When you actually know the topic about which The Economist writes
Stop me when this sounds unfamiliar: You flip through the pages of the latest Economist (or parse through the articles online), looking for interesting material, chuckling to yourself over the risible article titles and amusing photo captions. Then you settle on a number of pieces to read?the majority of which are on topics you know little about. This week, for example, you may have assailed yourself (as I did) of a piece on the cooling of the sun (eerie) or on counterfeit wine (an oddly high-end black market), or of a book review of the chronicles of a Polish dissident (fascinating). About 90 percent of the time, you relish in the magazine's witty and cogent articles that seem to outline complex issues so smartly.
But then the other 10 percent of the time, you read an article about which you actually know something. And in that moment, the magazine's sparkle fades. The article lacks nuance, regurgitates trite ideas, and conflates relevant arguments to string a coherent thought.
This week, one such article appeared on school funding in the States (page 34 for those with a hard copy handy). From Austin, the author explains that ?many cities and states, struggling to make up budget shortfalls, have put schools on the chopping block.? These cuts will add up to billions of dollars and will be ?readily apparent when schools reopen in the autumn?among those that do re-open, that is.?
This melodramatic proclamation?both unjust and only a bit ignorant in its assertion?doesn't help readers understand the complexities of America's public-school spending leviathan. ?Few schools are slated to close in the coming year due strictly to budget cuts (to low student achievement, district consolidation, underenrollment, sure). Schools aren't being shuttered willy-nilly, leaving little Johnnies and little Susies without. And it isn't simply budget cuts brought on by a slackening economy that have forced this hand. K-12 education has become an unwieldy assortment of line items on state (and district) budgets?and this has been a long time in the making. Reining in costs (of big-ticket items like teacher-pension plans and benefits packages, as well as of smaller line items like those generated from district central offices), and smarter usage of the funding that is provided, have long been back-burner necessities for American education. ?Yes, current fiscal climates have pushed this pot of needed reforms to the front of the stove. But they've been simmering for years.
To its credit, the article sheds its sensationalist rhetoric in the concluding paragraph, and ends with a few smart lines. Yet, their inclusion is what makes the piece most frustrating. (It's not that the author has not a clue about the school-funding debate in America, it's that he or she chose to write lazily, flirting with an educated appraisal of the present and future of U.S. school spending, but then failing to take it out to dinner.) Almost as conciliatory remarks, the article closes with a statistic from the Center for Reinventing Public Education and two lines worth considering: ?Spending on schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by 29 percent between 1990 and 2005, without a commensurate gain in pupil achievement. Better strategies may not be more expensive. The cuts may force states to think creatively.?
So some advice to readers of The Economist: Focus on these last thoughts and ignore the bulk of the article. And always read with a discerning eye.