July 23, 2008

Crisis rhetoric, attention seeking, and capacity building

Berliner and Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis was the independent reading choice of several students in my summer doctoral course, and as they have been writing comments on the book in the last week, I have been thinking about the split retrospective view of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report, produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report has been on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of criticism by Berliner, Biddle, Jerry Bracey, and many others.

Of the various criticisms of the report, two stick fairly well: the report was thin on legitimate evidence of a decline in school performance, and the declension story is ahistorical. First, the report relied on a poor evidentiary record, using problematic statistics such as the average annual decline in SAT scale scores from 1964 to 1975, statistics the report's authors claimed were proof of declining standards in schools. (Why this was flawed is left as an exercise for the reader.) Using this evidence, the report claimed that

... the educational foundations of our society are presently 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 occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Where do I start with the problems here: the war-like rhetoric, the implication that we don't want the rest of the world's education to improve, the bald assertion that there is any solid evidence of student achievement gains post-1958 that can be attributed to Sputnik, or the assumption that if there were low expectations observable in the early 1980s it must have been a decline from previous times instead of a generally anti-intellectual culture?

But 25 years after the report's release, it is easy to poke holes in and fun at the hyperbolic rhetoric. What the last few weeks have brought home for me is the very different perceptions of the report. Berliner, Biddle, Bracey, and other critics are absolutely right that the report is factually and conceptually flawed. And yet there are many people involved with the commission who not only thought they were factually correct, they thought that the report's purpose was to help public schooling. If you read various accounts of the commission's work, it is clear that they thought the report was necessary to build political support for school reforms.

Part of the report's creation lies in the campaign promise of President Ronald Reagan to abolish the federal Department of Education. In this regard, his first Secretary of Education Terence Bell brilliantly outmaneuvered Reagan, and within a few months of the report's release, it was clear that the report had resonated with newspaper editorial boards and state policymakers. Even without it, given the Democratic majority in the House and the presence of several moderate Republicans in the Senate, it was unlikely that Congress would abolish the department. After it, the idea was largely unthinkable.

But the motives of Bell and the commission members were clearly not about saving an administrative apparatus. They were true believers in reform, and if all of the recommendations had been followed, today we would have a much more expansive school system. (The recommendations included 200- or 220-day school calendars and 11-month teacher contracts.) Some of the recommendations were followed, primarily expanding high school course-taking requirements and standardized testing, as well as the experiments in teacher career ladders in several states. But the guts of the implemented recommendations were already in the works or in the air: I remember that California state Senator Gary Hart had been pushing an increase in graduation requirements, a bill that passed in 1983. (This is not the same Gary Hart as the famous one from Colorado.) While I could have graduated from high school in 1983 with one or two semesters of math (I forget which), students in my former high school now must take several years of math. (As others have pointed out, one of the unintended beneficial consequences of raising course-taking requirements was dramatically reducing the gender differences in math and science course taking. Richard Whitmire, take note: Terence Bell is the villain!)

Lest some people not know or have forgotten, A Nation at Risk was not the only major mid-80s report on public schooling. Others were written from a variety of perspectives: Ernest Boyer's High School, Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise, Arthur Powell et al.'s The Shopping-Mall High School, and John Goodlad's A Place Called School. All were published in 1983 or 1984. All were earnest. All were more thoughtful than A Nation at Risk. I suspect that if Two Million Minutes had been made and released at the same time (if with different non-U.S. countries and different students), it would have fit into that cache of reform reports very well.

Those other reports did not gain the same attention as A Nation at Risk, and I am not certain that any of the reports dramatically changed the policy options discussed at the state level. Changed course requirements and testing were prominent parts of the discussion before the reports, and they were the primary consequences of state-level reforms in the 1970s and 1980s. What the body of reports did instead was push the idea that schools needed reforming. On that score, I think they succeeded, even if several of the report writers (Sizer and Goodlad) became horrified at the direction of reform policies.

Today, we have a new set of actors making similar claims about the need to reform schools: did you receive the e-mail from Strong American Schools/Ed in '08 that I did yesterday? If you didn't, here's the text:

We are only as strong as our schools, and our schools are failing our children.

  • Almost 70% of America's eighth-graders do not read at grade level.
  • Our 15-year-olds rank 25th in math and 21st in science.
  • America showed no improvement in its post-secondary graduation rate between 2000 and 2005.
We know that the nations with the best schools attract the best jobs. If those jobs move to other countries, our economy, our lives and our children will suffer.

For that reason, Strong American Schools launched a new campaign this week to combat the crisis in our public schools.

Click on the image below to view our television advertisement:

Please join us. Tell your governors, your state and national representatives and senators that you want a change for stronger schools.

Make your voice heard.

The ad's rhetoric is definitely in line with A Nation at Risk, down to the tagline: "As our schools go, so goes our country." It's tired rhetoric at this point, and I think it's important to understand why the folks behind Strong American Schools are keeping at it, though they've made no traction in making education a highly visible part of the presidential campaign thus far: as with the major figures in A Nation at Risk, they are true believers in reform to increase the capacity of regulators.

But Strong American Schools has now become a shadow of A Nation at Risk, itself the least substantive of the mid-1980s reports on American schooling. Instead of making specific claims or recommendations, they're pushing "a change for stronger schools," or rather attention. To do so, they claim a crisis, though this is probably the worst time to claim that weak education is the cause of what Phil Gramm calls our "mental recession": to anyone who looks at the current state of the world, our economic woes are the consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis and energy prices (which themselves are driven by the growing Chinese and Indian economies). In 1983, the economy was out of recession. I just don't think the world will realign itself in the same way as in the 1980s. That doesn't mean that there isn't a tie between education and the
economy in the long term, but it's diffuse rather than mechanical.

And there's another question here: is it ethical or even helpful to claim that a long-term problem is an acute crisis, just to gain public attention for an issue? We've gone down this road many times before, and I just don't see where it helps in the long term.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on July 23, 2008 9:15 AM |