Is The Education Crisis A Fraud?
Like a detective in a work of pulp fiction, David Berliner smelled a rat.
All during the 1980s, in everything from newspaper columns to the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Berliner, a well-known educational psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona, had listened to long-faced emissaries bring back the bad news: Our public schools were dying if not already dead. By the end of the decade, he could hardly open a newspaper without coming across stories with such headlines as "Failing Our Kids'' and "Crisis in the Classroom.'' Night after night, he saw doomsayers such as then-Secretary of Education William Bennett appear on television, decrying the moral relativism and pitiful achievement levels that so afflicted our schools. Book upon book proclaimed a crisis in education. In 1987, former Reagan and Bush education appointees Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch published What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, which suggested that they know very little at all.
Relentless as public school critics were, the sensationalist news media were making matters even worse, Berliner believed. "Riotous students,'' "apathetic teachers,'' "embezzling administrators''--it was almost as if the press was in on a plot to convince people that the public
schools were beyond repair. Berliner and a colleague would later raise the issue in print. "Are too many of the reporters' employers close friends of powerful people who wish the schools no good?'' they asked.
By the early '90s, the premise of massive school failure was so widely accepted that even liberal intellectuals like Benjamin Barber could launch an argument defending the value of public education with the words, "As America's education system crumbles . . . .'' A Nation at Risk, the 1983 government report that first warned of an educational collapse, was, in retrospect, sounding more and more like an autopsy report.
Just how much time education critics like Bennett, Finn, and Ravitch had actually spent in the schools was unclear. But Berliner himself had spent a lot of time in the schools, and what he saw there was very different from the pictures conveyed in the press. Teachers, he saw, were by and large doing a remarkably good job; in fact, they were, as he later put it, "performing miracles on a fairly regular basis,'' despite the beating they were taking in the press. In short, Berliner concluded, there was no crisis.
The American people were being lied to.
Berliner said as much at an American Psychological Association symposium in 1991. In the audience was an amazed Gerald Bracey. A former research psychologist for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., Bracey himself had come to believe that the educational crisis was a canard. Thrilled that someone else actually had the guts to attack the doomsayers publicly, he eagerly approached Berliner and struck up a conversation. It was an auspicious meeting, for these two men would eventually try to do for a nascent revisionist movement what conservative duo Ravitch and Finn had done for the schools-need-radical-repair movement: make so much noise that people would have to pay attention.
Bracey told Berliner he was "right on'' and urged him to get hold of a report by the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., that was making the rounds. The report had been commissioned by the Bush administration, which expected the study to find sweeping evidence of an educational meltdown. But the 178-page document concluded otherwise. "To our surprise,'' Sandia researchers wrote, "on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends [in education].'' Some observers, Bracey among them, believed that the report was being suppressed by a Bush administration all too ready to condemn public education.
"After reading the Sandia report, I spent two months with Bracey's help compiling data from an array of sources,'' Berliner recalls. "I was stunned by how much was around saying schools had done an extraordinarily good job given the remarkably difficult circumstances under which teachers worked. I concluded that what was going on was the scapegoating of public schools on a mass level.''
After two years of further research, Berliner joined forces with friend and fellow psychologist Bruce Biddle, director of the Center for Research in Social Behavior at the University of Missouri. The match made perfect sense, for Biddle, independently of Berliner, had been writing articles claiming that politicians were misusing evidence--particularly test score results--to paint a picture of school collapse. Their collaboration would result in The Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, published last month by Addison-Wesley. The first sentence reads, "This book was written in outrage.''
It's unusually strong language for two professors who have spent much of their careers writing for obscure periodicals, but they insist that there is no other way to respond in light of the "nasty lies'' that have been spread by conservative politicians, business leaders, the press, and even some educators. In fact, Berliner and Biddle argue that the criticism of the public school amounts to something of a conspiracy, that "organized malevolence might actually be under way.'' As they see it, ideologues, touting the virtues of the free market, are willing to do anything "to weaken the nation's public schools, redistribute support for those schools so that privileged students are favored over needy students, or even abolish those schools altogether.''
Essentially, The Manufactured Crisis expands on Bracey's own searing attacks on the critics of public schooling, which (despite his claim that he has been ignored) got plenty of attention when he first sounded off in a report published in the October 1991 issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Titled "Why Can't They Be Like We Were?,'' the article argues--as do the four subsequent ones the Kappan has published--that there never was a golden age of education from which we have fallen. In fact, Bracey argues, things
are actually better now than they were 20 or 30 years ago.
