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Best of the Decade: Bracey columns, 'Rotten Apples' available on line at substancenews.net and 'old site' at substancenews.com

As the New Year (and new decade) approach, many publications are doing their "best of" the decade and year reports. That tradition has not been a mainstay at Substance, but with the death of Gerald W. Bracey in 2009, a few things are worth noting and sharing. Perhaps the most impressive is the amount of work Jerry Bracey published during those years. Although much of it is available elsewhere, beginning in 2004 (when it was kicked out of the Phi Delta Kappan), Jerry's "Rotten Apples" appeared and were available in two places. On line at Jerry's EDDRA site, and on line and in print in Substance.

As we scanned back issues of Substance, both in print, and on line, there was a treasury of Jerry's writing, all still available for those who wants. As the week goes on, I'll add links, but one of my favorites, which we reprinted with Jerry's permission (always) can back in May 2002 and follows. You can also find it a www.substancenews.com (May 2002).

It's as relevant today as it was then:

Why do we scapegoat the schools?

By Gerald W. Bracey

[Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on Page B-1 of The Washington Post on Sunday, May 5, 2002 and is reprinted here with permission of the author. Gerald Bracey is an educational researcher and writer in Alexandria, Virginia. Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company, All Rights Reserved].

There’s no pleasing some people, even when they get what they want. So why do we keep listening to them?

For almost 20 years now, some of our most prominent business leaders and politicians have sounded the same alarm about the nation’s public schools. It began in earnest with that 1983 golden treasury of selected, spun and distorted education statistics, “A Nation At Risk,” whose authors wrote, “If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system. ...” The document tightly yoked our economic position in the world to how well or poorly students bubbled in answer sheets on standardized tests.

And it continued in September 2000, when a national commission on math and science teaching headed by former Ohio senator John Glenn issued a report titled “Before It’s Too Late.” It asked, rhetorically, “In an integrated, global economy . . . will our children be able to compete?” The report’s entirely predictable answer: Not if we don’t improve schools “before it’s too late” (emphasis in the original report).

So you might think that these Chicken Littles would be firing up their fax machines and e-mailing everywhere to report the following hot news from the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report, 2001-2002”: The United States ranks second in the organization’s Current Competitiveness Index, trailing only Finland.

The CCI isn’t just another survey. It is a sophisticated rating system derived from a wide variety of economic and other factors, including education data. And the World Economic Forum (or WEF) isn’t some minor league player. Its annual conference draws a cross-section of the planet’s most powerful political and business leaders — including some of the people so concerned about America’s schools.

But the naysayers haven’t trumpeted the CCI ranking. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if, sometime soon, a leading member of Congress or the business community declares that we must reform our educational system to maintain our competitive edge — or best those pesky Finns.

’ Twas ever thus. Schools often take the hit for bad turns of events, but somehow never get the credit for upturns. Remember 1957? The Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth. When people asked how we could lose the race to space, public schools were an easy target. Life magazine ran a five-part series on the “Crisis in Education.” Major universities assumed the role of rescuers to develop modern, challenging textbooks. In 1969, America put a man on the moon, a destination that the Russians — with their allegedly superior scientists — never reached. Did a magazine declare an end to the “crisis” in education? Do pigs fly?

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that America’s public schools are perfect. The dreary state of some urban and poor rural school systems is well documented. But I’ve been following the angst over our competitive capabilities since the 1983 report, and I’ve noticed the same pattern. In the early 1990s, as the economy tanked and a recession set in, many variations of “lousy-schools-are-producing-a-lousy-workforce-and-it’s-killing-us-in-the global-marketplace” could be heard. But these slackers somehow managed to turn things around: By early 1994, many publications featured banner headlines about the recovery that later became the longest sustained period of growth in the nation’s history. “The American Economy: Back on Top” was the way that the New York Times summed up the turnabout in Feb. 1994.

Well, if the schools took the rap when the economy went south, surely they would be praised when the economy boomed, right? Hardly. A mere three months after the Times story appeared, IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr., wrote an op-ed for the Times headlined “Our Schools Are Failing.” They are failing, said Gerstner, because they are not producing students who can compete with their international peers.

