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About the State of the State of Education

Publication Date: 2005-09-06

This interview appeared on http://www.educationnews.org Sept. 6, 2005, and is used with permission.

An Interview with Gerald Bracey:
Monday, September 5, 2005
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico 88130

Gerald W. Bracey is an associate professor at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia and an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, Ypsilanti, Michigan. His most recent book is Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U. S.: Second Edition (Heinemann, September 2004).


1) What is ?The Neurotic Need to Believe the Worst About Schools Syndrome??

The neurotic need to believe the worst is the tendency and willingness to accept any news about public schools if it?s bad and to reject or ignore it if it is good because we all know how awful the schools are. The need is heightened in the media whose motto is ?If it bleeds, it leads.? But it also leads to mistakes?people uncritically accept bad news and sometimes, it?s wrong. Education Week once said that over a decade the number and proportion of high scorers on the SAT reading and math had gone down. It was a copying error and, in fact, both had gone up. If the numbers said that both had gone up, they would have been double or triple checked for errors.

2) You have been quoted as saying. ?It?s not an excuse. It?s a condition, like gravity. Gravity affects everything you do on this planet, and so does poverty.? How does poverty affect children, learning, teaching and education?

Whatever the risks to children, they are heightened in poverty. Poor kids are more likely to die or be injured, more likely to suffer physical or emotional abuse. They don?t live in safe environments and mammals do not learn well when anxious. Their mothers don?t get proper prenatal care; they are more likely to be born at low birth weight which can affect cognitive development. They are more likely to be malnourished or hungry which also affects functioning. They attend schools with smaller libraries and thinner, older books. They have far less access to books in the summer. They are less likely to go on trips, to museums, or fairs. They are less likely to play structured sports?which can teach a variety of things.

In any case it is easy to see the effects of poverty. Take the ?high-flying schools? of the Education Trust. As the percent of kids in poverty rises, the number of high flyers plummets. California has 639 schools where more than 90% of the kids live in poverty (a disgrace in itself). One of them was a high flyer for a year, defined as scoring in the upper quartile of the state for one subject, for one grade for one year?pretty lenient criteria. It could not sustain that performance a second year. California has 1556 schools with more than 75% poverty. Six of 1556 were high flyers and one of those sustained that level for two more years before dropping off the chart.

If you look at TIMSS or PIRLS by poverty level American students in low poverty schools are at or near the top. In PIRLS, American kids in low poverty schools stomped Sweden, the highest scoring country overall.

3) Like Andy Rooney, you have satirically indicated that some child thirty years hence will pen a book entitled ?Everything I Needed to Know about Sound-Symbol Correspondence and How to be a Burned-out Learner by Fourth Grade I Learned in Kindergarten.? What book ARE you currently writing?

On Wednesday, August 17, I delivered to Heinemann a book with the working title Reading Educational Research Between the Lines: How Not to Get Statistically Snookered. It?s sorta the flip side of the 1954 classic, How to Lie With Statistics. It?s more like How to Know When You?re Being Lied to With Statistics. Or even when the data don?t support the accompanying rhetoric or conclusion. There is a primer on statistics and a primer on testing in the book as well. The hope, maybe vain, is to make non-researchers smarter consumers of research. It?s especially important today when so much pseudo-research is issuing from places like The Manhattan Institute and others. Michael Kinsley once called the Heritage Foundation a propaganda machine masquerading as a think tank. That?s about right.

4) Who will win ?The Rotten Apples In Education Award of 2005???

The U. S. Department of Education could be in a position to win it all, to attain a monopoly. No, that?s not true. Checker Finn is a shoe-in for one or more. He?s a one-man barrel. For the rest, you?ll have to wait until on or about January 1.

5) In 2005, who should win the ?Take it to The Media and to Hell with peer review award?

Jay P. Greene is the odds-on favorite. Jay is leaving the Manhattan Institute to direct the new Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, making him likely a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wal-Mart. All but one of the Waltons still live in Benton and a couple of years ago laid $200 million on the University.

6) In 2005, who should win the ?Karen Ryan Phony Journalism and Leaving Greg Toppo Behind Award?

It?s hard to imagine anyone in the last four months of the year beating out Armstrong Williams.

