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Getting the Word Out

Countering the fear mongers about American Public Schools

Publication Date: 2009-04-14

This is the text of an invited address given by Gerald R. Bracey at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego on Tuesday, April 14, 2009. Dr. Bracey was invited to give the "Charles Degarmo Invited Lecture" to AERA. Dr. Bracey explained in an e-mail two days before he delivered the address,"What follows are the first few pages of an invited address I will give at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego on Tuesday. The pages quote a lot of statistics from President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan and then show that the statistics are all wrong. It pains me to do this since I campaigned for Obama, canvassed for him, donated to the campaign and, of course, voted for him. But listening to what he says about education, it is easy to see why Diane Ravitch said that in education, Obama is a third term for Bush and Duncan is Margaret Spellings in drag.


In order to talk about countering the fear mongers, I first need to create context about what I mean by fear mongering and demonstrate that it exists.

A few recent quotes should suffice.

"It’s increasingly clear that building a world class education system that provides students with a strong foundation in math and science must be part of any meaningful long-term recovery strategy." That’s California Representative George Miller, one of the great pushers of NCLB talking about the most recent results on TIMSS, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study last December. Congressman Miller seems to have forgotten that economic cycles have come and gone in the past independent of what 4th graders were doing in math and science. The economies of developed nations will continue to rise in fall independent of test scores. Japan, with some of the highest scoring students in the world, has been in the economic doldrums for almost 20 years. Iceland, with high scoring students, has become an overnight basket case with national debt equal to 850% of its GDP.

"The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it’s unsustainable for our democracy, it’s unacceptable for our children."

"In 8th grade math we’ve fallen to 9th place."

"Of the 30 fastest growing occupations in America, half require a bachelor’s degree or more."

"Today’s system of fifty different benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming and getting the same grade."

"Only one third of our thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds are reading as well as they should."
Those are five quotes from President Obama, some from his speech to Congress, some from his address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"We have been lying to children and their parents because states have dumbed down their standards. Sometimes you have to call the baby ugly."

"We’re not just facing an economic crisis here in America. I’m absolutely convinced we are facing an educational crisis as well."


These last two quotes are from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his "call the baby ugly" statement strongly suggests he will have the same flare for the colorfully absurd as his predecessor. [My favorite Arne citeâ€" "look a second grader in the eye and tell them if they’re on track to get into a good college or not..."]

I am tempted to conjoin all of all the gobbledy gook in the above quotes into a phrase, "The Manufactured Crisis," but, alas, an earlier DeGarmo lecturer and one of his colleagues have already appropriated that. Let’s just take a look at some of these some of these statements in detail.

"Eighth graders have fallen to 9th place in math." That statistic comes from the latest TIMSS report. First off, to me, 9th place out of 45 nations doesn’t seem so bad, but it’s that word "fallen" that is so harshly inappropriate. In the original TIMSS in 1995, American 8th-graders were 28th out of 41 nations. So, I don’t know if the President has taken to living a universe with reverse gravity, but in my old Newtonian world we’ve fallen up 19 ranks. If that reflects, a "relative decline," please, Mr. President, sir, could I have some more?

Kids in Wyoming are 70 points ahead of kids in Mississippi. On WHAT? I cannot think of any common test kids in WY and MS take except NAEP and in 2007, Wyoming 4th graders scored 225 and Mississippi 4th graders scored 208. That’s 17 points, not 70, but I don’t think the President misread his teleprompter or suffers dyslexia. Whatever the differences, are they due, as the President claims, to the different standards in the two states? How about, differences in poverty. Thirty percent of the students in Wyoming are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. In Mississippi it’s 68 percent. My forthcoming book has a chapter "Poverty is Poison," a title I stole from Paul Krugman, with credit, and that, along with Dave Berliner’s new monograph on out-of-school factors in achievement should finally shut up the "poverty-is-no-excuse" crowd. (But they won’t).

And it remains true that there is an ethnic gap in scores and in Wyoming 1.5% of the public school students are black and in Mississippi the figure is 50.8%

I considered that maybe the President got his information from the Thomas B. Fordham "Accountability Illusion" report that does show that the same score will produce different proportions of schools making AYP in different states and different proportions of students labeled proficient in different states, but the data are not there. Mississippi wasn’t even part of that study.

What about those 13- and 14-year olds, only one third of whom "can read as well as they should?" This is NAEP data. This is one of the critics’ favorite statistics for stirring up anxiety. Roy Romer and Bob Wise use it all the time. About one third of these kids score at the NAEP "proficient" level. When the Center for American Progress, an organization that claims to be progressive, rolled out Leaders and Laggards, its joint venture with the Chamber of Commerce in 2007, CAP executive director, John Podesta declared that he found it "unconscionable" that no state had a majority of its students scoring at the NAEP proficient level. Unconscionable!

But, let’s ask, "If 13- and 14-year olds in other nations sat for America’s NAEP, how many of those countries would have a majority of students scoring at the proficient level?"

The answer, in reading at least is: Zero.

That’s what Richard Rothstein and colleagues found using a method first developed by Bob Linn. The highest scoring nation, Sweden, (Finland did not participate in this reading study) would have about one third of their students at or above the proficient level. The U. S., which scored very high, had 31%. Gary Phillips, former acting commissioner for statistics at NCES and now with the American Institutes for Research made similar estimates for math and science using TIMSS data. Only 5 of 45 nations would have a small majority of their students proficient in math and only two would clear that barrier in science. Further evidence, I would argue, that the NAEP achievement levels are set far too high.

More evidence came my way just recently. A 2007 study, quietly buried by the Spellings regime revealed what I consider remarkable statistics. If most kids are not reading “as well as they should,” neither are they doing mathematics as well as they should. Only 15% of seniors scored proficient or better on the 1992 NAEP math assessment. Yet this study found that about 80% of those high school seniors who scored at the Basic level in NAEP mathematics in 1992 attended 2-year or 4-year institutions. Forty-nine and a half percent of them received bachelor’s degrees and another 9 percent received an associate’s degree. Even given that 12th graders probably approach NAEP with less motivation than they approach the SAT, those are astonishing numbers. There is, by the way, other evidence in the report to diminish another interpretation, namely that math simply doesn’t matter for college success.

The 'Fastest Growing Occupations'

What about those 30 fastest growing occupations? I’ve never seen that statistic presented in quite that way, but it also means that half of the 30 fastest growing jobs DON’T require a B.A. or better. But, the signal point about this statistic is that the 30 fastest growing jobs don’t account for many jobs. And the few that do are occupations like personal care aides, home health aides, nursing aides â€" low-paying service sector jobs needed in and for an aging nation.

Retail sales accounts for more jobs than the top ten fastest growing occupations combined. For every systems engineer needed by a computer firm, Wal-Mart needs about 15 people on the floor. The ten occupations accounting for the largest NUMBER of jobs in a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection from 2006 to 2016 were retail sales, cashiers, office clerks, registered nurses, janitors and cleaners, bookkeeping clerks, waiters and waitresses, food preparers and servers, customer service representatives, and truck and tractor drivers. I will show the falsity of Miller's and Duncan's linking of education and economic crises in detail later in the talk, but it terrifies me that our new President and Secretary of Education have apparently bought into the old falsehoods.

Little wonder that Diane Ravitch said that in education Obama was a third term for Bush and that Duncan was Margaret Spellings in drag.

Obama and Duncan seem to be following the long-established line that you can get away with saying just about anything you choose about public schools and no one will call you on it. People will believe anything you say about public education as long as it’s bad.

The real causes of the current economic mess

I think one of the reasons we see so many such comments is captured a bit in the first two quotes. Neither Miller nor the President could bring himself to actually blame the schools for today’s economic catastrophe, but they laid on them some of the responsibility for any recovery. There is a long history of trying to link test scores to a nation’s economic health. That notion needs to become extinct

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the causes of the current mess. Banks used very little capital of their own to buy extremely risky real estate assets, granting subprime mortgages and mortgages on overpriced houses, often without even making credit checks. Then they used virtually unfathomable instruments such as credit default swaps to insure against loss. But insurance companies that insured those risks, like AIG didn’t have the capital to pay off the swaps when the banks’ bets went bad. The situation has produced a slight reworking of the opening rhetorical flourishes of that landmark document, "A Nation At Risk:"


We feel compelled to report to the American people that the business and financial foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occurâ€"companies that extolled themselves as models of excellent practices have deceived the American people with sloppy, undisciplined, and greedy practices that are driving Americans out of their homes, threatening their retirements, and dashing their hopes of a financially secure future. Indeed, if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre corporate financial performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Looking at the Manufactured Crisis from a longer historical point of view

But, according to the people who got us into this mess, in order for the country to get healthy again, the schools have to shape up. I actually do think this could be a failure of the schools.

It’s a failure of the B schools that neglected to instill in their newly minted MBA’s a proper sense of ethics and an appropriate understanding of the relationship between risk and return.

Looking again at The Manufactured Crisis, I found all the myths that David [Berliner] and Bruce [Biddle] debunked [in their book The Manufactured Crisis] are still hanging around. They are just overlaid with another 15 years worth of data. I have a different perspective, plus the advantage of those 15 years of data. David and Bruce took each myth and demolished it individually. They organized their debunking around a collection of myths. I take a temporal approach. I organize around time and, while "A Nation At Risk," their signal event, was important, I think it all started earlier.

Bashing public schools in the USA since World War II

I see bashing schools as a longstanding predisposition that really took its current form just after World War II and I’d like to lay out today how that predisposition became an everyday habit. While Arthur Newman in his 1978 book, In Defense of the American Public School, has a section on “The always abundant criticism,” his reports are largely episodic into the Thirties and then he skips to the 70’s. In so doing, I think he misses the most important period of the rise of scapegoating.

Accelerating criticism of the schools accompanied the accelerating weapons and space races that began in late 1940s and intensified in the early 1950’s. The post-World War II critics can be roughly separated into two groups, although there was, no doubt some overlap. One group of detractors simply thought the schools were bad. Another worried about the Communists attempts to gain control of the world and perceived the schools as the perfect instrument to infiltrate to attain this objective. Many people in the Fifties still had fresh memories of what Hitler’s German Youth Movement had done to promote Nazism and they feared a similar movement in public schools.

The early Fifties produced articles like Albert Lynd’s Quackery in the Public Schools, and books like Mortimer Smith’s The Diminished Mind, Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, and most influential of all at the time, Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Public Schools.

Note the use of the word “Retreat.” I think this is the first title ever that suggested that things had once upon a time been better, that there had been some golden age of American public education which we had somehow tarnished. In 1956, Bestor was interviewed by U. S. News & World Report. The interview ran under the headline, "We Are Less Educated than Fifty Years Ago."

