Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency
-- a Gerald Bracey Report on the Condition of Education
THE PROPAGANDA OF "A NATION AT RISK"
One of my small successes in recent years was to get the New York Times to refer to "A Nation At Risk" as propaganda. Some have asked why I say that and, since it is a slow news summer, I'll take a little time to explain why.
First, I note that in his memoir, The Thirteenth Man, Ted Bell who, as Secretary of Education, brought together the commission that produced "Risk," is fairly candid about that commission. It was not to objectively examine the condition of Amer ican education, but to document the terrible things that Bell had heard about schools. In the introduction, the commissioners wrote that "The Commission was impressed during the course of its activities by the diversity of opinion it received concerning the condition of American education."
No such diversity characterized the final report. After its opening, cold warrior rhetorical flourishes, "Risk" listed thirteen indicators of why we were at risk. It is a golden treasury of selective and spun statistics.
Maybe. NAEP was not initially set up to provide trend data. The scores from 1973 and 1969 are statistical extrapolations from 1977.
More importantly, why use science scores for 17-year-olds? Because this is the only one of 9 NAEP trendlines that will support crisis rhetoric. The science scores of 9- and 13-year-olds, don't show it, nor do the trends at any of the three tested age s for math or reading. If anything, they are inching up.
They don't have data on "most standardized tests." At the time of the report, only the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development provided such trends. All other tests had floating standards: each time the tests were re-norm ed the median score, whatever it was, became the 50th percentile. Each new form of the ITBS and ITED tests, though, were equated to earlier forms.
It is true that the high school scores were lower than when Sputnik was launched--barely. What was also true was that scores had been rising for 7 consecutive years. Scores rose from 1955 to about 1965 (depending on grade), then fell for a decade. T hat decade began with the Watts riots which spread to all urban areas. Television permeated the culture for the first time. It included the recreational use of drugs, Beatles, Stones, summer of love, Woodstock, Altamont, Vietnam, Watergate, Black Panthe rs, SDS, SNCC, the Chicago Police Riot, Kent State and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The College Board called it a "decade of distraction." They understated it.
But around 1975, the scores reversed and headed up, reaching all-time highs in the late 1980's (where they remain).
The College Board's own panel, though, concluded that while easier-to-read textbooks had something to do with it, most of the decline came from changes in who was taking the test: more women, more minorities, more kids from low-income families, more ki ds with low high school GPAs. Doc Howe, the co-chairman of the panel wrote an article "Let's Have Another SAT Decline." Doc thought that the declined reflected an as yet incomplete opening of civil rights.
The Preliminary SAT norming studies which administered the PSAT to representative samples of students showed no decline during the period that average SAT scores fell.
These studies all had fundamental methodological flaws. Only studies after 1989 (Second Internation Math Study) can be considered as possibly accurate. And the TIMSS Final Year of Secondary School study is worthless (see my articles in the May and Se ptember 1998 Phi Delta Kappan and Iris Rotberg's Nay 15, 1998 Science article).
In studies that might be sound (I have reservations about all of them), American kids are above average in science, average in math, and second in the world in reading (second only to Finland, a small homogeneous country with huge taxes and tiny worrie s about teaching Finnish as a second language; in the county I live in there are 105 languages besides English).
Lower than what? This a classic dodge in advertising: something is lower, cheaper, newer, etc. How would they know? We don't test college seniors. We don't test high school seniors because they blow the test off, make pretty designs on the answer s heets, etc. One can only imagine what college seniors would do to a test. This is not a reference to GRE scores and there is no way of looking at the scores of college graduates from when they might have taken tests in high school.
!?!?!?!? What on earth do they mean by "comparable achievement?" Do they mean scores on achievment tests? Can't be because at that time in history, achievement tests were the principal way of identifying kids for G&T programs. The word "their" in the statement is grammatically incorrect. New York Times, Russell Baker sharply criticized the language of the report and declare that "Im giving them an A+ in mediocrity."
I've never seen any data remotely related to this. I've spoken with both commission members and staff. No one can remember where this stuff came from.
And so forth.
After lamenting the quality of Japanese cars, Korean steel and German machine tools, the commission put forth a loony, but popularly accepted, theory: the economic health of the nation is tightly yoked to what happens in elementary and secondary schoo ls (the Commission never, nor has anyone else, explained how, if k-12 education is so awful, American universities can be so good, given that most of the students and professors come from public schools). "If only to keep and improve on the slim c ompetitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system."
This theory became very popular a few years later when the nation slipped into recession. "Lousy schools are producing a lousy workforce and that is killing us in the global marketplace" went the refrain. Larry Cremin, in Popular Education and Its Discontents, debunked the theory, but no one was listening: "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. I t is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education."
Even if few heard Cremin, a funny thing happened: the economy came roaring back. Did the schools get any credit? Are you nuts? In February, 1994, a Sunday NewYork Times article was headlined "The American Economy: Back on Top." The article r aved about the recovery and how it would be sustained. Three months later, Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM took to the Times op-ed page to declare that "Our schools are broken." They can't cut it in the global economy. Luckily for IBM shareholders, Ger stner appears to bring more to the table concerning computers than he does concerning education.
With Japan maybe beginning to crawl out of its worst recession since WWII, with many Asian Tiger economies in the tank, and with Europe still suffering double digit unemployment and with our economy sizzling so much that Greenspan periodically dumps co ld water on it, we don't hear about "Risk's" theory of economic health. It's too bad we had to ever hear it.
|© 1999 Gerald Bracey
Posted September 15, 1999
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