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Education Critic to Obama: Tell the Truth

If there was any doubt that education analyst Gerald W. Bracey doesn’t play favorites, that’s gone now. After excoriating the Bush administration and its education officials for eight years, after canvassing his neighborhood, donating his own money and voting for Barack Obama for president, Bracey is giving the new president just what he gave the old one -- unrelenting grief.

In a speech to the American Educational Research Association in San Diego last month on “countering the fearmongers about American public schools,” Bracey added to his list of non-truthtellers President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Obama and Duncan seem to be following the long-established line that you can get away with saying just about anything you choose about public schools and no one will call you on it,” Bracey said. “People will believe anything you say about public education as long as it’s bad.”

Bracey and I disagree on many issues, but I have long been one of his most appreciative readers, dating back to the days when I knew him only as a sharp-witted writer whose pieces occasionally appeared in The Washington Post’s Outlook section. When I came back to Washington to cover local schools, I introduced myself to Bracey, who was then living in Northern Virginia, and wrote a piece about him and his long battle to persuade policymakers, political candidates and journalists to stop exaggerating our educational problems to win themselves appropriations, votes and attention. He lost at least one job because of his writing. Instead of using his doctorate in educational psychology to get a cushy university or think tank job, he has devoted his life to setting us straight, in his less financially secure role as freelance writer, author and speaker.

He can, I hasten to acknowledge, go too far. You haven’t arrived as an education reporter or editor unless you have in your drawer an e-mail from Bracey expressing doubt about the level of your IQ and the judgment of the people who hired you. When I still had children at home, I told them that the people they disagreed with might be wrong, but that didn’t mean they were liars. I have tried that argument on Bracey, but it hasn’t had much effect.

So what did the president do to set him off? In his speech he lists five Obama quotes, including:

1. “In 8th grade math we’ve fallen to 9th place.”

2. “Today’s system of 50 different benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming and getting the same grade.”

3. “Only one-third of our 13- and 14-year-olds are reading as well as they should.”

4. “Of the 30 fastest growing occupations in America, half require a bachelor’s degree or more.”

5. “The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it’s unsustainable for our democracy, it’s unacceptable for our children.”

I've looked at each one and concluded that the first is inaccurate, the second is accurate and the third, fourth and fifth are misleading, even though they may be accurate or consitute fair comment. That's not fear-mongering, but we could do better.

The first quote relies on the 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, in which the United States placed ninth out of 45 nations, not too bad. Bracey notes this was an actual improvement over the 1995 study, in which our eighth graders placed 28th out of 41 countries.

As for the second quote, Bracey points out, Wyoming fourth-graders scored 225 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test and Mississippi fourth-graders scored 208, only 17 points behind, according to data released in December. I asked the White House about this and was sent a report showing the 70-point difference came from a separate NAEP analysis that sought to compare proficiency benchmarks in states. The president was trying to make the point that the Mississippi kids, when they take their state test, are more often judged proficient for state purposes than students in Wyoming who score the same on NAEP.

The president wanted to show the Mississippi standards were lower, and thus deceptive. He could have borrowed this vivid phrasing from a Duncan speech: “We have been lying to children and their parents because states have dumbed down their standards. Sometimes you have to call the baby ugly.” But Bracey doesn’t like that either. He said in his speech the two states cannot be fairly compared because poverty is so much more prevalent in Mississippi than in Wyoming.

The third quote can, I think, be defended, although Bracey’s attack on it is valid. This is NAEP data, once again. Indeed, Bracey says, “about one-third of these kids score at the NAEP ‘proficient' level.” But then he asks one of those Bracey questions that few other people -- including White House staffers -- ever ask: “If the 13- and 14-year-olds in other nations sat for America’s NAEP, how many countries would have a majority of students scoring at the proficient level?” In reading, research shows, the answer is zero. Americans actually ranked near the top internationally in this age group. In math, only five out of 45 nations would have had a small majority of proficient students.

Bracey also cites many experts who thinks the NAEP proficiency rates are deceptively high. Eighty percent of high school seniors who scored basic on the NAEP, below proficient, still went on to two-year or four-year colleges, and nearly 50 percent of those college-goers received bachelor's degrees. If that isn’t good enough for the president, I have no problem with him saying so, although I would have liked his aides to add an analysis like Bracey’s to their press release.

Quotes 4 and 5 illuminate a different problem, the American political class’s fondness for tying the future of our schools to the future of our economy. There are some data supporting this claim, such as a recent study by Stanford scholar Eric Hanushek. A White House expert, who declined to be named for the record, acknowledged that education is not the only influence on the economy, but cited several scholars who say it has an impact. The history of rhetoric on the education-economy link, of which Bracey is a national expert, makes clear however that much of what has been said in the past about this has been nonsense. Bracey is brilliant on the false panic about U.S. school standards created by journalists after Sputnik. He also notes how U.S. newspapers and TV networks praised the Japanese education system in the 1980s, then fell silent on the issue when the Japanese economy tanked in the 1990s. Quote No. 4 is accurate, but Bracey notes that the faster-growing occupations usually don't have many jobs.