Bestor made some remarkable historical errors, mostly by failing to take into account differences in the proportion of students finishing high school in 1906 vs. 1956 and changes in the socioeconomic status of those getting a diploma over that 50-year period. I say remarkable because Bestor was a historian and you’d think a historian would have noticed such things.

The other set of worriers fretted that the Russians had more "manpower"â€"a word that came into use about this time--than we did. CIA Director, Allen Dulles, claimed that between 1950 and 1960, the Russians would produce 1.2 million scientists and engineers while we churned out a meager 90,000. One wonders, given recent failures of CIA intelligence, how Dulles obtained his numbers but the conclusion was clear: More scientists, more engineers, that would save the day. Sound familiar? Can’t help but digress to mention that current research indicates that we have three new homegrown scientists and engineers for every new positions and that 65% of them seek work in other fields within two years.

I digress just a moment to also note that this era was a period in which the U. S. was moving rapidly towards universal secondary education and some people simply worried that the schools would get dumbed down, to use today’s phrase. Others worried about the impact of civil rights on education quality. Bestor’s book appeared one year before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision and only two years before Martin Luther King, Jr., galvanized the civil rights movement with the Birmingham Bus Boycott.

Into this acrimonious and fermenting situation, the Russians dropped a bomb, so to speak, Sputnik, October 4, 1957. Reactions varied. Our Ex-Nazi rocket uber-genius, Wernher von Braun, was livid but unleashed his fury only on the Secretary of Defense, not in any public medium. President Eisenhower was satisfied, even pleased. Russian and American scientists who were attending a cocktail party at the Russian Embassy as part of the International Geophysical Year when the news arrived, were ecstatic. Everyone expected both the U. S. and the Russians to orbit something during the IGY and everyone expected the U. S. would take the lead, but if the Russians went first, so what? Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, panicked. "Soon they’ll be dropping bombs on us like boys dropping rocks from freeway overpasses." The public, greatly assisted by the media, sided with Johnson. In The Right Stuff some 20 years later, Tom Wolfe wrote "Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake. It was Armageddon, the final and decisive battle between good and evil." According to journalist Paul Dickson, a number of preachers did deliver sermons predicting that the second coming as imminent.

Eisenhower was pleased because he wanted to establish that space was free and internationalâ€"no precedent existed for this. In declassified memoranda I’ve recently obtained, his assistant secretary of defense, Donald Quarles, said the Russians had done us a favor by setting that precedent.

Von Braun was furious and told defense secretary Neal McElroy, "We’ve got the hardware on the shelf! For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something!" Von Braun did have the hardware on the shelf and on September 20, 1956, over a year ahead of Sputnik, his Army Ballistics Missile Agency team had done something. They launched a four-stage Jupiter-C rocket from Cape Canaveral. After the first three stages had fired, the rocket was 862 miles in the air and travelling at 13,000 miles an hour.

The fourth stage could have easily bumped something into orbit. The fourth stage was filled with sand.

The reasons for refusing Von Braun the glory of being first are many, but perhaps most importantly, America was developing rockets both as weapons and as space exploration devices.

Eisenhower wanted those two aspects kept separate. The Jupiter-C was a weapon. Its primary purpose was to incinerate Russian cities with nuclear warheads. He didn’t think the Russians would react well to a potential mushroom cloud passing overhead every 90 minutes or so. Eisenhower’s position, backed by similar advice from his Scientific Advisory Committee was formalized, but in memoranda that, at the time, were classified. That left the media free to jump on the schools as being at fault.

U.S. News & World Report brought Bestor back for another interview, this one titled "What Went Wrong With American Schools." Bestor put the blame exclusively on Life Adjustment Education. This was absurd. LAE was invented at a conference in 1945 and was aimed at the 60% of the students that the attendees claimed were not accommodated by vocational or college prep programs. Even if it had been immediately and faithfully implemented, which it wasn’t, students headed towards careers in science, mathematics and engineering would have by-passed it entirely. In addition, the engineers working on the space and weapons rockets had exited high school well before LAE was invented.

The most intense and extensive critique of schools as responsible for Sputnik’s primacy came in a five-part series from Life magazine beginning in March 24, 1958. In red ink on a black background, Life’s cover announced "Crisis in Education." Headshots of two high school juniors dominated the cover, a stern-looking Alexei Kutzkov in Moscow and an easy-smiling Stephen Lapekas in Chicago.

Inside, the reader sees Alexei doing complicated experiments in physics and chemistry, and reading aloud from Sister Carrie. In one picture he is at a concert standing under a bust of Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka; in another he is reading an English-Russian phrase book while riding the metro to a science museum. He plays chess and the piano. He has, as yet, little interest in girls. He is a 24/7 student.

Stephen, by contrast is a slacker. We see him walking his girlfriend to school, and dancing in rehearsal for the school musical. Seated at a typewriter, Stephen says, “I type about one word a minute.” One photo shows Stephen retreating from a geometry problem on the blackboard. The text advises “Stephen amused class with wise cracks about his ineptitude.”

After finding Stephen by accident about 10 years ago, I called and asked if he wanted to talk about his Life experience. Nope. A few years later, I called again. Nope. I can understand why. Think about the scenario. You're a 16-year-old adolescent. A team of Life reporters combs Chicago schools for weeks, settles on you as their guy and follows you around for a week. And then, there you are on the cover, the poster boy for this really lousy school system.

