Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Third Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Third Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education

Article excerpt

In the "Second Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," I wrote: "We can now hope that the days of school-bashing are over."[1] Naive, was 1, and not forward looking either. While the departure of George Bush and his Department of Education appointees (the schools-are-for-knocking crowd) did indeed result in much less negative noise from the politicians, the media picked up the cudgels and banged the drum of failure with them. And had I but looked ahead a few months, I would have noticed looming on the horizon the cruelest month, an April that marked the 10th anniversary of "a rising tide of mediocrity." The 10th jubilee of the document I had called a "xenophobic screed" in the First Bracey Report[2] was too juicy a target for the press pundits to pass up.

Indeed, April 1993 was the occasion for a new flood tide of negative columns, many of them inaccurate. "Our schools have barely improved," lamented William Kristol and Jay Lefkowitz in the New York Times.[3] In the Rocky Mountain News, Edward Lederman declared that it didn't matter what indicator you looked at, they'd all gotten worse in the last decade.[4] The News at least had the courage to feature my rejoinder in a prominent place in a Sunday edition.

Not so the Washington Post. The Post labeled schools "dismal" (a favorite adjective of both the Post and Newsweek) and mentioned stagnant Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores.[5] It followed up three days later with a long article by former New York Times education writer Edward Fiske, whose essay concluded that the value of A Nation at Risk was to show that, "so far as the quality of American public schools was concerned, the emperor had no clothes."[6] And three days after that, Robert Samuelson weighed in on the op-ed page of the Post with "Let's grant that lots of our schools are lousy."[7] The Post, as has been its custom in the two years I have lived in the D.C. area, declined to publish my rebuttals to these pieces. Indeed, the Post's refusal to print anything contrary to its steady message of failure reminds me of the controlled information policies we usually associate with totalitarian regimes. Only USA Today, in a special education supplement, provided a balanced view of events since April 1983.[8]

Unfortunately, the Post was not alone. Scientific American offered a scary example of bias in American media. The December 1992 issue featured an article by Harold Stevenson that once more propagated his findings of school failure,[9] findings that I critiqued in the Second Bracey Report. I offered the editors a rebuttal, declaring that had Stevenson conducted precisely the same studies but found American students scoring higher than Asian students, those who now quote him would have rejected his findings outright because of the many methodological flaws in the work.

David Berliner of Arizona State University took a different tack in countering Stevenson's article. In a letter to the editor of Scientific American, Berliner offered to accept Stevenson's data as reported but then challenged the interpretations of those data. Berliner offered compelling analyses - and has since changed his mind about the quality of the data as well - and he closed with the comment that "to uncover cultural differences and then decide that one group is deficient requires a completely different form of scholarship than that offered by Dr. Stevenson. He is no more qualified to make that argument than the typical American parent."

Neither Berliner nor I received any response from the editors of Scientific American. I dispatched a second letter and repeated my offer of a rebuttal. This time, I received a form rejection post card.

The contagious mindset of failure infected even writers whose expertise is in education. On June 27 Albert Shanker opened his weekly New York Times column with, "The achievement of U.S. students in grades K-12 is very poor."[10] This opening volley seemed particularly gratuitous since the rest of the column was about grade inflation in colleges. …

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