Bracey thinks that former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel (Ted) Bell was being disingenuous when he suggested in A Nation at Risk that we had to go back to the good old days, when teachers and students really buckled down to the serious business of learning. Says Bracey: "I've got news for you, Ted: We ain't never been a nation of learners. If you want to know why, look at the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. It doesn't say, 'Give me your 1,300 SAT scores'; it says, 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,' and that's what we got.''
Unlike Berliner, Bracey had no quick, intuitive sense that the critics of public education were off-base. He was like most other Americans, who, according to polls, consider their own local schools to be "pretty good'' but the nation's schools seriously troubled, a contradictory finding that Bracey now attributes to the power of a maligning press. "I just didn't put it all together because I kept reading about the crisis--all those stories about how we can't compete with the Japanese, how our 17-year-olds don't know anything,'' he says. "So I suffered from the same sort of split-thinking everyone else did: My own kids' schools were OK, but everyone else's was lousy.''
Then, in November of 1990, Bracey came across a column by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post titled "Johnny's Miserable SATs.'' Something about Cohen's presentation of figures raised a red flag, and Bracey, then the director of research and evaluation for Cherry Creek School District outside of Denver (he is now executive director of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform in Washington, D.C.), undertook a demographic analysis of SAT test-takers. He found that at the SAT's inception, the test-takers were virtually all white males, almost half of whom attended private prep schools in New England. By 1990, however, 30 percent of the test-takers, more than 50 percent of them female, had family incomes under $30,000, and 29 percent were minorities. Yes, there was a decline in test scores, but a rather small one when you took into account the radically different composition of test-takers.
His research led him to publish in 1990 an article called "SAT: Miserable or Miraculous?'' Soon he was receiving data from around the country on everything from dropout rates to international comparisons, all of which led him to believe that America's students, teachers, and schools were performing much better than commonly believed. It was time to take on the conservative ideologues and their tale of woe.
Taken together, Bracey's reports, the Sandia report, Berliner and Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis, and the work of other important, if less visible, revisionists, such as demographer Harold Hodgkinson and National Science Foundation researcher Iris Rotberg, tell a story very different from the one the critics have been reciting. It goes something like this: Talk as critics may about the sky falling, blue skies, with only a scattering of dark clouds, actually prevail. SAT and Iowa Achievement Test scores, which critics have long used to demonstrate a putative decline, have actually held steady and even improved somewhat over the last two decades, with particularly meaningful gains being made by minorities. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has been used to make international comparisons in a wide range of academic areas, American students are holding their own in most subjects and are ahead of all other countries except Finland in reading. What's more, our public schools are much more democratically inclusive than they once were: Almost 85 percent of all Americans, from all racial and socioeconomic groups, now graduate from high school, as opposed to 10 percent in 1910 and 45 percent in 1940. Besides, if American students are so poorly prepared, how is it that America's workers are the most productive in the world, and our college graduates world class in areas such as medicine, law, and engineering? Only the most incorrigible elitist would not think this a good thing.
All this, the new defenders say, does not mean our schools cannot be improved. In fact, they are quick to note, we do have some deeply troubled schools, especially in our impoverished inner cities. But the problems there are largely due to grossly inadequate funding, as writer-activist Jonathan Kozol so powerfully demonstrated in his 1991 book, Savage Inequalities. Furthermore, these schools must deal with horrendous social problems--violence, drug abuse, disintegrating families--that feckless politicians and an indifferent society have passed on to them. All things considered, the defenders say, the public schools are as good as they've ever been--and probably better.
Of course, conservatives aren't the only ones criticizing public schools and calling for radical change. Some of the most prominent critics, in fact, are liberal reformers and progressive educators who want public schools to become, among other things, more accepting of diversity and intellectual inquiry. Still, it is the conservatives who receive all the opprobrium in the defenders' work, for the liberal reformers haven't given up on the public school system; they still believe it can be improved with hard work and properly apportioned resources. Conservative critics, on the other hand, often wonder aloud if such a lax, substandard system is worth preserving. These conservatives, the defenders declare, are outright enemies of public education--enemies who will not rest until the public system as we know it is dismantled.
One of these "enemies'' is Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute whom Bracey has charged with everything from grossly exaggerating school expenditures to overstating the percentage of public school teachers who send their children to private schools. In fact, in the just-released "Fifth Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,'' he devotes an entire section to Doyle's use of statistics. It's called, "The Dissonance in Denis Doyle's Head.''