Stephen went on to become a jet pilot for the Navy and had a 30 year career as a commercial pilot. His son, Josh, who has written about the experience and talked with me about it said the experience devastated his father. But he also credits the article for goading his father into his Navy and TWA careers. Josh thinks it was how he said, "Hey Life, fuck you." Life editors wrote, "the standards of education are shockingly low." They turned over two picture-free pages for an essay by novelist Sloan Wilson. A short quote:

The facts of the school crisis are all out in plain sightâ€"and pretty dreadful to look at. People are complaining that the diploma has been devaluated in this nation to the point of meaninglessnessâ€Â¦It is hard to deny that America’s schools which were supposed to reflect one of history’s noblest dreams and to cultivate the nation’s youthful minds, have degenerated into a system for coddling the mediocre.

One can imagine Wilson toying with a next sentence something like "Our nation is threatened by a rising tide of mediocrity?" But that would have to wait 25 years.

The schools never recovered from the criticism unleashed by Sputnik, and quickly became society’s scapegoat of choice for perceived social crises. Since Sputnik, the driving force behind school reform efforts has been fear of the future with fear often serving as a means to gain power and control over the schools.

When America’s cities went up in flames in the 1960’s schools once again were blamed. This time, at least one person saw the scam for what it was. Fred Hechinger, writing in the New York Times in 1967 observed

Almost 10 years ago, when the first Soviet Sputnik went into orbit, the schools were blamed for America’s lag in space. Last week, in the Senate, the schools were blamed for the ghetto riots.

In each case, the politicians’ motives were suspect. Their reflex reaction, when faced with a national crisis, is to assign guilt to persons with the least power to hit back. The schools, which are nonpolitical but dependent on political purse strings, fill the bill of emergency whipping boy.

In 1970, a year after the United States successfully landed men on the moon and brought them back safely, no credit to the schools for that, of course, a curious tome appeared, Charles Silberman’s Crisis in the Classroom.

I call it curious because on page 18 of this 553 page volume, Silberman reports a study conducted by Educational Testing Service examining 186 then-and-now studies. Then-and-now studies are those in which students, separated by some years in time, take the same tests and the results are analyzed to see if the kids did better then, however "then" is defined, than they do now, however "now" is defined. All of the studies had been conducted since World War II and Silberman wrote "in all but ten of the 186 paired comparisons, the group tested at the later date scored higher than the group tested earlier; the results suggest an improvement, on average, of about 20%." Then-and-now studies present significant methodological and interpretive problems, but I repeat: in 176 out of 186 studies, the kids taking the test at a later point in time did better. So where’s the "crisis." My guess is that it’s in the marketing division of Random House, his publisher. The word "crisis" sells. Silberman’s report marks the end of an era, although he and we could not have known it at the time. Note that Silberman had a ton of test data, mentioned it, and moved on. Other aspects of school were more important. It Silberman’s case it was the obsession with control in the classroom and that classrooms were "grim and joyless." I came away from conversations with Silberman some years ago feeling that while he had a broad array of vignettes in his book, his conclusions really came largely from the poor and all black schools in New York City where he lived. His conclusions reflected the same realities that Jonathan Kozol saw in Death at an Early Age, Herb Kohl in 36 Children, and Jim Herndon in The Way It Spozed To Beâ€"the realities of impoverished, all-black schools in Boston, New York, and Oakland.

Earlier critics did not have the hammer of tests to pound schools with. NAEP did not exist until the 1970’s and it remained largely invisible until the 1990’s. SAT scores were stable up to 1963. Most states did not have state testing programs until the 1970’s. All Norm-Referenced tests except the various Iowa’s had floating standards so there was no way to tell if the 50th percentile in 1960 represented the same level of achievement as in 1950. International comparisons began in the 1960’s but the early ones contained too many methodological flaws to make them credible.

All that changed with the next report that set tongues clucking about schools, On Further Examination, the College Board’s 1977 analysis of what was then a 13 year decline in SAT scores. While the panel did identify some issues in teacher training and curriculum, it laid most of the decline on demographic changes in who was taking the test: more women, more minorities, more students from low income families, more students with mediocre high school records who nevertheless wanted to take their shot at college.

The rest of the decline it alleged came from a decade of distraction. And though it did not identify specifics like Woodstock and Altamont, Kent State or the Chicago Police Riot, the rise of the "Counterculture," or the spread of recreational drugs, its summary, even though dressed up in more polite language than I would use, is moving:

There is simply no way of knowing how much the trauma, between 1967 and 1975, of coincident divisive war (which youth had to fight), political assassination of their particular heroes, burning cities, and the corruption of national leadership affected the motivations of the young people of that periodâ€"and whether there was consequent effect on their college entrance examination scores.

That concatenation of sad events unquestionably undermined respect for established institutions and processes, and this was manifested most overtly by young people. Because they were closest to education’s institutions and processes, these were the focus of their protest. It was a time of extraordinary distraction, when it would have been hard for students to put the best that was in them into getting high marks on college entrance examinations.

This probably made quite a difference.

That’s a quote: "This probably made quite a difference." The Panel saw the decline as a reflection of a general pattern in society. It did not use President Carter’s word, "malaise," but it came close. The New York Times reflected pretty well the panel’s reasoning but mostly the media and the public took away a different message: the high schools had failed.

And now we had hard, objective, scientific evidenceâ€"test scoresâ€"to prove it. Critics had been arguing since James Mayer Rice’s reports in 1892 that the happy talk issuing from the schools was not to be trusted, that school staffs were incompetents installed by political hacks, but they had had to rely on anecdotal and circumstantial evidence or, in the case of Sputnik, irrelevant and phony evidence.

