Connections: Phony Conspiracy

November 01, 1995 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

David Berliner and Bruce Biddle could have written an important and helpful book analyzing the conservative reform agenda, documenting the heavy burdens placed on schools by the pathologies of American society, and laying out a prescription for school improvement. Indeed, their book, which inspired this month’s cover story, does those three things passably well.

Unfortunately, The Manufactured Crisis is more of a polemic than a reasoned argument--a strident and contradictory mishmash of fact and fiction that is likely to mislead and confuse the public that it presumably was written for.

In what is either paranoia or an effort to sell copies, the authors premise their book on the absurd charge that government officials, business leaders, and the media have conspired to destroy America’s public schools by deliberately spreading lies and pressing a harmful agenda for reform (e.g., merit pay, a longer school year, accountability, standards, and vouchers). They call this conspiracy “an organized malevolence’’ and refer to it as “a serious campaign by identifiable persons to sell Americans the false idea’’ that their public schools are failing.

This conspiracy theory trivializes the important debate of the past 15 years about the kind of public education system this nation needs and deserves. By implying that anybody who criticizes public education is part of an evil cabal, they undermine the dedicated efforts of progressive and liberal critics to improve schools. (For example, without identifying the authors, they cite as books that reflect “conservative ideologies’’ works by Ted Sizer, John Goodlad, Mortimer Adler, and Ernest Boyer.) Indeed, in one of their more disingenuous statements, they write, “We think the very notion of reforming education is pejorative.’' If American education is not now in crisis, then surely its schools don’t need to be reformed.

Having claimed the mantle of chief defenders of the public schools and rejected the need for reform, Berliner and Biddle ironically go on to echo many of the criticisms of public schools that progressive reformers have made. They cite as problems what they call “everyday features’’ of public schools: age-graded classrooms, tracking, bureaucratization, lock-step curricula, immersion programs for minority students, too much competition among students, unequal school funding, failure to adopt the findings of cognitive research, schools and classes that are too big, and local school boards. And, in their last two chapters, the authors propose remedies for those ills that conform closely to the remedies that the progressive reformers espouse--such as major curriculum revision, smaller schools, innovative teaching methods, and authentic and performance-based assessments.

So if Berliner and Biddle acknowledge that there are serious and fundamental problems in the way public schools are organized and operated, and if they endorse much of the progressive reform agenda for improving public education, what is it they are defending?

In essence, they argue that public schools are better than the critics would have us believe. But as several commentators in David Ruenzel’s story (which begins on page 28) point out, that is largely irrelevant. The question is not whether schools are better than the critics believe or better than they used to be; the question is whether they are capable of the daunting task of preparing children for the enormous challenges of the next century.

By defending the present system against an imaginary conspiracy and demolishing straw men they created, Berliner and Biddle distract attention away from that central question and, in so doing, may make it even harder to bring about the fundamental change needed if the system is to survive and succeed.

And that is a further irony. The main purpose of The Manufactured Crisis, it would seem, is to discredit conservative critics who are seeking to “privatize’’ public education through vouchers--a movement that appears to be gaining momentum. But the surest way to avoid privatization is not to demonize its advocates or defend the status quo but to transform public schools into vital and successful places of learning.

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Connections: Phony Conspiracy

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP