Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Fourth Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Fourth Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education

Article excerpt

25. William Celis III, "Teachers in U.S. Trail Those Elsewhere in Pay," New York Times, 18 August 1993, p. A-17.

26. Mary Jordan and Tracy Thompson, "Across U.S., Schools Are Falling Apart," Washington Post, 22 November 1993, p. A-1.

27. Drew Lindsay, "Schoolhouse Rot," Education Week, 13 July 1994, pp. 27-33.

28. Adult Literacy in America (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1993).

Mr. Bracey uses new data to continue his demolition work on the hoaxes and myths that mar the public perception of American education.

THE FIRST three Bracey Reports presented a great deal of data that demolished two myths. The first myth was that a Golden Era of American education once existed, from which state of grace we have since fallen and to which state of grace we must struggle to return. The second was that the performance of American students is dreadfully low, both in comparison to Asian and European students and in comparison to the performance of American students in years past.

Of Hoaxes and Myths

This report continues the demolition work. But first I must take note of an even more pervasive hoax. It is one that I fell victim to, as did most of the nation. By itself, the hoax is not so important, but as a symbol it reveals how readily people believe any terrible thing about schools.

In 1986, when I took up residence in the administration building of the school district in Cherry Creek, Colorado, I noticed a sheet of green paper on the bulletin board outside my office. It listed the most pervasive school problems of the 1940s, followed by those of the 1980s. The catalogue of horrors for the 1940s included, in order, talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of place in line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper in waste-baskets. The list for the 1980s was dramatically different: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. The paper gave as its source the police department in Fullerton, California. That attribution made me wonder. I had spent five years as a police dispatcher and had consulted for the police department in New York City. And surveys of this sort just didn't seem to be the typical police department activity. But who knew? Maybe police work in California was closer to social science than was the case in New York.

In any case, my puzzlement led no further. Too bad. Had I but thought about it for a moment, I would have noticed that the 1980s list did not apply to the schools in Cherry Creek, a district that sends about 85% of its students on to higher education. Nor did it seem to apply in the neighboring suburban districts, nor in the approximately 150 small-town and rural districts in Colorado. Even in Denver, Colorado's only large city, the list would seem far-fetched. Moreover, there hadn't been much talk of these horrific problems during the decade I had spent in the state department of education in Virginia.

When the lists turned up on a bulletin board at Yale University, they sparked more dissonance in the mind of Professor Barry O'Neill than they had in mine. O'Neill found the 1940s list too trivial, and he was skeptical of the 1980s list. So he decided to seek the source.(1)

After collecting 250 versions of these lists, with various attributions, O'Neill found the lists to be a fabrication of one T. Cullen Davis of Fort Worth. Davis, acquitted of murdering his estranged wife's lover, had taken a hammer to his million-dollar collection of jade and ivory statues, smashing them as idols of false religion. He became a born-again Christian. And he used the lists to attack public schools. Cullen revealed to O'Neill his method of constructing the lists: "How did I know what the offenses in the schools were in 1940? I was there. How do I know what they are now? I read the paper."

But by the time O'Neill elicited this admission, virtually everyone in the nation had adopted the lists as gospel. …

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