During the Bush administration, some critics cited Bracey’s work as revealing a GOP plot to downgrade public education so voters would approve private school scholarships for all. It is hard to see anyone making this argument with Democrats in power. (Bracey himself has criticized all administrations, including Clinton, Bush I and Reagan.) I think the problem crosses party lines. Our education secretaries have been well intentioned. They felt they couldn’t get full appropriations unless they stoked congressional concern about schools. The traditional tools for doing that in any democracy have always included hyperbole and data distortion.

(By the way, I shared Bracey's arguments and the points made in this column with an Education Department spokesman, David Thomas, and received no official response.)

In the long term, I think stretching the truth hurts the cause, but I could be wrong. Seasoned publicists reading this will remind themselves that few people have heard of Bracey, whereas Barack Obama is a big name, and is likely to stay that way no matter what some education expert press critic who recently moved to remote Port Townsend, Wash., chooses to say.

That may explain the peculiar omission in the National Education Association advertisement that ran in The Post’s Outlook section April 26. NEA president Dennis Van Roekel praised Bracey’s speech, quoting some of the same presidential misstatements I cite above. In the ad, Van Roekel said public schools have been “subjected to an especially heavy pounding of false information by ideological opponents of public education.”

What? The leader of our largest teachers union, the backbone of the Democratic Party, is calling a Democratic president a falsifying enemy of public schools? Big story, right? Uh, no. Why? Because Van Roekel never says who made the mistatements Bracey is talking about. As usual, Bracey’s speech was not covered in The Post, or most other papers. Bracey has trouble getting his articles placed where they will be seen, and he can’t afford our advertising rates. So most readers of the NEA ad had no idea he was talking about the president.

More information, I think, is usually better than less. Same with courage. If U.S. presidents, NEA presidents and columnists like me were willing to take the risk of telling voters, listeners and readers the whole truth about our schools, not just the parts that sell us or our agendas, maybe our discussions would be more productive, and our schools better. If that ever happens, we ought to thank Bracey. But we better do it very carefully or he is going to be on our case, just like always.

By Washington Post editors  | May 8, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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Here's my bottom line:

US students in middle and upper middle class schools are in general doing find compared to students of other nations and are proeucing enough scientists and math majors to meet the needs of America's workplace. Other nations also produce strong students in math and science and they will work for less. Hence, industry would like access to a worldwide labor market.

US students in high poverty areas are acieving at the level of high poverty students in other countires -- not well at all. There has been some progress both before and after NCLB but poverty and its consequences often trumps even the best efforts of schools. And our urban schools do not draw the best teachers or administrators, have the best facilities, or spend KIPP-like time catching up.

Jay is right that both sides have reasons for hyperbole. Obama wants more money for pre-K to K education and college aid so "we need to catch up (or stay ahead)". Teachers want to be paid more and so pretend they are performing like All-Stars.

Posted by: mct210 | May 8, 2009 7:25 AM | Report abuse

Actually, it's a myth that the "high achievers" in U.S. schools are doing just as well as those in top-scoring countries. There was a recent study comparing students from Massachusetts (one of the best-performing of all U.S. states) with those in other countries on the TIMSS math & science test. In East Asian countries, roughly 40% of the students scored in the "advanced" range while in MA only 16% did.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 8, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for pointing out why many of us are fans of Jerry Bracey. Accurately citing data and telling the truth should be highly valued by those who seek to influence public policy. But, of course, other agendas or simple ignorance often keep people from achieving that ideal. Jerry (bless his sometimes sarcastic soul) has a dedication to the pursuit of truth and accuracy that would fatigue most of us. Who else would spend so much time running a discussion list called the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency? I think he performs a crucial service for people like myself who are distressed at the decades-long politicization of public education.

Posted by: freds66 | May 8, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for the excellent column on Bracey. It would be useful to provide a link to his website:

Posted by: richardguy1 | May 9, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

CrimsonWife: Would those results be for the most recent 2007 TIMSS, in which Massachusetts ranked at or near the top in every category (#2 in fourth grade science, outscored only by Singapore; #3 in fourth grade math, outscored only by Hong Kong and Singapore; #1 in eighth grade science, tied with Singapore, Taipei, Japan, and South Korea; and #6 in eighth grade math, outscored by Taipei, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan)? If so, please provide a source.

Posted by: mattmel | May 11, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Mattmel- yes, it was the 2007 TIMSS. While MA did fine in getting kids to the "proficient" category, it significantly lagged the Asian countries in getting kids to the "advanced" category.

If you're okay with kids just being average, you can spin the TIMSS results as good news. But I was disputing the notion that U.S. schools do a good job at educating middle-class kids. If that were true, then we'd be seeing similar levels of achievement among our top students...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 13, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

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