October 21, 2009

A gadfly remembered: Jerry Bracey

An e-mail from Kevin Welner yesterday announced Jerry Bracey's death Monday night. I only met him a handful of times in the past 20 years of his persistent, indefatigable efforts to poke holes in every public report or news story he saw as an effort to demonize public schooling. His Huffington Post column from September 25 is representative of both the topics that he addressed year in and year out and the disdain he felt towards those who he thought libeled and slandered public-school students and educators.

According to one online biography, he was an early-childhood psychologist at the Educational Testing Service and Indiana University before becoming a testing director for the state of Virginia in the late 1970s and then taking a similar position in a small school Colorado district in the mid-80s. At about the same time he moved to Colorado, he began writing columns on education research for Kappan magazine, and in 1991 he wrote a long article excoriating critics of public schools, primarily the authors of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report and anyone who repeated the claims in that report.

He has spent the last 18 years writing detailed critiques of whatever target happened to catch his eye. I first met him when he visited the University of Delaware in 1992-93 as he was beginning his second career as a mythbuster. My impression at the time was that he was smart, detail-oriented, and tilting at a windmill. I think my judgment at the time has been borne out by his writings since then. For more than a decade, the Kappan magazine published his annual "Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," which usually praised a handful of individuals and dished out acidic criticism to those Bracey thought were fools or worse. For a few years, Kappan published his "Rotten Apple" awards with Bracey's annual report and then thought better of it once the first lawsuit threat appeared (when Bracey handed Willard Daggett the "No, you're not a ham, ham can be cured" Rotten Apple Award in 2000). Thereafter, every year at about the same time as his rotten-appleless report appeared in Kappan, Bracey would e-mail his annual Rotten Apple nominations to the world (or at least a long list of recipients), eventually publishing them and the annual report manuscripts online. Bracey was the Pauline Kael of education research.

Bracey was a true gadfly, a semi-retired professional who did his best to discomfit those who he thought were abusing their positions. He held no White House post, no political appointments in the U.S. Department of Education, no leadership spot in a well-funded think tank.

It is often the case that gadflies are ill-appreciated during their lifetimes, and often they pick the wrong windmills, or they tilt at windmills when they could be digging out the foundation instead. But Bracey was always there to respond to what he thought was poor reporting and sloppy thinking. There is probably no national reporter on the education beat in the past 20 years who didn't hear at one point or another from Jerry Bracey about Simpson's paradox or why NAEP's achievement levels were more political than scientific. Debra Viadero's blog entry today is very much in the vein I've read from reporters on occasion over the years: "He was, to put it bluntly, a thorn in our side. Once in a while, though, he had a point and I was awed by his tireless persistence and his willingness to heap criticism on government leaders from both sides of the political aisle, from Margaret Spellings to Arne Duncan."

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Posted in Education policy on October 21, 2009 11:53 PM |