Now they had a report based on scientific, objective, irrefutable data--test scores--from a prestigious panel headed by Willard Wirtz and Doc Howe and peopled with such scholars as Ralph Tyler, Tom James, Bob Thorndike and Ben Bloom.

The Panel’s Report also fit well into other cultural contexts of the times, the so-called Conservative Restoration to recover from the sins of the Sixties, and the alleged Literacy Crisis. Wirtz himself wrote in the introduction, "The public’s interest is not in the psychometric technicalities of the SAT score decline but in its implications regarding what is widely perceived as a serious deterioration of the learning process in America."

In these same years, states were also making tests more important, tossing out Piagetian or English-infant school influenced curricula and informal learning for Back-to-Basics. When I returned to this country in 1976 from 4 years of doing mostly nothing abroad, my first assignment as Director of Research, Evaluation and Testing for the Virginia Department of Education was to construct a set of tests for the back-to-basic learning objectives written by the Department’s Curriculum and Instruction Division. The next year Virginia got in early on the Minimum Competency Testing madness with a graduation test and the following, just to be consistent I guess, the legislature gifted us with a Teacher Competency Test.

The next few years offered an interesting bit of unobtrusive research into the rise of testing. Within weeks of being hired by Virginia, I was sent to Boulder, Colorado for the annual Conference on Large Scale Assessment sponsored by the Education Commission of the States. Between 5 p.m. and 7 each evening, the major test publishers offered "social hours" which consisted of cheap beer and wine, pretzels and potato chips. By 1982, the social hours had morphed into hospitality suites which opened at noon and closed sometime. They poured Stoli, Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker Black, etc. The Psychological Corporation produced mountains of shaved ice topped with shrimp and cocktail sauce. CTB McGraw-Hill stuffed 80+ people into buses and took us to the Flagstaff House, a restaurant in the mountains behind Boulder at least as famous for its prices as for its food.

Testing was now firmly cemented in place as THE instrument for measuring kids, teachers, and schools. A report to add steel reinforcement to that notion would come along soon. President Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell, hoped for what he called a "Sputnik-like event" to shock Americans about the terrible state of their schools. Lacking such an event, Bell in 1981 reluctantly formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education. One of the driving forces of that commission, Harvard Physicist, Gerald Holton, at first refused the invitation to serve because Reagan was moving to dismantle some science and education programs that Holton supported and he was surprised and dismayed by the makeup of the commissionâ€"not a single national expert in education. It was an omenâ€"the control of education would, over the next 20 years be stripped from educators.

But Holton was coaxed in and "Reagan gave us our marching orders: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. As we left, I detected no visible dismay in our group. I wondered if we were all equally stunned."

The report, "A Nation At Risk," did not mention any of Reagan’s "marching orders" and that caused a schism in White House. Adviser Ed Meese and other conservatives implored Reagan to reject it because it ignored Reagan’s marching orders. Moderates Jim Baker and Mike Deaver urged acceptance because it contained many issues Republicans, including Reagan, could campaign on.

In his memoir, The Thirteenth Man, Bell recounts that he received a phone call saying that Reagan’s speech accepting the report would address vouchers, prayer, the value of private schools and the evils of the NEA and the Department of Education. Bell called Baker who assured him that those remarks had been stricken. They had not.

After Reagan spoke, Bell says he looked into the foyer and "Ed Meese was standing there with a big smile on his face."

It is possible, even likely, that "A Nation At Risk" would have suffered the fate of most commission reportsâ€"gathering dust on a shelf had not one of the commissioners, according to Holton, said, loud enough to be heard by reporters, "We have been had." "For the reporters," Holton goes on, "that was like blood before sharks. A conflict between Reagan’s words and what the commission report said seemed the stuff of scandal, the favorite subject of most reporters."

That remark set off a flood of publicity, almost all of it citing those opening rhetorical flourishes about a rising tide of mediocrity and committing an act of unilateral disarmament. After the Cold Warrior rhetoric came 13 indicators of the risk. All reflect test scores. All accentuate the negative, even when they don’t have to. One of the indicators could have said "Scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development have risen for seven consecutive years," but that information was not among the 13 pieces of data.

Some of the indicators were highly selective. For example, one says, "There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U. S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments." If you look at NAEP trends, you will indeed find such a trendline for 17-year-olds. But not for 13-year-olds or 9-year-olds, the other two ages assessed. And the trends in reading and math show no hint of a decline at any age. Thus the commission had 9 trendlines, only one of which could be used to support crisis rhetoric and that was the one it used.

The report then makes anxious sounds about Japan’s cars, Korea's steel mills, and German machine tools and asserts "The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitorsâ€Â¦If only to keep and improve on the competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to reform of our educational system."

"A Nation At Risk" brought together two assertions that have become gospel: educational quality can be measured by standardized tests and we must raise our test scores to compete in the global economy. High test scores = healthy economic nation. Those are the leitmotifs of the 26 years since the report appeared. You can hear them reflected over and over again in the quotes from President Obama and secretary Duncan that opened this talk, but they took their current form in 1983.

Bell dispatched a team of educators headed by assistant secretary Chester Finn to Japan to see if we could import their education system. One of the team members, Herb Walberg, declared to the Washington Post, "I think it’s portable. Gumption and willpower, that’s the key." Otherwise Japan would eat our lunch. In the article, there is no indication that people perceived Walberg’s assertions as absurd.

