Book That Bucks Negative View of Schools Stirs Debate

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A new book that lays out good news about the nation's schools is sparking controversy among educators nationwide.

In The Manufactured Crisis, authors David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle contend that there never really was "a rising tide of mediocrity" in the nation's education system, as critics have maintained. Such criticisms, they say, were part of a "disinformation campaign" manufactured in part by policymakers and business leaders looking to further their own political goals.

"When one actually looks at the evidence, one discovers that most of the claims ... are, indeed, myths, half-truths, and sometimes outright lies," they write. "On the whole, the American school system is in far better shape than the critics would have us believe."

Mr. Berliner, an educational psychologist at the University of Arizona, and Mr. Biddle, a University of Missouri social psychologist, are among a number of education revisionists who, over the past several years, have challenged the prevailing negative view of American schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 13, 1991.)

Their book, however, is the most comprehensive treatment of the issue to date. In it, they attempt for the first time to get their message out to a popular audience.

Published this month by Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., The Manufactured Crisis is already attracting attention. Teachers College, Columbia University, was scheduled to hold a forum on the book late last week, and the bookstore at Stanford University has stocked up on it.

"This is one of the most important books we've had in education in a long time," said John Goodlad, the director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington.

But the book's critics suggest that the authors may be guilty of the same sin they see in critics of the schools: using only data that supports their telling of the story.

"I have no quarrel with what's in it," Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of the book. "I have a quarrel with what isn't in it." What's missing, Mr. Shanker and others say, is evidence that points to persistent and real problems with the job schools are doing.

Looking at the Numbers

In the 350-page book, Mr. Berliner and Mr. Biddle aim to puncture a wide range of "myths" that they say have dogged educators since the early 1980s. Among them are claims that:

  • Student achievement has been falling.
  • U.S. schools fail in comparison with those of other nations.
  • The United States spends more money than other nations on schools.
  • Costs in eduction have skyrocketed wastefully.
  • U.S. schools do not produce workers with good technical skills.

On student achievement, for example, the authors contend that, of the myriad of assessments administered regularly to students nationwide, only the Scholastic Aptitude Test--now called the Scholastic Assessment Test--generated falling overall test scores in recent decades. But, when analyzed closely, even that test suggests that students are not performing badly, the authors say.

Mr. Berliner and Mr. Biddle say the SAT is a poor barometer of achievement because it is given to college-bound high school seniors--a select group of students. Moreover, the pool of students taking the test has changed, evolving from a small group of Northeastern white male students in 1941 to a much larger, more socioeconomically diverse group.

The authors also point out that, even though there are only about 138, mostly multiple-choice items on the test, the scores for each portion of the test are converted through a complex mathematical formula to a scale of 200 to 800. That means that a student who misses one item on the verbal test loses 50 points, they say.

But, if SAT scores are disaggregated--broken down to compare how students are doing on specific portions of the test or how specific groups of students did over time--the story is different. Those kinds of analyses suggest that, since the mid-1970s, scores for verbal achievement have held steady, and math scores have increased modestly. White students' performance has stagnated, and minority students are now earning higher average scores.

International Comparisons

On other tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated test given every two years to students across the achievement spectrum, and on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, the sat's precursor, scores neither rose nor fell. Scores also increased annually during the 1980s on commercial standardized tests such as the California Achievement Test. However, since that kind of test is recalibrated every seven years so that the average student scores in about the 50th percentile, any long-term growth in scores is masked.

On international comparisons, the authors say, policymakers and the news media virtually ignored a 1992 report that showed that American 9-year-olds ranked second among 32 nations in reading. On the same test, American 14-year-olds ranked ninth--just a few points from the top score. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.)

"I think they're generally right when they say achievement trends have been stable, but they ignored a lot of contradictory evidence," said Lawrence C. Stedman, an assistant education professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

For example, the SAT analysis ignores a decline in scores in the 1970s, Mr. Stedman said. And scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in science dipped dramatically in the 1970s and have rebounded only slightly since then, he added. Similarly, NAEP civics scores, among other measures, have slid down.

"I agree that conservative critics exaggerated the extent of the decline," he said, but "we've lurched from conservative school-bashing to progressive myth-making."

The authors say they never aimed to produce an academic treatise that lays out every relevant piece of evidence. "We thought our goal was to present a different portrait--one that could be substantiated with data," Mr. Berliner said in an interview.

Mr. Biddle added: "Did we tell a coherent story? Yes we did."

"Did we provide ample references for everything we said?" he continued. "Yes, we did."

Selling a '50s Model?

But even if the numbers are undisputed, some critics say, they still do not suggest that schools are good enough; they just aren't any worse.

"It's akin to if you wanted to buy a car today, and you said, 'This car is really no worse than the car we used to sell in 1950,"' Mr. Shanker said. "That's really not a very good sales pitch."

But other educators said the book's analysis provides some well-reasoned truth-telling.

"I think they got the story right, and they should be listened to," said Richard J. Shavelson, the dean of the school of education at Stanford University. "Some of our politicians have been irresponsible, and there are very strong grounds to suggest they have tended to ignore what they have available to them and focus on negative aspects of education."

"I don't hold this book up as the factual mirror as to what the system is like these days, but that's not the point," said Thomas Sobol, a former New York education commissioner and now a distinguished visiting professor at Teachers College. "The point is that it's a wonderful correction to the imbalance in the national discourse."

'Reactionary Voices'

According to the authors, the "manufactured crisis" began in earnest in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, the landmark school-reform report issued under the Reagan administration that coined the phrase "rising tide of mediocrity." They attribute the development of a perception of crisis to the confluence of many factors.

These include the newfound influence of "reactionary voices" in the Reagan and Bush administrations and the desire on the part of many political leaders to use educators as scapegoats to divert the public's attention from more pressing social problems and to appease business leaders.

Some political leaders, the authors assert, also may have wanted to bolster private schools at the expense of public schools because they or their friends had financial interests in pri~~vate school enterprises.

"I think that what happened was that a lot ideologues who entered the White House in 1980 were only too willing to embrace the notion that schools were failing," Mr. Biddle said in an interview late last month.

"People in the Bush administration knew the ideas being claimed were not supported yet continued to make these claims," he added. "Later on, people began to lie."

Mr. Berliner and Mr. Biddle also resurrect claims that a 1990 report by researchers at a U.S. Department of Energy lab was suppressed because it countered the Bush administration's characterizations of the nation's schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)

The report, which came to be known as "The Sandia Report" because the researchers were based at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., was never officially released. It later appeared, however, in a journal published by the American Educational Research Association.

But Diane Ravitch, who was the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for research from 1991 to 1993, said the report was not released because it was a bad report.

Like other critics of the revisionists' thesis, Ms. Ravitch dismissed the view that political leaders deliberately tried to squelch good news about schools.

"It's a pretty bizarre conspiracy if you've got the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, and people like Lauren Resnick [a University of Pittsburgh researcher] all coming together," she said.

The authors do not contend that schools are problem-free. They say that the challenges they face, however, are for the most part those that all of American society faces--poverty, racism, violence, and drugs, among others.

"We're saying, let's turn the tide from talking about failing school systems to schools that are failing," Mr. Berliner said in an interview. "That's a big difference."

Vol. 15, Issue 02

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