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"April Foolishness: The 20th Anniversary of A Nation At Risk

Posted: 2003-04-01

This is a draft version of an article appears in the April 2003 Phi Delta Kappan. If you care about what's happening to education, you need to subscribe to this important publication. Gerald W. Bracey spends half of his time as an independent researcher. He divides the rest as an Associate Professor of Education at George Mason University, an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, and a Fellow of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.



Twenty years ago this month, Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff, Jim Baker, and Reagan adviser, Mike Deaver, defeated Reagan's Attorney General, Ed Meese, in a battle of White House insiders. Over Meese's strong objections, they persuaded President Ronald Reagan to accept the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation At Risk." Secretary of

Education, Terrel H. Bell had convened the commission. In his memoir, The Thirteenth Man, Bell recalls that he sought a "Sputnik-type occurrence" that would dramatize all the "constant complaints about education and its

effectiveness" that he kept hearing. Unable to produce such an event, Bell settled for a booklet with 36 pages of text and 29 pages of appendices about who testified before the Commission or presented it with a paper.



Meese and his fellow conservatives hated "Risk" because it did not address any of Reagan's education agenda items: vouchers, tuition tax credits, restoring school prayer and abolishing the U. S. Department of Education. Baker called those issues "extraneous and irrelevant." He and the moderates of the White House staff thought the report contained a lot of good stuff to

campaign on.





Reagan accepted the report, but his speech acknowledging it largely ignored the report's content and simply reiterated his agenda. According to Bell, the talk was virtually identical to the speech that he had read and rejected the previous day. The Washington Post called it a "homily." Bell tells of looking around as Reagan spoke and noticing that "Ed Meese was standing there with a big smile on his face."



Despite Meese's sabotage, "Risk" played big in the media. In the month following the report's publication, the Washington Post carried no fewer than 28 stories. Few were critical. Joseph Kraft did excoriate conservatives for using it to beat up on liberals without offering anything constructive. William F. Buckley chided it for recommendations that "you and I would come up with over the phone." New York Times humor columnist Russell Baker contended that a sentence containing a phrase like "a rising tide of mediocrity," "wouldn't be worth more than a C in tenth grade English." About the authors' writing overall, Baker said, "I'm giving them

an A+ in mediocrity."



Any students who were in first grade when Risk appeared and who went directly from high school graduation into the work force have been there

eight years. Those who went on to bachelor's degrees have been on the job for four years. Despite "Risk's" dire predictions of national collapse without immediate education reform, productivity has soared since they arrived. What, then, are we to make of "A Nation At Risk" 20 years on?



The report's stentorian Cold Warrior rhetoric commanded and commands attention: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."



By contrast, the report's recommendations were, as Buckley and others observed, banal. They called for nothing new, only for more: more science, more mathematics, more computer science, more foreign language, more homework, more rigorous courses, more time on task, more hours in the school day, more days in the school year, more training for teachers, more money for teachers. Hardly the stuff of revolution. And even those mundane recommendations were based on a set of risk allegations that Peter Applebome

in the New York Times later called "skillful propaganda." Indeed, the report was a veritable golden treasury of slanted, spun and distorted

statistics.



Before actually listing the risk factors, "Risk" told America why those indicators meant we were in such danger. Stop worrying so much about the

Red Menace, the booklet said. The threat was not that our enemies would bomb us off the planet, but that our friends, especially Germany, Japan, and Korea, would outsmart us and wrest away control of the world economy: "If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational systems."



In penning this sentence, the Commissioners tightly yoked the nation's global competitiveness to how well our 13-year-olds bubbled in test answer sheets. This theory was, to be kind, without merit. A few, such as education historian, Lawrence Cremin, saw the theory for the nonsense that it was. In Popular Education and its Discontents, Cremin wrote

American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade, and industrial policy, and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Departments of the Treasury, Commerce and Labor. Therefore, to conclude that problems of international competitiveness can be solved by educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely as school reform, is not merely utopian and millenialist, it is at best a foolish and at worst a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools. It is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education.




Alas, Cremin's wisdom was read only by educators--and not by too many of them, either- -not the policy makers who needed to absorb his message.