While Bracey sees Doyle as one of the chief doomsayers in the artificial school crisis, Doyle in turn sees Bracey as someone who is out to pick a fight by falsely calling people such as himself school-bashers. "In my work with David Kearns and Louis Gerstner''--Kearns, once chairman of Xerox, is a former deputy secretary of education; Gerstner is chairman of IBM--"I've taken great pains to distance ourselves from that kind of approach,'' Doyle says. "We repeatedly assert that our interest is not in blaming anybody nor even in the whole issue of whether past academic performance has been high or low. Our concern is about the future, which is going to require the higher levels of performance that the Koreans, Germans, and Japanese exhibit.''
Like other targets of the revisionist attack, Doyle claims to be somewhat bemused by his opposition's line of argument: It is peculiar, he says, for people to be arguing about whether schools have gotten better or worse when the present school system is clearly not satisfying anyone--be it a progressive reformer like Theodore Sizer or a conservative scholar like Diane Ravitch. It is time for everyone to get busy designing the schools of the future. "Just saying everything is all right is not going to solve anything,'' Doyle says.
While Doyle does not challenge any of the revisionists' particular data, a University of Rochester professor of economics and policy, whom Bracey has termed Eric "Don't Throw Money at Schools'' Hanushek, does. Hanushek compares revisionists like Bracey and Berliner to clever lawyers who would do anything to get clients off the hook by manipulating and/or concealing evidence.
Hanushek, who has consistently argued (to Bracey's expressed astonishment) that spending on schools doubled from 1965 to 1990 while test scores remained flat, says the revisionists want to spend money on things of very uncertain value, such as reducing class size. He mentions a study showing that reducing the teacher-pupil ratio improves academic performance 15 percent of the time; while revisionists see this as compelling evidence for its efficacy, Hanushek takes it to mean that reducing class size won't matter 85 percent of the time.
The revisionists like to cite Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities as a compelling depiction of how middle-class suburban schools feast while poor urban schools are put on a starvation diet. The book demonstrates, they say, that our most troubled schools need more money, not condemnation. But Hanushek is unimpressed. "Kozol doesn't look at any data,'' he says. "He's the worst offender of all in that respect.''
"For the most part, urban schools have more spent on them than other school systems,'' Hanushek continues. "Kozol picked the worst 20 schools he could find and compared them with the 20 best he could find, using two dimensions: gold-plated facilities and socioeconomic class. He's also implying that if you take money from high-priced schools and put it into other schools, all else will be the same. But history demonstrates that schools don't put money into things that consistently improve performance.''
Hanushek admits he is baffled as to just what the revisionists are trying to prove. "The whole debate is a mystery to me,'' he says. "I guess it's for people who say, 'Well, let's just increase spending and then figure out what to do with the money.' ''
The notion that increasing expenditures typically does little to help struggling schools, but in fact expands an ever-more Byzantine bureaucracy, is an old conservative refrain. Among the more well-known proponents of this view is John Chubb, champion of private school choice and curriculum director for the Edison Project, a private-sector reform initiative spearheaded by entrepreneur Christopher Whittle. Chubb, who in 1990 co-wrote the still-controversial Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, which enumerated the inherent advantages of private schools, is picked over at great length in The Manufactured Crisis. He has long argued that there is a vicious cycle in the public sector: The worse a school performs, the more politicians burden it with well-meaning but finally destructive constraints. What's needed, he contends, is not more money but autonomy, which may very well necessitate vouchers or other forms of privatization.
Chubb, like other school critics, expresses impatience with the new defenders' argument. "Look, there is a consensus that our schools aren't doing as well as they need to do,'' he says. "Study the data objectively, and you'll see a stagnancy that needs to be addressed. And this is not a right-wing argument. Shanker makes it, too.''
Indeed, American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker has hardly been a friend to the revisionists. Claiming that he agrees with 80 percent to 90 percent of their data, Shanker nevertheless believes that asking if schools are better or worse is beside the point. So what if we're doing somewhat better than we were 20 or 30 years ago. "Germany, France, and Australia are doing better, too,'' Shanker says. "So the right question must be, have we improved as much as the others have? On this point, they're ignoring obvious evidence [that shows we haven't]. If I'm trying to become an Olympic runner, I can't declare myself the winner just because I've improved. That's ridiculous. And yet that's the case they're making. The real question is, how much has my competition improved?''
