 show.

I don't really think he examines problems from a lot of angles then comes to his conclusion - it seems to me that he actually has a conclusion in mind ahead of time and looks to support that. I've never been all that impressed.


Stossel may have a lot to say worth hearing, but he's never said it on television.


Totally and utterly disagree with this post on Stossel. He likes setting up absurdly false resolves or arguments. He did this a while back in an episode on women in the military. Stossel definitely has an agenda and it isn't the truth. If you are seriously holding him up as some example of a good journalist and iconclast I will have to reconsider your book and other writings!


Stossel has been doing some top-notch reporting in his columns for at least 6 months now. I bet he sleeps with one eye open wondering when ABC will decide they've had enough of him. ;-)

His columns are pretty much dead-on from an economics perspective, especially when you consider he's not an economist.



Sorry but anyone who uses the phrase "liberal media" and actually means it (as in, actually thinks there's this all powerful *liberal* media) really can't be trusted to have any other facts straight.

Just my two cents.

As for teachers being overpaid, in what universe?


Yeah, I have to add my two cents to the John Stossel dissent. Especially regarding the education series, his reporting really seems to lack critical analysis (it tackles too many issues, and sensationalizes them) and his statistics and sources lack rigour.

For example, decrying the power of unions may work for New York City, but as teacher's salaries in the South will attest, the unions are hardly an issue- they are nonexistant.


should just say as well, I am genuinely interested in the problems of American schools, and that's why I watched the show, but ultimately, the reporting just goes about it entirely the wrong way, and fails to clearly illustrate the problems, or offer proven solutions.


Actually, I find Stossel's arguments to be more anything but right on from a statistical or economic standpoint. He uses statistical analysis that too often tends to be misleading or flat out wrong. The essential problem is that he goes looking for data to support his conclusions.

In stupid in America, there is an underlying assumption that public schools in the U.S. do worse than charter schools or private schools. But this is not supported by the data. Data on charter schools is spotty (because so many states do not yet require charter schools to have the same level of accountability as public schools) but indicates that charter schools do not better than the districts in which they exist. At first glance, private schools might seem to do better than public schools. But when you control for the quality of incoming students (and in particular, on Freakonomics style) for the desire to choose a "better" school, be it private, public or magnet, there is not a significant difference.

The assumptions are part of a broader problem, which the federal government just recently started to address by allowing two states to change the way they measure student achievement data. The essential problem is that comparing scores on a particular test or set of tests does not tell you much about whether a particular school is effective or not. This is because students' performance on such test is heavily influenced how well prepared they were when they got to the school, the level of parental involvement and other factors beyond the control of the schools.

If you want to measure the effectiveness of a school, you need to do value added assessment. (Follow this link for an example of just such an edeavor: The arguments many (including Mr. Stossell) advance would be akin to telling someone with cancer to seek treatment from an orthopedic surgeon instead of an oncologist because the patients of orthopedic surgeons are much more likely to survive than those of oncologists.

If we want to get a more accurate assessment of educational performance, we need to assess how much individual students improve over time. We need to highlight the schools were students make remarkable progress. (Which I will admit is something Mr. Stossell does.) Here's an example to think about. One year as a teacher, I had 40% of my 8th grade students pass Ohio's 9th grade proficiency test in mathematics. The next year I had 100% pass.

Did I suddenly become a much better teacher? Or did I switch to a different school in the same district? Would your opinion of the situation change if I told you that 4% of the first group of students had passed the 6th grade proficiency test in math while 100% of the second group had? Or is there still too little information to know? Finally, all of the data so far ignores the fact that the average score for all my students at the first school went up just over two standard deviations from 6th grade to 8th grade. (I taught them for both 7th and 8th.) So even the ones who did not pass were much closer to "on grade level" than they had been.

Another problem with the way we measure schools' success is that it shortchanges the advanced students. These are kids who would pass the state assessments no matter what kind of instruction they receive. So how do we measure whether they are getting value from their educational experience?

Stossel's reporting on this subject and others is replete with anecdotal evidence and short on actual analysis. (And yes I am aware that I just supplied an anecdote, but mine was offered not as evidence that I am great teacher but that first looks at information can be flawed.) I understand that this is part and parcel of the journalists' need to make a story compelling, but it also provides at best an incomplete view of a given situation.

Another issue which absolutely drives me nuts is per pupil spending. Let's just get something straight, you can't even being to make accurate comparisons of spending unless you adjust for cost of living, per capita income and other such factors. Furthermore, per pupil spending discussion never seem to address the elephant in the room: Special Education. It is enormously expensive and we spend much more on it (as a percentage of all education spending) than anyone else in the world. This is particularly true for large urban school districts.

There have been all kinds of studies showing no correlation between per pupil spending and student performance. But these studies are almost entirely flawed. Big city school districts with lots of problems have to pay more for teachers or they wouldn't have any teachers. They also tend to have high costs for special education and support services. So they have large per pupil expenditures with lower test scores. But again, this is somewhat like pointing out that the more money spent on your medical care the more likely you are to die. (Which is true.) There have also been studies

It's not that Stossel fails to raise some good points. I am a teacher and it would be fantastic if it were easier to get rid of bad teachers. Giving schools and school districts more freedom to try new things is a great idea. Interestingly, there are plenty of public schools in the U.S. with no or extremely weak unions. If Mr. Stossel's rants were on target, you might expect these schools to be the shining examples for others to follow. I will leave it for you to guess in which states these schools are and what kinds of scores they have.

