Bracey's last stand
By Todd Alan Price and Thomas J. Mertz
With President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applying their persuasive skills to selling the equivalent of lottery tickets for so-called Race to the Top dollars, Wisconsin is in the midst of a self-created education crisis. A hastily thrown-together state budget shortchanges the schools. An outgoing governor-turned-lobbyist, Jim Doyle, seems bent on mortgaging Wisconsin's proud liberal democratic education tradition in order to purchase a seat in that fixed game. A once-progressive mayor sees fit to strip the powers away from the school board, effectively disenfranchising neighborhoods, communities and citizens in one of the poorest cities in the nation. All of this in an apparent bid for a chance at a rumored one-time federal payment of $80 million.
All in all, there has never been a time when the educational truth telling of the late, great Jerry Bracey was more needed. So with sadness and joy we welcome the release of the final Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education.
The Bracey Report was a series of scathing, dry and witty summaries of the lengths to which government, corporations and non-profits would go to stretch findings and interpretations in the arena of education "data." Bracey was quick to point out the how powerful, smug institutions deviated from the truth and where their reforms would ultimately take us.
In the prescient The War on Public Education, written in 2001 before even the latest collateral damage inflicted on the schools by No Child Left Behind, Bracey wrote, "The privatization of management services and small instructional programs might serve as the camel's nose in the tent to be followed shortly by the whole camel."
Completed after JerryĂ˘€™s death by Susan Ohanian and Pat Hinchey, this year's report maintains the high standards of previous reports and departs from the past by focusing on examining three assumptions linked to popular reforms:
1. High-quality schools can eliminate the achievement gap between whites and minorities.
2. Mayoral control of public schools is an improvement over the more common elected board governance systems.
3. Higher standards will improve the performance of public schools.
All three are of relevance to the Race to the Top-inspired initiatives in Wisconsin.
After an extensive review of local, national and international evidence on mayoral takeovers in Chicago and New York, Bracey wrote that a close look quickly shows these efforts to be fraudulent: "'Reforms' that are supposed to help children do better are primarily used to make the adults who control the schools look good. Performance on tests that are subject to manipulation show improvement. Performance on tests that are free of manipulation show no improvement and no closing of ethnic achievement gaps."
As Bracey notes in this report and detailed many times elsewhere, the tests at the center of many of these reforms are of very limited use in assessing teaching, learning or school quality, yet by the "reformers'" own favorite measures, mayoral control fails. What then is the appeal? JerryĂ˘€™s answer is the opposite of the increased democratic accountability claimed by mayoral control advocates. It is freedom from the meddling of the public and the messy democratic process: "In reading the literature about the mayoral systems, one repeatedly encounters words like bully, authoritarian, autocratic, arbitrary, intrusive, despotic, dictatorial, disenfranchisement, rubber stamp, exclusion (of parents) even 'Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.'"
Granted, these words appear in articles critical of the system, but the articles appearing in the New York media, especially the New York Times, appear to be highly skeptical of the information received from the mayor, chancellor and their public relations offices. (Even as the number of teachers has declined, the New York City schools public relations office has quadrupled in since since 2003.)
Summing up the case for mayoral control, Bracey brings these two strands together, labeling the concept as implemented in Chicago and New York as "simultaneously undemocratic and ineffectual." Bracey wrote, "Benjamin Barber once referred to public schools as 'workshops of our democracy.' It does not seem that they are furthering democratic goals in New York and ChicagoĂ˘€”nor improving achievement."
A draft of Doyle's plan for mayoral control is being circulated for sponsors. This draft would reduce the elected board to mere figureheads and totally eliminate all public comment opportunities on the MPS budget. Rumor has it that at least some of the sponsors would like to extend this model to other districts, including Beloit, Janesville and Madison.
The memo by state Senator Lena Taylor which accompanies an outline of the legislation is classic fodder for the Bracey treatment. Broad generalities are followed by implied causality. Research is taken out of context with no apparent understanding of the basis and limits of that research. It ends with a quote from Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen's The Education Mayor linking "strong" mayoral control to standardized test score gains in the range of 1/5 to 1/3 of a standard deviation.
The quote is accurate, but what is missing is the acknowledgement by Wong and Shen themselves that gains of this magnitude would still leave poor and minority children in Milwaukee well behind most of the students in the rest of the state. Taylor also ignores Wong and Shen's nuanced presentation of the multiple factors that shape the success or failure of all schools and detailed treatment those surrounding the implementation of mayoral control. Had she read chapters two and nine she might have heeded the authors' advice to consider timing and partnerships when proposing mayoral control. Had she read the whole book she would have known that the range of options Wong and Shen outlined includes nothing that resembles what is being proposed for Wisconsin. Taylor might have realized that that one statistic taken out of context has little or no relevance to the legislation she is sponsoring.
Another anti-democratic proposal has already been introduced. Assembly Bill 534 would give the state Superintendent of Public Instruction plenary power to define a district as "in need of improvement" and then take control of almost all aspects of that districtĂ˘€™s governance. This proposal has received little attention but could be an even larger blow to democratic local control of education in Wisconsin than the Milwaukee takeover. This too comes without a research basis.
On the other topics of the report, the achievement gap and national standards, Bracey marshals evidence to demonstrate that schools alone cannot overcome the daily impact of poverty on students and that the relative "strength" of standards bears no relation to achievement as measured on international tests.
In closing, Bracey returns to an earlier comparison between the educational policies this administration is pushing and the practices of the school President Obama's daughters attend:
"In my opinion, the Obama/Duncan approach would only exacerbate the problems created by our industrial modelĂ˘€”-national academic standards and a national test, merit pay for higher test scores, a longer school day, a longer school week, a longer school year and charter schools handed off to entrepreneurs. More math, more science. This is an industrial command-and-control model on steroids."
Wisconsin has already moved toward linking teacher pay to test scores, joined the standards bandwagon, embraced the idea that better data analysis will mean better schools and Doyle has broached a longer school day and year. As Bracey reminds us, none of these make much sense and none of these will help Wisconsin's schools better.
Yet, Democratic legislators line up to sign off on these while continuing to offer excuses on the one reform they campaigned on: Comprehensive School Funding Reform.
Todd Price is a professor of education in the National College of Education at National-Louis University in Chicago, a partner in On the Earth Productions, and a former candidate for Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Thomas J. Mertz is an instructor at Edgewood College who blogs at the website Advocating on Madison Public Schools.
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