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Bracey's last report--trashing our educational assumptions

Susan Notes:

This is a moving tribute as well as a report on research.

by Jay Mathews

I got to the last page of the last icon-shattering piece Gerald W. Bracey will ever write, and felt sad and empty. As usual, he had skewered--with great erudition and insight--some of my fondest beliefs about how to improve schools. As a consequence, my thinking and writing about these issues will (I hope) be better next time. But who is going to do that for me in the future?

Jerry Bracey, the nation's leading critic of unexamined assumptions in education, died Oct. 20 at age 69, apparently in his sleep, in his new home in beautiful Port Townsend, Wash. This was a shock to everyone who knew him because, although he had prostate cancer, it did not seem to have slowed him down.

The last person to receive one of his infamous emails questioning the ancestry and sanity of the recipient should frame the thing and put it on a wall. I don't know anyone else in our community of education wonks who matched him in passion, honesty and wit. The 2009 edition of the Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education proves it.

The annual Bracey report has been a big event the last 18 years for those of us fascinated by schools and by Bracey's refusal to buy into the buzz words that we drop into our own writing and speeches without thinking, like chocolate chips in the cookie batter. Phrases such as "high quality schools," "global challenge" and "widening achievement gap."

Fortunately, Jerry had finished a draft before he died, so his friends, author and blogger Susan Ohanian and Penn State education professor Pat Hinchey, applied the finishing touches with help from Jerry's wife, Iris.

You cannot get the full effect of Jerry's writing from a review like this. You have to read every word to catch the excitement of the master analyst/assassin laying out carefully what some unwary politician, like the president of the United States, has been saying, and then see Jerry pull his switchblade from some hidden pocket and cut the guy's reputation for smarts into cucumber slices.

The publishers of this latest report, the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, asked Jerry to focus on three particularly important--and flawed--assumptions of education policy makers: that high-quality schools could eliminate the achievement gap between whites and minorities; that mayoral control of public schools would improve performance; and that higher standards would elevate teaching in public schools.

This was different from the free-form approach that Jerry took in previous annual reports for the educational journal Phi Delta Kappan, but it worked for me. (The Kappan should get extra credit for the many years it used Jerry as its research columnist, and gave his fans a regular dose of Bracey's bracing thoughts.)

I am having trouble writing this. Whatever I say, Jerry's not going to be able to read it, and we won't have one of those electric telephone or email conversations about our differences that were often the best part of my day. But, okay, to sum up: Jerry leaves the first two assumptions, about high-quality schools and mayoral control, looking like road kill. He also scores points against the popular view, which I share, of higher standards affecting schools positively, but makes a couple of mistakes and fails to win that round.

Two out of three isn't bad, particularly when you are Jerry, always fighting for the underdog, the thoughtful teachers and analysts whose out-of-the-mainstream ideas keep them from being appointed to national blue ribbon panels.

On the first issue, high quality schools, I have long admired and agreed with Jerry's critique of our national obsession with the education threat from foreign countries that allegedly have better teachers than we do. In this report, he supplies new arguments for our side I hadn't seen before.

He notes that average U.S. scores don't look so good compared to other countries, but "if one examines the number of highest-scoring students in science, the United States has 25 percent of all high-scoring students in the world (at least in 'the world' as defined by the 58 nations taking part in the assessment. . .) Among nations with high average scores, Japan accounted for 13 percent of the highest scorers, Korea 5 percent, Taipei 3 percent, Finland 1 percent and Hong Kong 1 percent."

What of our supposed arch- rivals, the Chinese and the Indians? As Jerry has often pointed out, despite their alleged advances in science and math teaching, they have so far refused to participate in these international comparisons.

He also makes a powerful case for remembering that impoverished students are going to need more than just great teaching and longer school days to reach their academic potential. Their health and family problems also drag them down.

His victim in this part of the report---Jerry often does his best work when he is shooting at a living, breathing, well-known target--is New York Times columnist David Brooks. I am sure Brooks will never again make the mistake in his May 7, 2009, column, resting his argument for the superiority of tough-love, no-excuses inner-city schools on data for one year, one grade and one subject at the Harlem Promise Academy, and failing to give enough credit to the unusual medical and nutritional support that program provides.

Mayoral control of schools, the second issue, was a much easier target for Jerry. Nobody was ever better at sifting the data. His Ph.D. from Stanford, the birthplace of psychometrics, came in handy. He looks at the results from Chicago and New York City, the best-known examples of school systems run by mayors, and reveals that their test score jumps do not match the ones in the more reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Only on standards, the third issue, does he falter. He is able here, as he has always been in the past, to point out the idiocy of what many important people have said about standards. He proves that American pundits have been complaining for more than a century about schools not having good targets to shoot for, but then he doesn't reach the logical conclusion because it undercuts his point.

"Higher standards as a curative for school ills have been actively promoted for over 100 years," he writes. "It seems to have had no effect, at least from the perspective of the public school critics."

Who, particularly Jerry, should care what public school critics say? Have standards of learning improved over the last 100 years? Yup. In the 19th century, most Americans did not even go to high school. Do our young people know more now than they did then? Without any doubt. We are a different country, much more literate, even if we haven't done as much as we hope to do.

His other slip stems from his surprising willingness, in one instance, to make assumptions about what is happening inside a school without actually spending time in it. Forgetting his usual skepticism about press agentry, he endorses a notion advanced by Seattle University professor emeritus David Marshak--another deft critic who usually knows better--that President Obama's daughters at the Sidwell Friends School are getting a deep and sophisticated education free of the test-pressure and grading standards that the president wants public schools to adopt.

Sidwell, Jerry says, "encourages a rich interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate inquiry; the expression of artistic abilities; reflection; 'stewardship of the natural world'; service to others; scientific investigation; creative expression; group as well as individual learning; personalization of learning and education of the whole person."

Reading that bummed me out. I wanted to call Jerry and ask him, in great glee, what he of all people was doing resting his argument on something taken off the Sidwell Web site. Having had a child spend six years at that school, I could tell Jerry in great detail how driven by testing and grading standards that alleged temple of higher learning is.

But I won't get the chance. Jerry and I never discussed religion. I suspect we share doubts about its premises too. But if we see each other again, we will have a lot to talk about. His last report will inspire many lively conversations like the ones we used to have, the best memorial for a man who demonstrated we should never stop thinking carefully about what we are doing, or not doing, for our kids.

— Jay Mathews
Washington Post


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