I was going to open up on Stossel's misuse of data in the sphere of environmental issues, but I am weary now. I will leave with this. In teaching AP Statistics, I sometimes use news stories and articles as examples of the use of statistics. And Stossel's stories often provide examples that my high school students are able to quickly pick apart.


This is what Freakanomics reader should like:

"I started out by viewing the marketplace as a cruel place, where you need intervention by government and lawyers to protect people. But after watching the regulators work, I have come to believe that markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market."
--ABC News correspondent John Stossel (Oregonian, 10/26/94)

(Unlike some of the thin skinned commenters above) Does he get it wrong sometime: OF COURSE! At Least he is furthering the discussion.

Gimme a Break!


He is furthering the discussion, but in the wrong direction.

Sam Boogliodemus

"I am guessing that most people who hang on out would agree that Stossel has a lot to say that is worth hearing."

I agree, Stephen. Doesn't look as though the thin skinned 'teachers' who read your blog do though. The cost of K-12 education is continually rising faster than gasoline and yet, the children are ranking lower and lower everytime they are measured. More fallout from the hippy generation, I would think. They seem to have plenty of self-esteem and yet they can't tell you what the three branches of the Federal Government are. Meanwhile, the NEA says the solution is more money. It's 'something awful' for certain. I've also found educators to be amazingly ignorant themselves. I'm sure you know what I mean ;)


Public school teachers are underpaid, even when unions are involved. You try doing it for even a day.

Network television reporters are overpaid.

When John Stossel gives up a big portion of his income either to teach, or to improve teachers' situations, I might listen to him. He's just a gasbag with an agenda.

Tim Lambert

To give an idea of how careless Stossel is with his facts, in the linked piece he has it that Uganda is losing 2-3 million people a year from malaria. But Uganda only has 300,000 deaths a year from all causes.

Stossel goes on to dismiss mountains of research on the effectiveness of bed nets because "not everyone in Africa has a bed".


Why does this site promote John Stossel? Could it be that 20/20 is on the same network that always pimps Freakonomics? Could money somehow and in someway be the link? Or is that you are just in love with the liar known as John Stossel? Please let it be for money and not for love.


Stossel is just a superficial guy I usually disagree with instead of a superficial guy I usually agree with.

I'll wait for Dan Rather's book and find out the truth that way ;)


The real "problem" with teachers is a market problem. The pay is generally bad, which IN GENERAL attracts commensurate talent (and some idealists). A few decades ago, teaching was one of the few acceptable careers for "professional" women. That market constraint artificially inflated the quality of the talent pool. Our government pay policies and expectations are the only remnant of that constraint, but they confound efforts to fix a "problem" that's no problem at all - it's actually the predictable result of fixing women's access to the job market.

Brian S.

Stossel is infamous for publishing admittedly fake test results that smeared the organic farming industry:

"EWG President Ken Cook, referring to Stossel's report, said, "He fabricated source material, he made up one lab test result on pesticides, and used it to defame an entire industry and he also contended on the basis of other tests ABC News did, that organic food could kill - and the tests don't show that. Even his own scientists say that the tests don't show that."

According to Stossel, "The labs we used never tested the produce for pesticides. We thought they had, but they hadn't. We misunderstood and that was our fault." Stossel's apology occurred during the last five minutes of the "20-20" program on ABC last Friday.

ABC News said last week that Stossel had received a reprimand for the error and an ABC producer had been suspended for several days without pay."

He also thinks Michael Crichton is a genius for questioning global warming. Actually, both Crichton and Stossel are just incompetent.


Scott Elliott

The problem with "Stupid in America" is that Stossel proposes a single and simplistic, "magic bullet" -- choice -- as the answer for a wide range of serious problems that plague an extremely complex national system of public schools. Is choice the answer? Maybe it's part of it. But Stossel is quick to dismiss other potential solutions that also might be part of the answer, like more money, without any real evidence that one approach is better than the other. For more, see:

Alan De Smet

For "Stupid in America" Stossel started with the answer he wanted ("Vouchers are good"), then went looking for data to support him. He convienently ignores data that works against him. He praises the effectiveness of Belgium's educational system with vouchers, but ignores the fact that of 24 countries that tested better than the US, many have state run monopoly school systems; the exact thing he claims is destroying our schools. Indeed, in many of those countries they have even stronger union systems (another thing he hates). He points to a single charter school's success as proof that choice works, ignoring that charter schools (along with many private schools) tend to attract parents seeking something more; the students at those schools are far more likely to have involved parents. Involved parents are a much stronger indicator of academic success.

Ultimately the man is an unreliable free market worshipper. He views his job as being "to explain the beauties of the free market." I'd rather have someone explain the _realities_ of the free market. The free market is a good thing! School vouchers might be great thing! But these things need to be approached with an open but skeptical mind, not a fan-boy attitude.