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Remembering Gerald Bracey
Here us a noteworthy memorial to Jerry Bracey, concluding, he was acerbic. He was a royal pain. And, yes, so often he was absolutely right.
One year ago we lost Bracey. Those of us who knew and appreciated his work very much miss his voice. His was perhaps the single most important voice criticizing the misuse of statistics in education. And if you made the mistake of putting out a story that could not be supported, Jerry would track down the data that proved how mistaken you were and publish it for all to see.
As I have written on Race to the Top, the Blue Print, and Waiting for "Superman" I cannot help but wonder how Bracey would have demolished each. He was acerbic. He was annoying. And damn it all, he was almost always exactly right.
As this first anniversary of the day he -- and another educational great Ted Sizer -- departed this life approached, I've been thinking about what I'd post in his honor.
I will explore two pieces, 1 written by Jerry at Huffington Post called The Evolution of Schools Suck, the other a tribute by our own Sherman Dorn, found on Susan Ohanian's Gerald Bracey Tribute page.
First, from Jerry himself. The piece, written in May of 2007, begins like this:
used the phrase "schools suck bloc" for the first time in "A Test that Everyone Will Fail" which appeared in the Washington Post May 3 and subsequently on this blog but it was hardly the first time I'd heard that schools suck. I once had occasion to tell my son-in-law about how well American kids had done on an international comparison. "That's amazing,"" he said. "Why," I asked, "is it amazing?" "Well, I just assumed our schools sucked." An interesting comment since he wasn't too long out of those schools and was heading towards an MBA at an elite private institution.
After setting the stage further with reference to emails from a number of major figures in education, he quotes one, Reid Lyons, as saying that a majority of American schools were already failing. Bracey continued
No they're not. Some are, no doubt. But in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, American kids in low poverty schools stomped the top-ranked Swedes. Even kids in schools with up to 50% of the students in poverty attained an average score that, had they constituted a nation, would have ranked 4th. Only American students attending schools with 75%+ poverty scored below the international average of the 35 participating countries.
You see a similar set of rankings if you look at outcomes by ethnicity. In OECD's Programme of International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-olds, white American students ranked 2nd in reading, 7th in math, and 4th in science among the 32 nations.
As you consider the doom and gloom that lies behind the push on things like Waiting for "Superman" and NBC's Education Nation effort, or even as the President and Secretary of Education spout statistics supposedly proving how our schools are failing, remember the statistics Bracey offered. If you wander through Jerry's writing, you will often find him doing this, offering statistics that demolish the doom and gloomers, and attempting, however much in vain, to set the record about American public education straight.
One more selection from this piece, the final one. As you read it, note one key word: bogus. Bracey's application of it in this context is absolutely on target:
In the last 20 years, many educational concepts have become identified with a political side. Phonics belongs to the Right, Whole Language to the Left and so forth. But statistics indicating school failure know no such divide. The bogus "lists" indicating the worst problems in the schools in the 40's (chewing gum, breaking in line, speaking out of turn, etc.) and in the 80's (drugs, violence, pregnancy, etc.) were adopted equally by Left and Right. The more recent but equally bogus "600,000 Chinese engineers" statistics gained immediate acceptance everywhere, cited by liberal and conservative alike as one more indicator of what we already know: the schools suck.
Susan Ohanian offers Sherman Dorn's complete tribute to Bracey here. It will not take you long to read. If you want to give Sherman some traffic, the original can be found here at his own blog. Let me offer one long paragraph from the middle of the piece, with hyperlinks included:
He has spent the last 18 years writing detailed critiques of whatever target happened to catch his eye. I first met him when he visited the University of Delaware in 1992-93 as he was beginning his second career as a mythbuster. My impression at the time was that he was smart, detail-oriented, and tilting at a windmill. I think my judgment at the time has been borne out by his writings since then. For more than a decade, the Kappan magazine published his annual "Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," which usually praised a handful of individuals and dished out acidic criticism to those Bracey thought were fools or worse. For a few years, Kappan published his "Rotten Apple" awards with Bracey's annual report and then thought better of it once the first lawsuit threat appeared (when Bracey handed Willard Daggett the "No, you're not a ham, ham can be cured" Rotten Apple Award in 2000). Thereafter, every year at about the same time as his rotten-appleless report appeared in Kappan, Bracey would e-mail his annual Rotten Apple nominations to the world (or at least a long list of recipients), eventually publishing them and the annual report manuscripts online. Bracey was the Pauline Kael of education research.
and Sherman's concluding paragraph as well, also with hyperlinks:
It is often the case that gadflies are ill-appreciated during their lifetimes, and often they pick the wrong windmills, or they tilt at windmills when they could be digging out the foundation instead. But Bracey was always there to respond to what he thought was poor reporting and sloppy thinking. There is probably no national reporter on the education beat in the past 20 years who didn't hear at one point or another from Jerry Bracey about Simpson's paradox or why NAEP's achievement levels were more political than scientific. Debra Viadero's blog entry today is very much in the vein I've read from reporters on occasion over the years: "He was, to put it bluntly, a thorn in our side. Once in a while, though, he had a point and I was awed by his tireless persistence and his willingness to heap criticism on government leaders from both sides of the political aisle, from Margaret Spellings to Arne Duncan."
If you want to read more from Bracey, going to the still extant page for his Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency will provide you with links for a number of powerful pieces beyond the ones to which Sherman linked in his tribute.
I learned a lot from Jerry. I never met him face to face, even though for many years we lived only a few miles apart. We talked a few times by phone, exchanged many emails. Twice I tried to recruit him to our bloggers conferences, first for Chicago where I was running education panels, then for Pittsburgh when I was considering doing a panel on knowledgeable people examining the Obama education policy to date (a panel I eventually did not submit). Jerry considered it each time, and each time pointed me at other people. Certainly by Pittsburgh in 2009, when he had already moved to the West Coast, he was not traveling much.
I am honored to be able to consider Jerry a friend and something of a professional mentor. I lack his vast knowledge and his encylopedic archives of relevant material. He taught me - and many others - about Simpson's Paradox, about how politicians and policy wonks of all stripes could and would misuse data.
He was acerbic. He was a royal pain. And, yes, so often he was absolutely right.
How I wish we had his voice right now.
Jerry - we miss you, but we will never forget you.
Thanks for all you did.
Rest in peace.
INDEX OF GERALD BRACEY TRIBUTES
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