7) In 2005 who should win the ?THE ?BEST PERFORMANCES IN A FARCE? AWARD??

This one is indeterminate, but Margaret Spellings is in the lead for her ?flexibility? in NCLB which some would call ?loopholes.? It is possible that she is desperately trying to stave off the inevitable impact of AYP on the number of failing schools by granting various loopholes. Even without them, Virginia doesn?t need to report ethnicity for 47% of its schools and English Language Learnders. Given Virginia?s minimum group size, could be almost 40,000 minority students whose performance isn?t reported.

8) What do we have to look forward to in terms of the Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education in the near future?

This year we start with a quote from Voltaire: ?Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.? Then we document some of the testing atrocities committed in the name of education. We take a close look at the argument that poor performance in international comparisons of test scores will lead to economic demise and find the argument wanting. The close look includes presentation of salient statistics from PISA2003 and TIMSS2003, both released in December 2004. We report the latest NAEP trends and present the events subsequent to the Right?s Charter School Hissy Fit over a New York Times article on charters. I don?t spend too much time on the actual events since those were chronicled in my March Research column, but I talk about additional evidence and briefly review the book the hissy fit gave birth too, The Charter School Dust-Up. I try to look at where the money goes in NCLB, but it ain?t easy. No one is minding the store, especially over the supplemental educational services, but some very questionable activities abound in the management of Reading First. I briefly describe the articles that were written for a special issue of Equity and Excellence in Education. I guest edited the special issue which was about Social Justice Issues Raised by NCLB. That?s about it for Bracey 15.

9) You and other scholars such as David Berliner have constantly been called upon to expose the ? sham? of certain small size, short term research studies. Why do we allow shoddy research to be given such credibility?

You?ll have to ask the media. I am constantly astounded. Sharon Nichols and David put out a 180 page monograph on the inevitable corruption indicators and educators because of high-stakes testing and it got little attention. It?s mostly not a technical paper, mostly reporting corruption documented in newspapers. Part of it is likely packaging and places like the Manhattan Institute, Hoover Institution and Heritage Foundation put as much money and effort into PR as into the studies themselves.

10) Is there any relationship at all, by any stretch of the imagination between algebra and higher order thinking or critical thinking?

There could be. It would depend on how it?s taught. In most schools it probably doesn?t do anything for critical thinking. America mostly teaches math by describing a procedure, giving an example or two, then some seatwork and then some homework. Then it moves on to another procedure. When my daughter took algebra it was just one disconnected procedure after another. There was no coherence no rationale. I think Bob Moses? ?Algebra Project? might do a much better job. I say ?might? because I have only read brief articles about it and haven?t observed the program in action.

11) Is the SAT elite still elite?
Depends on what you mean. There are more of them. We?ll find out in a few days how many more. The percent of seniors scoring above 650 on the math has climbed steadily for over 20 years setting a new record virtually every year. Last year it was over 14% (in 1981 it was 8%). Some?Denis Doyle?have tried to explain the increase as due to Asian kids. They do score better?last year 33% of them scored above 650, but if you remove them from the sample you see large gains for black, white and Hispanic students. The Asians are too few in number to produce the gains seen. On the verbal there has been much less of an increase. The percent bottom out at about 2.8% in the early 80?s, then climbed back to around 4%. This is using the old scale?it doesn?t matter which scale you use for the math; the result are the same. No one who gets a 650 on the old scale is denied on the new scale and no one who gets a 650 on the new scale would fail to do so on the old scale. The shift for the math was at the low end.

12) What are ?The Seven Deadly Absurdities Of No Child Left Behind??

I think there are more now, but I haven?t given it too much thought. Recent headlines have fretted over the increase in the number of California schools and districts labeled as ?failing? under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). It will get worse. The law?s seven deadly absurdities described below assure it.

* NCLB uses the phrase ?scientifically based research? 111 times and demands that such research support educational programs, but no scientifically based research?or any research--supports the law?s mandates.