In fact, "Risk's" theory became very popular in the late 1980's when the nation slid into the recession that would cost George H. W. Bush a second term. One then heard many variations of "lousy schools are producing a lousy workforce and that's killing us in the global marketplace." The economy, however, was not listening to the litany and came roaring back. By

late 1993 and early 1994, headlines over stories about the economy expressed energy and confidence: "The American Economy: Back On Top" (New York Times), "America Cranks it up," (U. S. News & World Report) and "Rising Sun Meets

Rising Sam" (Washington Post).



Of course, it was possible that the comeback had actually been spurred by true and large improvements in the schools. It was at least as possible as that school improvements after Sputnik in 1957 had got us a man on the moon

in 1969. If it were true, though, it was a national secret. In fact, the school critics denied that there had been any gains. Three months after the Times declared the American economy was again number one in the world, IBM

CEO Lou Gerstner took to the Times' op-ed page to declare "Our Schools are Broken." One reads Gerstner's essay in vain for any hint that schools are on the way up.



Indeed, evidence abounds that Gerstner and other school critics, especially in the first Bush administration, strove mightily to keep "Risk's" dire warning alive--and so strive today. In 2001, Gerstner was back in both the Post and the Times. The CEO's of Intel, Texas Instruments, and State Farm Insurance, all penned op-ed essays for national newspapers about the poor quality of schools, as did Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, former Senator, John Glenn, former Governor of Delaware, Pete DuPont, and former Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett.



During the time of "Risk," they not only hyped alleged bad news, but also deliberately suppressed good news, or ignored it when they couldn't actually suppress it. The most egregious example of suppression, at least the most egregious that we know about, was that of "The Sandia Report." Assembled in 1990 by engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, the report presented 78 pages of graphs and tables and 78 pages of text to explain the graphs and tables. It concluded that while there were many problems in public education, there was no system wide crisis. Secretary of Energy, James Watkins, who had asked for the report, called it "dead wrong" in the

Albuquerque Journal. Briefed by the Sandia engineers who compiled it, Deputy Secretary of Education and former Xerox CEO, David Kearns told them, "You bury this or I'll bury you." The engineers were forbidden to leave New Mexico to discuss the report. Officially, according to Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, the report was undergoing "peer review" by

other agencies (an unprecedented occurrence) and was not ready for publication.



Sandia vice president, Lee Bray supervised the engineers who produced the report. I asked Bray, now retired, about the report's fate. He affirmed it was definitely, deliberately suppressed.



There were other instances of accentuating the negative. In February 1992, a small international comparison in mathematics and science appeared. America's ranks were largely, but not entirely low, although actual scores

were near the international averages. Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander and Assistant Secretary Ravitch held a press conference which

garnered wide coverage in both print and electronic media. "An 'F' in World Competition," was Newsweek's headline, Newsweek having fallen for the hokum that high test scores = international competitiveness. The Post had

Alexander saying the study's outcome was a "clear warning that even good schools are not properly preparing students for world competition."



Critics would hammer the schools with this international study for years. In January 1996, for instance, a full-page ad in the New York Times showed the rankings of 14-year- olds in math. Among 15 countries, America was 14th. "If this were a ranking in Olympic Hockey, we would be outraged" said large-type ad (1996 was a summer Olympics year). The immediate source of

the ad was the Ad Council but the sponsors were, in the order in which they were listed in the ad, The Business Roundtable, the U. S. Department of

Education, The National Governors' Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Alliance of Business. Clearly, with friends like these, public schools needed no enemies.



Five months after the math-science study, another international comparison appeared, this one in reading. No one knew. Education Week discovered the study first, but only two months after the results were published and then

only by accident. Robert Rothman, an EW reporter at the time, received a copy from a friend in Europe. American 9-year-olds were second in the world among 27 nations. American 14-year-olds were 8th among 31 countries but only Finland had a significantly higher score. Ed Week ran the story on the front page. USA Today played off the EW account with its own page one piece. USA Today's article included a quote from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, Francie Alexander, that reflected the Bush administration's handling of good news: She dismissed the study as irrelevant (I was told by

someone in Office of Educational Research and Improvement that Ravitch handed the results to a group of researchers in the Office and told the

group to make the study disappear. The study was conducted by an educational organization based in The Hague, so, unlike the federally funded

Sandia Report, it couldn't be suppressed. The group of researchers produced about six inches worth of reports but couldn't make the results go away).



