THE BLOG
12/05/2007 12:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is U.S. Education Better Than Ever?

In a recent item on Huffington Post, Gerald Bracey claimed that I should atone for having "suppressed" the Sandia report in 1991. Bracey has achieved a certain notoriety for his insistence over many years that American schools today are better than ever and that anyone who dares to criticize them is wrong, misguided, and/or part of an evil cabal to destroy public education.

Now what was the Sandia report and why does it matter? And how did I allegedly conspire to "suppress" it?

In 1991, I became Assistant Secretary of Research in the U.S. Department of Education. About six weeks after I took office, I heard that the U.S. Department of Energy had received a report about the state of American education written by some engineers at one of its nuclear weapons facilities -- the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. This report claimed, as I recall, that there was no crisis in American education, that the scores were really not falling, that the only problem was the low scores of minority students, and that the rest of the education system was doing fine. Just take out the scores of black and Hispanic and inner-city kids, they suggested, and the picture was rosy.

To begin with, I don't know why the Department of Energy was getting a report on American education. Nor do I know why it was written by people who normally were involved in testing nuclear weapons systems. But I do recall that it seemed absurd to delete the performance of black and Hispanic kids from any judgment about the state of education, because they, too, are part of our society and they, too, must be educated.

The professional staff at the U.S. Department of Energy thought that the report was unsound and referred it to the U.S. Department of Education. That placed it in my bailiwick, since I was in charge of the Office of Research. The Sandia report, as it was called, was evaluated by the top professional research staff. I played no role in the evaluation. They concluded that the use of data was inadequate and unprofessional. Their findings were transmitted to the U.S. Department of Energy.

When the Energy Department decided not to publish the report, the Sandia engineers appealed to key Republican Senator Pete Dominici of New Mexico. He convened a meeting and invited half a dozen other senior Republican senators. I attended that meeting with Deputy Secretary David T. Kearns. David Kearns, the former CEO of the Xerox Corporation, had joined the U.S. Department of Education a few months earlier.

The Sandia engineers summarized their reports and did a slide show of international test data. According to Gerald Bracey, David Kearns threatened the engineers and said something like "you bury that report or we'll bury you." Bracey says that I denied that Kearns ever made such a threat.

This is the one point on which I agree with Bracey. I deny that Kearns ever made such a threat. Kearns did not crudely threaten to "bury" the engineers from the Sandia National Laboratories. For one thing, I was there and Bracey was not.

For another, David Kearns is probably the most civil person I have ever met. In my year of working closely with him, I never heard him threaten anyone, in private or in public. All of us could take lessons in decency and civility from David Kearns.

Furthermore, David Kearns knew, as did all the senators in that room, that there is no way that a report, an opinion, an essay, or any other expression of one's views can be suppressed. The decision of the U.S. Department of Energy not to publish was based on evaluations of its quality by professional staff at the Departments of Energy and Education. The ultimate decision was made by the Department of Energy, since the Sandia Lab was part of their network.

The report was not published by the federal government, but it certainly was not suppressed. It was published in a research journal, as Bracey notes, and it received very wide publicity based on its author's complaints about not being published by the federal government. The report was not published by the government, but it was published and received far broader attention and a far larger audience than most of the reports published by the government.

This discussion now comes on the heel of the latest international assessment of achievement in mathematics and science. This study, called PISA (or Program for International Student Assessment), found American teenagers lagging far behind their peers in other nations in both subjects. Out of 30 developed nations that participated in the tests, U.S. students ranked lower than 16 other nations and below the international average. Our students did even worse in math.

The averages of even our top-scoring students in math were statistically worse than 23 of the participating nations, equal to those in Spain and Portugal. Only four countries had worse scores than ours: Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico.

Now surely, Gerald Bracey will find some way to try to belittle these findings. Presumably the Sandia engineers would say that our scores were dragged down by large numbers of minority kids, forgetting that they are part of the population we must educate. But when even our top-scoring students are way behind, then maybe we should pay attention.

In the 16 years since the Sandia report kerfuffle, their rosy view has been disproven again and again. We do need to improve American education. We need to improve it for the kids who have low scores, and we need to improve it for those who have top scores.

It is not simply a matter of economic competitiveness. It is a matter of our nation's commitment to democracy, to our belief that those who choose our leaders should be well-informed and active citizens. The basis of our democracy rests on our belief that the public will be educated to read, think, discuss, evaluate, and participate in decision-making for themselves and our society. That will not happen unless we have a public education system that is the best in the world.