Connections: Phony Conspiracy

November 01, 1995 3 min read

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