Shanker is here presenting what may be called "The International Deficiency Argument.'' It is an argument that the revisionists have gone to great lengths to demolish, saying it's every bit as much a myth as the SAT free-fall. International comparisons, they say, indicate that we're one of the world leaders in reading and that our less auspicious rankings in mathematics and science are misleading. Only a few insignificant points, for example, separate us from the top tier in math. Furthermore, international comparisons present all kinds of logical and cultural difficulties. The Japanese, for instance, emphasize computation over more intangible problem-solving skills and hence do better on math tests. Besides, do we really want to compare ourselves to a country where children commit suicide on account of academic stress?
The rebuttals and counter-rebuttals to this line of argument go on and on, as if the discussants were manic lawyers unable to suppress the impulse to make motions. But as far as Shanker is concerned, the revisionists are setting up a straw man. "Look,'' Shanker says, "I have put out there for a number of years something they don't touch--national college entry exams for France, England, and Japan. State college exams for Germany, Australia, etc. I'll throw out an example from the seat of my pants that hits you--one of many. On Germany's Arbitur, you'll get a question like, 'Here's a list of presidents from Truman to Bush. You have three hours to write an essay on the major domestic and foreign initiatives of these presidents, with special emphasis on their impact.' Now in Germany, 30 percent of the youngsters pass this essay test. If you look at the NAEP results in writing, you'll see that only 3 percent of our students can write an essay. So which country is being elitist? The one that teaches 30 percent or the one that teaches 3 percent?''
Of course, the revisionists dispute this data, saying among other things that we don't know what constitutes "passing'' on these tests. They also suggest that the United States has a surplus of well-educated workers--lots of college graduates cannot get jobs--and that increasing the number would not improve our economic climate in any case.
"There's more unemployment in Europe than there is here,'' Shanker says. "So I'm not arguing that having more people who can write and read things of some complexity will make us an economic dynamo. Change is so rapid, no one knows. My argument is an educational one. I'd like to have more people know something about economics and politics so they can be decent citizens.''
While Biddle and Berliner do not deny that schools can be improved--the concluding chapters of their book promote age-mixed classrooms, cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and the elimination of tracking--they also emphatically state, "We think the very notion of reforming education is pejorative.'' If there's no school crisis, they argue, then there is no need for reform.
With so many other educators and school observers trumpeting the need for reform, you'd think most would find the revisionists' arguments wrongheaded or even deeply objectionable. But this is not the case. In fact, many say they find the revisionists' argument extremely compelling.
"I think Bracey and Berliner have really done a service in calling attention to the misinterpretation of data and to the positive things going on,'' says David Tyack, a Stanford education professor who has written extensively about the history of public school reform movements. "The fact that scores on tests like the NAEP have held constant is amazing when you look at the increasing social pathologies affecting kids.''
Mike Rose, an education and communications professor at UCLA whose new book, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education, is a hopeful account of his travels to various public schools, makes a similar point. "Public schools are remarkable institutions when you consider all we ask them to do,'' he says. "So Berliner and these other guys are doing something remarkably important: They're blowing the whistle and saying, 'Wait a minute, you cannot say the things you're saying based on statistics.' ''
Others believe the revisionists are, at the very least, working to dispel the harmful myth of an educational golden age to which we need to return.
"It's a continuous phenomenon that people are nostalgic about the past,'' says Patricia Walsey, a former English teacher and senior researcher for the reform-oriented Coalition of Essential Schools. "Yet I'm just finishing a study in which parents frequently cite out-of-school experiences as the most powerful experiences they had all during their school years. Nevertheless, they still want their kids to have the kind of education they had. It takes considerable conversation for parents to see the discrepancy they're putting forth.''
Deborah Meier, the celebrated education reformer and founder and co-director of New York City's Central Park East schools, says that, in her opinion, American schools have never worked very well, providing little more than a "surface'' education, and that people need to understand this. Time and time again, she finds herself amazed at how parents at her own school, some of whom have reading difficulties, tell her that schools used to be better--the very schools that have left them stranded in a state of semi-literacy.
Of course, to say that the schools of old were not all that great is a far cry from asserting, as do Bracey and Berliner, that there's no school crisis, and Meier would not go that far. What the revisionists say about schools being as good as they used to be may be true, Meier says, "but that's not a very good true.''