You remember Japan. Its economy was a miracle. Its students aced the tests in international comparisons. Then, about 1990, the Japanese discovered that the Emperor’s Palace and Grounds really weren’t worth more than the entire state of California, and its economy sank into the Pacific, soon taking the other Asian Tiger nations with it. The Japanese now speak of the 1990’s as the lost decade. They’ve never actually had a particularly good year since 2000 and they’re back in a heap of economic hurt: They officially declared themselves in recession again in 2007 and in 2008, the Japanese economy shrank three times as much as the U. S. economy. Their kids still ace tests.

This should give pause to anyone trying to link test scores to the health of a nation’s economy. Iceland did very well in PISA, but the cover of the April issue of Vanity Fair promised to tell “How Iceland went Pfffft.” Iceland’s debt is 850% of its GDP. Since PISA tests, math, somehow I don’t the problem is that Icelanders can’t do the arithmetic.

In 1987, reviewing a proposal to revamp NAEP, Bob Glaser, writing for the National Academy of Education said,

Most of those personal qualities that we hold dearâ€"resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good in communal lifeâ€"are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured. The shift is subtle and occurs gradually.


One day, reading that passage, I came up with a list of about 25 such personal qualities. I’ll just mention a few here. Creativity, resilience, perseverance, self-discipline, resourcefulness, sense of humor, empathy. And so on. The whole list is on page 32 of Setting the Record Straight.

Well, maybe there’s hope.

One way of chasing out the fear mongers, maybe, is to show them that there’s so much more to education than any test can measure. The Sunday, April 5, 2009 New York Times carried a page 1 article about activities that the Scarsdale district is using teach empathy. The hook for the article is probably that it’s in Scarsdale, but it also reports on major efforts in Los Angeles and 18 states. "Empathy lessons are spreading everywhere amid concerns over the pressure on students from high-stakes tests and a race to college that starts in kindergarten."

The Educational Testing Service is adding a "Personal Potential Index" to the Graduate Record Examination with ratings by instructors on “knowledge and creativity; communication skills; capacity for teamwork; resilience; planning and organizational skills; and ethics and integrity.” ETS says that students need these qualities to succeed in graduate school. Why limit them to graduate school? Somebody should tell Arne about ETS’ plans.

The journalist, Fareed Zakariya, noticed a few years ago, that while Singapore kids stomped American kids on tests, when you looked 10, 20 years down the road, it was the American students who were achieving at high levels in real life. Singapore had no first rate scientists, academics or innovators so he asked the Singapore Minister of Education, How come? And the Minister said, there are some aspects of the brain you cannot measure such as creativity and ambition. That’s where Americans excel. Most of all though, it’s American student’s willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom that gives them an edge. This is where Singapore must learn from America.

From my experiences living in East and Southeast Asia and from what I’ve read, I cannot imagine students in any of those nations asking questions, or any employee suggesting to a supervisor that there’s a better way of doing something. Zakaria also spoke to a Singaporese father who had lived in the U. S. for a while, then moved back to Singapore. The man noted that when his son spoke up in an American school, he was rewarded with approval and encouraged. In he spoke up in a Singapore school he was "pushy and weird."

People, though, especially the media and those who would like to take advantage of one of the largest untapped markets anywhereâ€"the public schoolsâ€"still make the connection between test scores and the economy. When the first results from the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) arrived, appropriately enough, on Pearl Harbor Day, 2004, the headlines were predictable:

"Math and Science Tests Find 4th and 8th Graders in the U. S. Still Lag." (New York Times.)

"In a Global Test of Math Skills, U. S. Students Behind the Curve." (Washington Post).

"Economic Time Bomb" (Wall Street Journal).

"Math + Test = Trouble for the U. S. Economy." (Christian Science Monitor).

Now, reporters do not write headlines, but those headlines reflected the contents of the story, and I imagine a number of people didn’t look any farther.

The schools cannot buy a good headline. The Progress in International Reading Study gets very few headlines. That might be because the US does well in that international comparison. In 2001, three countries scored higher, 9 were not significantly different, and 23 were lower. In 2006, with 45 countries, 10 scored higher, 13 the same and 30 lower. The U. S. score was 542 in 2001 and 540 in 2006. That difference is the same as a two-point difference on the SAT and well above the international average of 500. But the headline in Education Week, the only outlet I know of that even covered the results at all, was "America Idles on International Reading Test?" Why not "America Continues To Do Well On International Reading Test?" In any case, if America idles, the rest of the world is in neutral, too. Only 10 of the 28 countries that were in both assessments changed more than 10 points in either direction.

One way of countering the fear mongers is to determine whether or not they are using the right statistic or whether there are statistics that are more meaningful. The international comparisons, TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS, all come to us mostly in terms of average scores and how those scores affect a country’s ranking among other countries in the world. But as Hal Salzman the Urban Institute and Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown pointed out in a paper in Nature last May, the average scores don’t mean anything. They write "If as we argue, average test scores are mostly irrelevant to as a measure of economic potential, other indicators do matter. To produce leading-edge technology, one could argue that it is the numbers of high-performing students that is most important in the global economy. These are students who can enter the science and engineering workforce or are likely to innovate whatever their field of study. Remarkable, but little noted, is the fact that the United States produces the lion’s share of the world’s best students."

I would temper that by pointing out that they define "world’s best" terms of test scores, but that’s the currency of the day and in that currency no one else even comes close. It is very difficult to attain Level 6 on the PISA tests, the highest on the scale. New Zealand tops the world with 4% and Finland is second with 3.9%. But that 3.9% for Finland only translates into 2000 warm bodies. The U. S. has 67,000. Japan is second with about 34,000. The UK has 21,000.