The bashers have kept up their drumbeat. Intel CEO Craig R. Barrett, Texas Instruments CEO Thomas Engibous, State Farm Insurance CEO Edward Rust and then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson all took to the nation’s op-ed pages in 2000 and 2001 to lament the threat that our education system poses to our competitiveness. Gerstner made an encore appearance on the Times op-ed page in March, expressing his continuing concern that our schools will “limit our competitive position in the global marketplace.”

None of these fine gentlemen provided any data on the relationship between the economy’s health and the performance of schools. Our long economic boom suggests there isn’t one — or that our schools are better than the critics claim. But there is a broader, more objective means of looking for any relationship. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides test scores for 41 nations, including the United States. Thirty-eight of those countries are ranked on the World Economic Forum’s CCI. It’s a simple statistical matter to correlate the test scores with the CCI.

There is little correlation. The United States is 29th in mathematics, but second in competitiveness. Korea is third in mathematics, but 27th in competitiveness. And so forth. If the two lists had matched, place for place, that would produce a perfect correlation of +1.0. But because some countries are high on competitiveness and low on test scores (and vice versa), the actual correlation is +.23. In the world of statistics, this is considered quite small.

Actually, even that small correlation is misleadingly high: Seven countries are low on both variables, creating what little relationship there is. If these seven nations are removed from the calculation, the correlation between test scores and competitiveness actually becomes negative, meaning that higher test scores are slightly associated with lower competitiveness.

The education variables in the index include: the quality of schools; the TIMSS scores; the number of years of education and the proportion of the country’s population attending college (these two are variables in which the United States excels); and survey rankings from executives who, the World Economic Forum claims, have “international perspectives.” The WEF ranked U.S. schools 27th of the 75 nations — not exactly eye-popping, but given all of the horrible things said about American schools in the past 25 years, perhaps surprisingly high. (The United States looked particularly bad in one WEF category: the difference in quality between rich and poor schools. We finished 42nd, lower than any other developed nation. That is shameful in a country as rich as ours.)

So, if 26 nations have better schools, how did we earn our No. 2 overall competitiveness ranking? The WEF uses dozens of variables from many sectors, and the United States rates well across the board. One important consideration is the “brain drain” factor. Our scientists and engineers stay here, earning us a top ranking in this category. No other country, not even Finland, came close on this measurement.

But what really caught my eye were the top U.S. scores on a set of variables that make up what the WEF calls “National Innovation Capacity.” Innovation variables are critical to competitiveness, according to the WEF. Ten years ago, the competitive edge was gained by nations that could lower costs and raise quality. Virtually all developed countries have accomplished this, the WEF report asserts, and thus “competitive advantage must come from the ability to create and then commercialize new products and processes, shifting the technology frontier as fast as rivals can catch up.”

Innovation is itself a complicated affair, but my guess is that it is not linked to test scores. If anything, too much testing discourages innovative thinking.

American schools, believe it or not, have developed a culture that encourages innovative thinking. How many other cultures do that? A 2001 op-ed in The Washington Post was titled “At Least Our Kids Ask Questions.” In the essay, author Amy Biancolli described her travails in trying to get Scottish students to discuss Shakespeare. She found that they weren’t used to being allowed to express their opinions or having them valued. I had the same experience when I taught college students in Hong Kong. Years later, I mentioned this to a professor in Taiwan who said that even today, “professors’ questions are often met with stony silence.”

We take our questioning culture so much for granted that we don’t even notice it until we encounter another country that doesn’t have it. A 2001 New York Times article discussed, in the words of Japanese scientists, why Americans win so many Nobel prizes while the Japanese win so few. The Japanese scientists provided a number of reasons, but the one they cited as most important was peer review. Before American scientists publish their research, they submit it to the scrutiny — questioning — of other researchers. Japanese culture discourages this kind of direct confrontation; one Japanese scientist recalled his days in the United States, when he would watch scholars — good friends — engage in furious battles, challenging and testing each other’s assumptions and logic. That would never happen in Japan, he told the Times reporter.

Japan’s culture of cooperation and consensus makes for a more civil society than we find here, but our combative culture leaves us with an edge in creativity. We should think more than twice before we tinker too much with an educational system that encourages questioning. We won’t benefit from one that idolizes high test scores.

It could put our very competitiveness as a nation at risk. 



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