She explains: "They're saying we've got all these problems, and yet schools are doing as well as they've ever done. Isn't that remarkable? And I'm saying, yes, that is remarkable if our goal is to have them accomplish what they set out to do 40 years ago. But schools were hostile to intellectual ideas then, and they still are, and we can't afford that. We can't have our kids taking everything nonsensical they hear as truth. Suppose people ran around saying, 'The medical profession is better today than it was 50 years ago?' Would that be much to brag about? What other place in American life but education would we dare brag that things are no worse? It's almost like we're arguing about some rhetorical issue, not what schools are supposed to be about.''
Schools, Meier insists, must be about intellectual life. Therefore, she finds the whole better-worse debate, dependent as it is on data, somewhat of a distraction. In this, she is far from alone. Even those sympathetic to the revisionists' case feel that by so emphasizing test scores, dropout rates, and the like, they are in danger of engaging in a paper chase. Statistics are a double-edged sword: People can use them to win an argument, but in so doing they often forget that what teachers and students actually experience in the classroom is much more important than a compilation of figures.
Rose of UCLA says that because it is incumbent on the defenders of public education to demonstrate how school critics distort data, they almost inevitably get caught up in a numerically driven argument. This, he notes, is understandable but unfortunate. "People like us,'' Rose says, "are sitting on the sidelines and saying, 'Wait a minute, isn't there something we should be talking about besides these scores?' Sometimes I think our problem in public policy is that we cannot keep two ideas in mind at the same time. Yes, the schools do a remarkable job when you consider what they're up against. But it's also true that they need to do much better than they're doing.''
Tyack makes a similar point, saying that a test score-driven debate can catastrophically narrow the meaning of education. "In a democracy, schools must help people understand and respect one another, enormous tasks that aren't even on that agenda,'' he says. "The debate becomes a technical argument, and while Bracey and Berliner both seem pretty good at technical arguments, the basic argument needs to be much broader.''
Progressive educators, in particular, have long responded this way, seeing an obsession with testing and test scores as the very scourge of American education. And so I ask Bracey if he isn't perhaps playing the devil's hand by emphasizing these things. "That's precisely what I'm doing,'' Bracey says. "I'm doing what I call 'statistical judo,' using their weight to throw them.''
Bracey acknowledges, as Berliner does, that improving test scores should not be the end of schooling. Nevertheless, they both argue that test scores must be used to expose the school-bashers' lies. Otherwise people will see the failure of the public school system as a given.
All of this may be true, but it's not--to recall the words of Deborah Meier--a very good true. Data are important tools in studying schools, but they cannot, by themselves, tell us much about the quality of school life.
In fact, a statistical fixation sometimes drives the authors of The Manufactured Crisis toward some dubious, if not contradictory, conclusions. After strenuously arguing, for example, that standardized tests such as the SAT prove that many students have made modest but important gains, they then, several chapters later, dismiss the low SAT scores of education students as irrelevant, calling them "extremely weak predictors for success in teaching.'' This sounds like a case of wanting it both ways.
Furthermore, it is easy to get the impression from the revisionists that the critics of public education are all right-wing zealots. But in truth, some of the schools' most forceful critics over the last two decades have been liberal-minded reformers such as John Goodlad, Jonathan Kozol, Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, and David Cohen, all of whom criticize schools for too often inducing in their students a mind-numbing passivity.
In Eleanor Farrar, Arthur Powell, and David Cohen's 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, for instance, the American high school is portrayed as a bland institution where student-customers are free to shop around for what best suits them. While an academic elite take rigorous courses, the vast majority, with the school's tacit approval, choose from dozens of courses that demand little more than attendance. Because keeping everyone happy is the name of the game, teachers make "treaties'' with students: Give us an easy time, and we'll give you an easy time, too. As in Sizer's Horace's Compromise and Goodlad's A Place Called School, the high school here comes across as a place where intellectual endeavor is best avoided, like the flu.
Bracey accuses these critics of having their heads in the clouds. "[They are] intellectuals who cannot understand how something so easy for them can be so difficult for others,'' he says. "They'll only be happy when everyone will be an intellectual. That's a general problem we have among the professoriate--unreal expectations.''
If anyone would object to the revisionists' better-than-ever thesis, you'd think it would be Cohen, one of the authors of The Shopping Mall High School. Now a professor at the University of Michigan, Cohen has long criticized the conventional classroom with its rote tasks and multiple-choice tests. But when I asked Cohen what he thinks about the revisionists, he said, "They're saying good stuff. I accept the premise that schools are doing as well as they've ever done. Don't you?''