The bad news is that we have the most lowest-performing students aside from Mexico. So there’s plenty of work to be done on the system, but we don’t have to say, as Duncan just did and as hundreds have across the years, we have a "crisis" in education.

If test scores were so important to global competitiveness, you’d think our ranks on global competitiveness would be comparable to our ranks in the international test comparisons. But they’re not. There are two organizations that make it their business to rank nations on global competitive, the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the better known World Economic Forum which had its annual do recent in Davos, Switzerland. Now it is really going to be interesting to see what the current debacle does to the rankings, but as of 2008-2009 reports, the U. S. was number one.

The IMD ranks 55 nations and the U. S. took over from Japan in 1994. The IMD wonders how much longer the U. S. can keep the lead. It notes that Singapore has been rising fast. But who cares? As Sam Dillon of the New York Times observed recently, comparing a diverse nation of 300 million with tiny city states such as Hong Kong and Singapore makes little sense. Which reminds me, seldom do the fear mongers take the cultural context of schools into account when discussing test scores. They seldom mention that everyday thousands of poor Malaysians cross into Singapore to do the dirty work. The long-term “guest workers,” mostly Filipinos, are forbidden to bring their families. These factors save Singapore a lot of work in educating children of the poor.

Back to competitiveness.

The Scandinavian nations get clobbered in the WEF rankings for their high tax rates, but they all rank high on global competitiveness, although I imagine Iceland is done for in that regard. The tax rates are offset by other factors. What is important about the IMD rankings and even more so the WEF rankings is that they reveal how complex the idea of competitiveness is. Education is only one aspect of those rankings.

The WEF has established what it calls "The Twelve Pillars of Competitiveness." I don’t have time to go into detail, but one way of countering the fear mongers is to try to make them aware of this complexity.

First comes institutions which has to do with bureaucracy, corruption, transparency, trustworthiness, accountability, etc. As I say, it will be interesting to see what this year’s report looks like.

The second pillar is infrastructure. We hear a lot about that these days, but before Katrina blew into town and that bridge collapsed into the Mississippi, I imagine few Americans thought much about infrastructure. Especially in terms of competitiveness. We took our roads, rails, ports, and airports for granted.

Third is Macroeconomy. This is where the US does worst because the WEF hates deficitsâ€"that means money that could be used to increase productivity has to be used as interest on loans.

I’ll just name the others, health and primary education, higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labor market efficiency, financial market sophistication (our financial markets sophisticated themselves right out of business), technological readiness, market size, business sophistication and, most important, innovation. Innovation, where the U. S. is #1, is the most important because it is the only pillar that does not at some point yield diminishing returns. You can only gain so much by, say, making planes bigger and faster, but innovation has no limit. I this connection, I would point out the Bob Sternberg, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts has observed that our obsession with testing has given us our most successful tool for stamping out creativity.

The WEF ranks 134 nations and the U. S. has been #1 for most of the last decade, occasionally slipping to #2. If the forecasts of A Nation At Risk had been correct and if, as the critics claim, the schools never improved, how then did we get ranked #1 in global competitiveness and enjoy the longest sustained expansion in the world, an expansion that was realâ€"productivity soared in the 1990’s.

Finally, let me return to NAEP, but rather than inundating you with numbers of numbers, I’ll just say this: Because of the changing ethnic makeup of this nation, and because of the fact that black and Hispanic students score still lower than whites, analyzing NAEP data simply at the national level makes no sense. In fact, it makes you the victim of Simpson’s Paradox. Simpson’s paradox shows up whenever the whole group analyzed shows one pattern but the subgroups show a different pattern.

In 2002, the College Board lamented that there had been no change in the SAT verbal score since 1982. This was true for the national sample. But when I analyzed the trends by ethnicity, I found gains for all groups, some of them quite large. The reason for the apparent paradox was simply the changing demographics. In 1981, whites made up 85% of all SAT testtakers, in 2005, when I conducted the analysis the figure was 63%. The minorities were improving. But because the scores were still lower than whites and because minorities were making up an ever increasing share of the total pool, their lower scores attenuated the overall average.

The same thing is true of NAEP. While there have been some areas of gain overall, if you look at the NAEP trends by ethnicity, the only place you see stability is in 17-year-old white kids. Everybody else is up and in groups up dramatically. For example, in mathematics, black 9-year-olds gained 34 points between 1978 and 2004, black 13-year-olds gained 34 points and black 17-year-olds gained 15 points.

And just as you must cannot speak of "American" scores without looking at ethnic breakouts, neither can you speak of American schools without looking at breakouts by poverty. Yes, other countries have poor kids but many fewer. In one UNESCO study, the U. S. was 20th among 20 developed nations. Here’s an example of what poverty does to test scores taken from PIRLS.

Top country Sweden, score 561

U. S. overall 542

International Average 500

The 14.5% of American students in schools with less than 10% of their students in poverty 589

The 19.5% of students in schools with 10% to 25% in poverty, 567. The 29.8% of students in school with 25-50 in poverty 551â€"if this group constituted a nation it would rank 4th among the 35 countries.

That’s 64% of American students scoring at the top.

The 21.3% of American students in schools with 50-75% in poverty, 519, still above the international average.

Only the 15.1% of students in schools with more than 75% of their students in poverty score below the international average at 485.

Similar breakouts from TIMSS yield similar results. It’s tough to do with PISA because high school students don’t like to admit they’re poor.