* NCLB lacks research support because NCLB depends solely on punishment. As schools fail to make arbitrary Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the law, in the grand tradition of the beatings will continue until morale improves imposes increasingly harsh sanctions. Even those who think punishment can motivate people would never use it as NCLB does. It punishes the entire school for the failures of the few, often the very few. If a school?s special education students fail to make AYP, the whole school fails. If a school?s English language learners fail to make AYP the whole school fails. If 95% of any group fails to show up on test day, the whole school fails. Most schools have 37 ways to fail (some California schools have more), only one way to succeed.

* All students must be proficient in reading, math, and science by 2014. Testing expert Robert Linn of the University of Colorado projected it will take 61 years, 66 years, and 166 years, respectively, to get fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders to the proficient level in math. Alas, Linn?s projections are wildly optimistic. A forthcoming journal article argues that the 100% proficient requirement is so irrational it is unconstitutional.

* As a consequence of #3 and #4 above, California has projected that by the deadline year of 2014, NCLB will label 99 percent of its schools ?failing.? California students don?t do all that well on tests, but Minnesota is one of the nation?s highest scoring states. Yet even Minnesota projects that 2014 will find 80 percent of its schools wanting.

Any school that fails to make AYP for two consecutive years must offer all students the option to transfer to a ?successful? school. Thus, if a school?s special education students fail to make AYP one year and its English language learners fail the next year, the school must offer all students the ?choice option? in spite of the fact that the school worked for the other 36 student categories.

* In cities and rural areas, the choice option is a farce. This year, Chicago had 200,000 students eligible, but only 500 spaces for them. In New York, principals receiving some 8,000 transfers gave Chancellor Klein so much flack about the disruptions to their schools that Klein later limited the number of transfers to 1,000. In some rural areas ?choice? means a two-hour drive each way and in parts of Hawaii and Alaska it means a plane ride.

The biggie: Schools alone cannot accomplish what NCLB requires. Many observers have noted that American schools are always failing because so much is expected of them. NCLB expects even more?it expects schools, all by themselves, to close the achievement gap between affluent and poor, majority and minority. This is ridiculous. The gap appears before school and between birth and age 18 children spend only 9 percent of their lives in schools.

Some of us have always seen NCLB as yet another Bush administration Orwellian Double Speak program. Under cover of its idealistic name, it aims to increase the use of vouchers, increase the privatization of public schools, transfer large sums of public funds to the private sector, reduce the size of the public sector, and weaken or destroy the teachers unions (two Democratic power bases). The primary beneficiaries of the law to date have been the testing companies, the test preparation companies, and companies that provide tutoring and other ?Supplemental Educational Services? (for which the companies are in no way held accountable). Once we arrive at the time when failing schools can be ?reconstituted,? the educational management companies such as Edison, Mosaica and the rest will move in on a grand scale. One can foresee the day when there are no publicly run schools left. It appears that Representative Miller, who voted for the law, does not see this coming.

13) How can we read research and not get duped by data?

Read my book and try to live by the old IBM motto: ?Think.? People are far too uncritical about statistics, even simple ones that don?t require much statistical savvy.

14) Many years ago, we had prohibition. It was an abysmal failure. Many years from now, when educators look back at this generation, what will they say?

I hope they will say ?What were we thinking??

15) And, in my opinion, the most critical question of all. How can the powers that be insist on using ? scientifically based research methods? that were conducted under tightly held rigidly controlled experimentally conditions and apply them to the real world?

They can?t. And they aren?t?-except to public schools. The supplemental educational services providers face minimal scrutiny and that is by design. When Michael Petrilli was with the Department of Ed he said it wanted to keep bureaucratic obstacles to a minimum to insure a thriving market. The same processes that define criteria for scientifically based support in the adoption of materials for reading programs define bureaucratic obstacles for SES. Sounds a tad hypocritical to me.

There doesn?t seem to be any appreciate of the speech that Alan Roses gave a couple of years ago. Roses pointed out that 90% of approved drugs only work on 30-50% of the people who take them. Roses is a vice president at GlaxoSmithKline and he was arguing for genetic tests to try to match treatments to patients better. If you find out that phonics works better for initial reading (which the evidence, so far as I know, denies), that just means you have a statistically significant difference between the average scores of two (or more) groups and someone might have converted into an effect size. In any case, what works better on average will fail miserably for some children.

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