04/22/2008 03:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Myth Machine Marches On

To: Bob Herbert
The New York Times

Dear Mr. Herbert,

It is still amazing to me how people who are wise and insightful on most topics under the sun go all goofy when it comes to education. Goofy is you in today's column, "Clueless in America."

Consider "A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt." This appeared on the pages of your newspaper. Page 1. Right next to the major headline of the day: "Patton Attacks East of El Guettar." April 4, 1943. And these were college students.

The Committee of Ten reported that history "has never taken serious hold" on students graduating from secondary school. 1892. "History is bunk," said Henry Ford, something only an American could get away with.

A 1957 survey of American college graduates by Harrison Salisbury found that only 71% could name the capital of Russia, only 21% could name a single Russian author and only 24% could name a single Russian composer.

And ever since A Nation At Risk in 1983 (happy 25th anniversary in 6 days) people have pegged our economic future to the ability of 9- and 13-year-olds to bubble in answer sheets. Lousy schools are producing a lousy workforce, was the word of the day after ANAR. It was a very popular position as the country slid into the recession that cost 41 his second term. But by early 1994, your paper was running headlines like "America's Economy: Back on Top." Education critics didn't pay any attention. Almost precisely three months after the previous headline, IBM CEO, Lou Gerstner, took to your op-ed page with "Our Schools Are Failing."

This position achieved its height of ridiculousness on July 7, 1992 when Lamar Alexander said on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour "For the country to change the schools have to change." Really. He actually said that and no one even snickered, at least not on camera.

It is horseshit.

It's always the same, something that led me a couple of years ago to write "Education's Groundhog Day" for Education Week. You will recall, I'm certain, that in Groundhog Day, the movie, the same day keeps happening over and over and only Bill Murray notices. It's like that with education reformers and, alas, the education media. As you say, some of us are pretty dopey, "but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (Santayana, and those who misquote Santayana are condemned to paraphrase him). The only thing that has changed since I wrote it, aside from a plethora of more absurd examples, is that I discovered that on September 20, 1956, over a year before Sputnik, the U.S. had a four-stage, satellite-capable rocket in the air traveling 13,000 miles an hour 862 miles about the earth after its first three stages fired. The fourth stage, which could have easily bumped something into orbit was filled with sand -- Eisenhower didn't want to offend the Russians.

First it was Russia. Then Germany and Japan. Now China and India. In the meantime, the World Economic Forum continues to rank the U.S. as the most competitive economy in the world. A skeptical person could be forgiven for questioning the link between test scores and the economic health of a nation -- and average test scores at that. After all, Japan went into recession and stagnation for 15 years and all the while Japanese kids continued to ace tests in international comparisons (if American and Japanese kids were the only two groups to take a test and the Americans scored higher, the headlines would read "Japanese Students Second; American Students Next to Last").

I am appalled at how the media simplfy all this and ignore relevant data such as the following: a piece on NPR (a medium that does better than most) recently stated that China's place in the economic sun was doomed to be short term because of the consequences of its one-child policy (recently renewed for another decade). If you think America is aging, look East, young man. An ever-increasing mass of elderly in China (Shanghai is already 20% over 65) will depend on an ever shrinking pool of workers.

Bill Gates' critique of the schools is just one more example of which there are far too many, of how when experts in one field make pronouncements in another, they often say very, very stupid things. Craig Barrett of Intel is perhaps the worst exemplar after Gates of this species.

Everyone emphasizes the need for skilled workers and many imply or state explicitly that we don't have enough. A recent study showed that we have three new scientists and engineers for every new science and engineering job and it has been noted that our science and engineering schools are full of foreigners for the same reasons our lettuce and grape fields are filled with foreigners: long hours, low wages, and little opportunity for advancement. Only a foreigner could see these conditions as a step up. Two thirds of new grads in science and engineering leave in 2 years (and you fret over 50% of teachers disappearing in 5). In fact, one science writer, Dan Greenberg, invented a new life-time position for scientists and engineers, Post-Doc Emeritus.

There are huge equity issues to be sure. In the most recent international reading study, if white American 9-year-olds were stacked up against the 39 participating nations, they would be 3rd, 5 points behind world leader Russia (which I don't believe and will be happy to explain if you're interested). Asian American students would actually finish ahead of Russia while blacks would rank 28th and Hispanics 25th.

But let's not confound the ethnic disparities with the performance overall.

In 1990, the education historian, Lawrence Cremin, succinctly took apart the schools and competitiveness assertion:

"American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade, and industrial policy, and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Departments of the Treasury, Commerce, and Labor. Therefore, to conclude that problems of international competitiveness can be solve by educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely as school reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best a foolish and at worst a cress effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools. It is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education."


Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, VA