So what does this all mean?

We have gains in NAEP scores in all subjects for all ethnic groups and ages except white 17-year-olds where the scores are stable.

Comparative studies indicate no nations would meet the NAEP standard of a majority of students proficient in reading, five would have a small majority in math, and two would have a small majority in science.

We score well on international tests of reading. And kids who are not in poverty to especially well. That last applies to math and science, too.

We have gained more on TIMSS since 1995 than all but three nations. And our 8th graders, rather than "falling" to 9th place have risen to 9th place from 28th on TIMSS math.

SAT math scores are up to about where they were before they began the decline in 1963. Verbal scores remain subpar.

I only mentioned this, but we have three newly minted, homegrown bachelor’s in science and engineering for every new position and they show an attrition rate of 65% in two years. I fear that there is no way to counter the fear mongers directly. They have an agenda most of which revolves around controlling the curriculum and instruction and/or replacing the public schools with a private system.

They are subject to shame, however. About 10 years ago Alex Molnar put together a loose confederacy of people to act as an underfunded countweight to the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, etc. At the first meeting I looked around at the 25 or so people in the room and said "This will never work." The reason, I thought, was that the people in the room already had very full lives without taking on additional efforts on behalf of the schools. But, ten years later, now co-headquartered at the University of Colorado and Arizona State, there are about 120 "fellows" as we are called engaged in a number of endeavors. Among the more successful, I think, is the Think Twice project known internally as the Think Tank Review Project. The Heritages and Hoovers of the world along with some professors like Paul Peterson at Harvard and Jay Greene at Arkansas had taken to publishing un-peer reviewed papers which, on close examination, presented selective data leading to pretermined conclusion. The Think Twice project hires scholars to review these advocacy research papers as one would a manuscript submitted to Ed Researcher or AERJ and publishes the results. The originals are credited for sound conclusions, faulted for overreaching, which is a common theme in the papers.

I have been to several conferences at the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation where the project was mentioned, and not derisively. They are aware that people are watching. In fact, Kevin Welner who directs the University of Colorado end of the whole operation was invited to AEI to debate his recent book on tuition tax credits. He told me his opponent from the Cato Institute sincerely complimented the book, although he had disagreements with it. Unfortunately, Kevin also tells me that the project has not stanched the flow of flawed papers.

The general public is more open. If it weren’t, the Gallup/Kappan poll numbers would be in the toilet and they aren’t. The problem is getting the information to them. They, too, make the general assumption that schools stink although they don’t think about it very much unless they have kids in the schools and then they tend to be more positive. But I can’t count the number of people whose jaws have dropped when I’ve given them some stats on NAEP trends or international comparisons or whatever.

One large problem, of course, is access to media and a subpart of that problem is, in the case of newspapers, is their location. It is hard to convince op-ed page editors at the Washington Post or New York Times that those cities’ poorer schools do not reflect the nation as a whole. An occasional positive piece will occur inhouse, as happened a couple of years ago in the Post and a few months ago with the Boston Globe, but the operative term there is "occasional." These pieces come against a steady drumbeat of failure.

If op-ed coverage is limited, television coverage is virtually non-existent. Bill Gates gets on Oprah, David Berliner does not. The KIPP boys get on Oprah, Alex Molnar does not. Hell, I can’t even get Bill Moyers, Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow to respond to my data and their implications.

Part of that media problem is that no one who supports public education can, as Bill Gates and Eli Broad did, throw 50 million dollars into a media blitz to make education a presidential campaign issue. Although Roy Romer, whom Gates and Broad chose to oversee the project, seemed to be everywhere, the economic crisis kept education in the background. That campaign, by the way, although claiming to be non-partisan, was built entirely on the negative, and often erroneous statistics I have mentioned earlier. Take a look at
http://www.strongamericanschools.org

The site has a trailer for "Two Million Minutes: The New Documentary that Sounds the Alarm About America’s Education Crisis."

And part of the problem, it must be said, is that at the university level, few people exhibit any enthusiasm for getting the word out. After the publication of The Manufactured Crisis, Berliner was often asked if he now felt marginalized. The professoriate is heavily invested in school failure, using it to liberate money from foundations and governments. I think it no accident that in the 17 years that I have been writing on the topic of school quality, I have received many invitations to speak at small universities with large undergraduate teacher preparation programs, and only once to speak to a major university. That was Indiana University which also has a large undergraduate program and is also a place where I used to teach.

One of the personal qualities I mentioned as important that tests don’t measure is perseverance. Another not on my list but it probably should be is patience. Conservatives are patient, liberals typically are not. I can’t imagine a meeting of conservatives where people yell “What do we want? Vouchers! When do we want them? Now! So when people ask me, Don’t you get depressed, I say yeah, but I keep Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, the abolitionists and the suffragettes in mind and feel better. Who knows what the future will bring? The only person I know who said the 60’s could have been predicted from the 50’s is George Will and he didn’t make that prediction until 2001.

But be patient. Cultivate reporters, but don’t overstate your case. That’s less a problem among the professoriate, than K-12 folk. A bigger problem in academia is responding to media at all. When I once chastised the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews for frequently quoting a person I considered an airhead, Mathews’ reply was "She’s always the first to get back to me." Reporters don’t live on the leisurely timelines of professors.

Beyond that, dig deeply into the data to determine if the reports actually say what the press releases say they say. It is said that if you tell a lie often enough people will believe. One can only hope that the same applies to the truth.


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