I stumbled for a moment, for I was astounded to hear one of the celebrated authors of The Shopping Mall High School defend the revisionist argument. How could someone who had so excoriated schools for their bland neutrality, who had, in fact, compared high school course offerings to a food court from which customers complacently sample a little bit of this and that, not take issue with the as-good-as-ever stance?
It struck me that one reason Cohen and many of the other once-vocal critics have aligned themselves with the revisionists--or at least declined to attack their case--is that they want to distance themselves from those who see private school vouchers as the logical outgrowth of a public system in decline. Continued criticism only serves the interests of those who would deregulate and spread already thin public education dollars to the private sector. Many reform-minded critics aren't willing to go this far; they still believe in the traditional public school ideal. It is in this critical belief that many of the liberal critics and revisionists are united.
I asked Cohen whether his defense of the revisionist stance meant that he believed schools have substantially improved since the publication of The Shopping Mall High School. No, he said, the shopping mall high school is still pretty much status quo. But while he criticized it, he would not condemn it because the shopping mall high school seems to be pretty much what most people want. It's the quintessential American institution in that it blurs the distinction between the best and worst students, the intellectuals and anti-intellectuals. "Despite all the talk about what a competitive country this is,'' Cohen said, "the fact is that in our schools we don't want to make savage distinctions between winners and losers.''
Cohen's point, which echoes all the way through The Shopping Mall High School, is that we Americans, in our desire to be democratic, tolerate mediocrity. We don't want anyone to feel excluded from school life. "The enemy is not public schools,'' Cohen concluded. "The enemy is us.''
This last statement of Cohen's brings the whole debate between the defenders and critics of public education into an entirely new perspective. For if Cohen is right, if schools are pretty much a reflection of what we want, then the question becomes not whether our schools are better or worse, but whether our very expectations for schools need to be re-examined.
"American parents,'' Berliner says, "want kids to go to little league, watch television, date, and save money to buy a car. We put off the serious stuff for college, which is why it's so hard to make comparisons across cultures. We have a different vision of childhood.''
Of everyone I spoke to about the condition of schools, no one was more dismissive of the entire as-good-as-ever debate than Richard Gibboney, who over a long career of ever-increasing disillusionment has been a teacher, the Vermont Commissioner of Education, and Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Education. Now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Gibboney insisted that it makes no sense to talk of schools being better when they scorn the two things that really matter: the cultivation of intelligence and the cultivation of the democratic spirit.
"These two things aren't even on the agenda,'' Gibboney said. "In fact, it would take a brave man to walk into a high school faculty meeting and have the principal say, 'Here's so and so, and he's going to talk to you about democracy and the cultivation of thinking.' You'd get yawns and people falling asleep.''
Over the years, Gibboney has spent a lot of time in privileged and poor schools alike. In both, he said, he finds among teachers a spooky absence of passion regarding the environment, the justice system, the Republican Congress--any number of fundamental issues. "How can schools be any good if they're rampantly anti-intellectual, if, according to Publishers Weekly, only 10 percent of our college graduates are serious readers?'' he asks. "What happens in our schools is that information is shredded into a thousand pieces, and then students are tested on it. And then when the kids from the affluent schools knock the top off the SAT, everyone says, 'See, Lower Merion is such a good school.' But I'm sorry, no.''
But isn't it somewhat of a stretch to ask teachers and students to become intellectuals?
"I accept the Deweyan assumption,'' Gibboney said, "that a healthy individual of ordinary intelligence can be an intellectual--someone who enjoys ideas, knows how to use information, participates in civic life. This means reading, conversing, considering issues. This is what intellectuals do, and it's not really that difficult. But people are so far from what's important. They're off in the land of the tertiary: test scores, the hot new idea, and so on. So it just doesn't make sense to say that schools are better. I was thinking about this today: How can schools be better than the society of which they're a part? They can't, and we keep forgetting that. Sometimes I think school reformers should be going after mass TV, urban sprawl, and the big money that buys elections.''
Earlier, Patricia Walsey, the researcher at the Coalition of Essential Schools, had mentioned that the single thing parents tell her they want from schools is for their children to come home with something to say about what they're learning that's fascinating to them. This may be true, but unless America's parents come to expect this kind of intellectual passion from their schools as opposed to ever-higher test scores, the debate over whether our schools are improving or failing will always have about it an air of oppressive irrelevance.