While "Risk" offered a litany of spun statistics about the risk we faced, its authors and fellow believers presented no actual data to support the

contention that high test scores = competitiveness except the most circumstantial. The arguments heard around the country typically went like this: "Asian nations have high test scores. Asian nations ("Asian Tigers" they were called then), especially Japan, have experienced economic miracles. Therefore, the high test scores produced the economic good times." The National Commission on Excellence in Education, and many school critics, made a mistake that no educated person should: They confused correlation with causality.



The "data" on education and competitiveness consisted largely of testimonials from Americans who visited Japanese schools. On returning from

Japan, educational researcher, Herbert Walberg said many features of the Japanese system should be adopted here. "I think it's portable. Gumption and willpower, that's the key." The believers overlooked cautionary tales such as Ken Schooland's Shogun's Ghosts: The Dark Side of Japanese Education, or the unpretty picture of Japanese schools presented in the education chapters of Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power.



How representative were the Japanese schools these American visitors saw is not known, but without doubt, they saw only the good side. I once asked Paul George at the University of Florida about gaining entrance to less than

stellar Japanese schools. George has spent years in Japanese schools of various levels of achievement. His reply was succinct: "Look, there are 27 high schools in Osaka, ranked 1 to 27. You can easily get into the top few. You would have a much harder time getting into #12 or #13. Not even Japanese researchers can get into #27."



The proponents of the test score theory of economic health grew quiet after the Japanese discovered that the emperor's palace and grounds were actually not worth more than the entire state of California, a widely disseminated

"fact" in Japan in the eighties. Japan has foundered economically now for 12 years. The government admits that bad loans from banks to corporations amount to more than 10% of its Gross Domestic Product. Some estimate the size of the bad loans as high as 75% of GDP. We now see headlines such as "The Sinking Sun?" (New York Times) and "A Second Decade of Economic Woes?"

(Washington Post).



The case of Japan presents a counter-example to the idea that high test scores assure a thriving economy, but there is a more general method

available to test "Risk's" hypothesis high scores = competitiveness. For this test I located 35 nations that had rankings in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 8th grade tests and also rankings for

global competitiveness from the Geneva think tank, the World Economic Forum (WEF). Among these 35 the U. S. in 2001 was #1. Among all 75 countries that the WEF ranked in its Global Competitiveness Report 2001-2002, America

was #2, trailing Finland, but Finland did not take part in the first round of TIMSS in 1995. The rank order correlation coefficient between test scores and competitiveness was +.19, virtually zero. If five countries that

scored low on both variables were removed from the list, the coefficient actually became negative.



"Risk" built its case for competitiveness out of whole cloth, but to make its case for the dire state of American education, it did provide a lot of statistics. It was the spin on these stats that led Applebome to characterize "Risk" as propaganda. Consider these.



----"Over half the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement."



I have asked both commissioners and staff to the commission where this statistic came from. No one knows. It makes no sense because twenty years

ago, the principal instruments for identifying gifted kids were achievement tests.



-----"Average tested achievement of students graduating from college is also lower."



Another non-existent statistic.



-----"There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U. S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973 and 1977."



Maybe, maybe not. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was not originally designed to produce trends and the scores for 1969 and 1973 are backward extrapolations from the 1977 assessment. In any case, the declines were smaller for 9-and 13-year olds and had already been wiped out by gains on the 1982 assessment. Scores for reading and math for all three ages assessed by NAEP were stable or inching up. The commissioners thus had

nine trendlines (three ages, 9, 13, and 17, and three subjects, reading, math and science), only one of which could be used to support crisis

rhetoric. That was the only one they used.



-----"The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980."



This was true, but the Board's own investigative panel described a complex trend to which many variables contributed. It ascribed most of the change to changes in who was taking the test--more minorities, more women, more students with mediocre high school records, more students from low-income families.



When the standards for the SAT were set, the students who received 500 as an average score were an elite: 10,654 high schoolers mostly living in New England. Ninety-eight percent were white, 61 percent were male, and 41 percent had attended private, college preparatory high schools. In 1982, the year "Risk's" commissioners labored, 988,270 seniors huddled in angst on Saturday mornings to bubble in SAT answer sheets. Eighty- four percent were

white, 52 percent were female, 44 percent had mothers with a high school diploma or less, 27 percent came from families with incomes under $18,000 and 81 percent attended public schools. All of those demographic changes are associated with lower scores on any test. It would have been very suspicious if the scores had not declined.



