Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The 10th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The 10th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education

Article excerpt

Mr. Bracey provides a brief history to set the stage for his 10th- anniversary assessment of the condition of public education in the U.S.

IN THIS 10th-anniversary Bracey Report, it seems appropriate to chronicle how the reports came to be in the first place. I believe that this history leads to an important conclusion, which I'll discuss below. The Bracey Reports happened virtually by accident, arising from an odd concatenation of almost unrelated events - unless, of course, you believe in fate.

It's All Richard Cohen's Fault

Up to 4 November 1990, I was, in some ways, a typical public school parent. I had grown up in a college town, and that college (William and Mary) had produced a number of my teachers, who, in turn, were oriented toward making us successful at their alma mater should we go there, as I ultimately did. Still, I thought my own kids were getting a better, deeper, richer, and more challenging education than I had received. For instance, they learned biology in terms of DNA, genetics, ecology, and so on. I memorized phyla. On the other hand, though I could see the high quality of the education they were getting, I also knew that the schools were in crisis because the newspapers and sundry television specials kept telling me so. (One TV special, as I recall, carried the title "Is Anybody Out There Learning?") Then, too, the claims from A Nation at Risk were all around. So, had a pollster asked, I would probably have given the typical public school parent's answer: the local schools are okay, but there's a crisis out there somewhere.

All that began to change on that morning in November. As I sipped my first cup of coffee, I read in the Denver Post a column by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, titled "Johnny's Miserable SATs." Reading Cohen's column was a life-changing event, though I had no inkling of that at the time.

When evaluating SAT scores, most people's perspective starts at the average, 500. They look up from there to the perfect 800 or down to the lowest possible score, 200. Cohen started at 800 and looked down. He seemed to feel that anything less than an 800 was a step toward perdition.

His analysis led me to conduct my own SAT trend analysis. I knew that a College Board panel had concluded that as much as three-fourths of the widely reported decline had stemmed from changes in the population taking the test: more minorities, more women, more students with mediocre high school records. By 1990, though, 13 years had elapsed since that panel's report, and no one had taken a systematic look at SAT trends since. Trying to take demographic changes into account, I concluded that since 1963 there had been a small decline in the verbal score and a minuscule gain in the mathematics score.

I sent my analysis to Education Week, which published it on 21 November 1990 under the title "SAT Scores: Miserable or Miraculous?" Other data began to arrive. I looked into dropout rates and found them much lower than I had read in the popular press. And the results from the Second International Mathematics Study didn't seem as dire to me as the headlines had portrayed them. Iris Rotberg, then at the RAND Corporation, and Harold Hodgkinson of the Institute for Educational Leadership also supplied data that seemed to mute the alarms set off by A Nation at Risk.

Then I received a peculiar phone call from Lee Bray, at the time a vice president at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. It was peculiar in that, if I thought of Sandia at all, I envisioned hydrogen bombs exploding because Sandia made the plutonium triggers for those devices. But Bray said that he and a group of engineers had assembled a lot of evidence about the condition of public education, that his evidence corroborated my analysis of SAT scores, and that, since he was coming to Denver anyway, we should meet for dinner and look at the stuff.

We did that. …

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