-----"Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched."



The commissioners could not have known if this were true for "most standardized tests." At the time, most companies that produced standardized

tests did not equate them from form to form over time. They used a "floating norm." Whenever they renormed their tests, whatever raw score

corresponded to the 50th percentile became the new norm. Only the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS, grades 3-8) and Iowa Tests of Educational

Development (ITED, grades 9-12) were referenced to a fixed standard and equated from form to form, beginning in 1955. In order to examine test

score trends over time, one needs a test referenced to a fixed standard where each new form equated to the earlier form. Only the ITBS-ITED battery met this requirement.



It was true that on the ITED, scores were lower than when Sputnik was launched. Barely. The commissioners could have noted that scores had risen for five consecutive years and that their statement about test scores and Sputnik didn't apply to most middle or elementary grades.



The five-year rise had been preceded by a decade long decline which itself was preceded by a ten year rise. Scores rose from 1955, a baseline year

when the test was renormed and qualitatively changed as well, to about 1965. Scores then fell until about 1975, reversed and climbed to record

high levels by 1985 (something unnoticed by critics or media).



It is instructive to examine what the nation was experiencing during this ten years of falling test scores from 1965 to 1975. The decade was anteceded by one year by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then opened with the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Urban violence then spread across the nation. The decade contained Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Altamont, Ken Kesey and his LSD-laced band of Merry Pranksters,

the Kent State atrocities and the 1968 Chicago Police Riot. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X were all assassinated. The

country became obsessed with and depressed by first the war in Vietnam and then Watergate. "Recreational drugs"--pot, acid, speed, Quaaludes, amyl nitrate--had become popular. If you remember the Sixties, the saying goes, you weren't there. And don't trust anyone over 30.



Popular books included anti-Establishment tracts such as The Making of a Counter Culture, The Greening of America, and The Pursuit of Loneliness. Books critical of schools included Death at an Early Age, The Way it Spozed

to Be, 36 Children, Free Schools, Deschooling Society, The Death of School, How Children Fail, The Student as Nigger, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, and, most influential, Charles Silberman's 1970 tome, Crisis in the Classroom.



Under these conditions of social upheaval centered in the schools and universities, it would have been a bloody miracle if test scores had not fallen.



When Risk appeared, universities and education associations fell all over themselves lauding it. The education associations said that they welcomed the attention after a decade of neglect. "We are pleased education is back

on the American agenda," wrote Paul Salmon, Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators. They also said, later, that they didn't want to appear defensive. They also said, much later and in private, they were certain that with all these problems in education, the money would surely follow. They were wrong.



As for the universities, well, a crisis in our schools always presents a great opportunity for educational researchers seeking to liberate money from foundations and governments. "A Nation At Risk" was to the research universities as September 11 was to the arms and security industries. As Susan Fuhrman, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania once said at a meeting, "If you want money, ya gotta say the schools are lousy. So what else is new?"



The National Commission on Excellence in Education commissioned over 40 papers that laid out the crisis. Virtually all of them were written by academics. The Commission acknowledged only one that was written by someone

actually working in a school and it was not a commissioned work. Harvey Prokop, a teacher in San Diego, wrote a critique of a Commission seminar in his town, The Student's Role in Learning.



Alas, nothing else is new and indeed, we must recognize that good news about public schools serves no one's education reform agenda even if it does make teachers, kids, parents, and administrators feel a little better. Conservatives want vouchers and tuition tax credits; liberals want more resources for schools; free marketers want to privatize the schools and make money; fundamentalists want to teach religion and not worry about the first

amendment; Catholic schools want to stanch their student hemorrhage (and create more Catholics); home schooling advocates want just that; and some

various groups no doubt just want to be with "their own kind." All groups believe they improve their chances of getting what they variously want if they pummel the publics.



It has, though, been 20 years since "A Nation At Risk" appeared. It is clear that "Risk" was false then and false now. Today, the laments are old and tired--and still false. "Test Scores Lag as School Spending Soars"heralds the headline of a 2002 press release from the American Legislative

Exchange Council. Ho hum. The various education special interest groups need another treatise to rally round. They have one. It's called No Child Left Behind. It's a weapon of mass destruction and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.



The report finally appeared in 1993 as the entirety of the May/June 1993 issue of the Journal of Educational Research under the title, Perspectives on Education in America.



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