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On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools: The Folly of Today's Education Policies and Practices

reviewed by Karen Campbell - 2004

coverTitle: On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools: The Folly of Today's Education Policies and Practices
Author(s): Gerald W. Bracey
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325006024, Pages: 196, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

Johnny can’t read! SAT scores of American students are declining! American students can’t compete with Japanese whiz kids! These are just a few of the educational myths that Gerald R. Bracey attacks in On Death and the Destruction of Public Schools. With titles like “A Surefire Way to Destroy America – Test Every Kid Every Year,” “School Should Not Prepare Students for the World of Work” and “Playing It Crooked – Media and Political Distortion About the Condition of American Public Schools,” this series of essays challenges educational policies and practices strongly present throughout America in the 20th century and now into the 21st century, and seeks to expose political and economic fallacies directed toward the public education system.

Throughout, A Nation at Risk becomes the exemplar of quasi-research reports commissioned to secure the position of the public education system as

America ’s greatest threat and failure. Of Risk’s many recommendations for the improvement of public education, Bracey states “nothing new …– hardly the stuff of evolution!” (p. 50). He summarizes the report as “a veritable golden treasury of slanted, spun, and distorted statistics.” The data presented in Risk to reflect the decline in science achievement scores among American 17 year-olds are based on what Bracey describes as an assessment “not originally designed to produce trends.”

“Getting Dumber in School?” published in the March 2001 issue of Principal Leadership contends that in an international study of reading skills “US students were outscored only by

Finland . . .” (p. 67). While Bracey does admits that the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study – Repeat (TIMSS-R) are less inspiring, he maintains that the results are not as hopeless as proponents of public education would like Americans to believe. Bracey supports this by presenting a comparative analysis of cultural variables, including grade level content, instructional approaches, and student age differences to suggest that the study is less valid and reliable than critics of public education would lead us to believe.

Still, the questions remain: Why would politicians bash public education? Wouldn’t they have more to gain if they could point to an American public education system that is not failing? Wouldn’t politicians benefit from a wise investment of taxpayer funds to produce literate citizens able to compete with Japanese whiz kids? Here, perhaps, Bracey’s hidden agenda comes to light.

With constant references to educational issues in the forefront of the administrations of Ex-Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and those issues now present during the administration of President George W. Bush, Bracey succeeds in placing Republican politicians as the chief architects of efforts to destroy the American public educational system. Bracey credits the Reagan administration’s educational agenda of support for tuition vouchers as an effort to advance the privatization of public schools. In support of privatization it is during Reagan’s tenure that Secretary of Education Terrel Bell’s National Commission on Excellence in Education publishes “A Nation at Risk.” Privatization gains further momentum in 1991 under the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush when Chris Whittle, CEO of Edison Schools, Inc. goes public with his plans for “a national system of private schools” (p. 7). Whittles plan loses steam when Bill Clinton upsets George Herbert Walker Bush and becomes the 42nd President of the

United States of America . Still, Whittle’s friends in high places, Republican politicians Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania , make strategic political moves that are designed to aid Whittle in his cause. Of the educational agenda of President George Walker Bush, Bracey maintains, “The ‘supplementary providers’ provision of NCLB offer Whittle . . . and other private companies opportunities after public schools ‘fail’ (p. 9). This comment on the state of education under President Bush is complemented by Bracey’s remark that, “. . . we will soon discover that the Taliban have fled Kandahar only to take up residence . . . in the nation’s capital” (p. 174).

Clearly, the American public school system, with all its successes and failures, existed prior to the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan; yet, after reading this book, I am left wondering if Reagan and those Republicans after him are the true villains in the movement to bash and ultimately dismantle the public school system. Much of Bracey’s diatribes are pointed at what Republican politicians failed to do or failed not to do. Why is there no mention of how pubic schools fared under the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? Yes, the book is subtitled The Folly of Today’s Education Policies and Practice, but if the author retreats into the past to explore the impact of Reagan’s educational agenda, surely a more comprehensive look at the impact of past educational agendas on today’s public schools would include President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Here, I am afraid Bracey is guilty of those same practices he questions in others: using “slanted, spun and distorted statistics.”

As an advocate of public education, I appreciate Bracey’s attempts to expose those myths attacking one of the institutions that makes

America great. However, the publication of the author’s many essays as one volume of work is an ambitious project that falls short of its intent – “refuting the conventional wisdom about public schools” (p vii). While the book presents some interesting alternative perspectives on educational policies, reports, and perspectives, the organization of the book lends to its repetitiveness. The book is divided into three sections (Part I: Debunking Dumb Policies; Part II: But What Does It All Mean? and Part III: Explaining the World) which have no clear theme. Much of the information presented in the first section is presented again in subsequent sections. Bracey both references and elaborates on the suppression of the Scandia Report, a document compiled by engineers at Scandia National Laboratories to dispute the belief that there is a large-scale crisis in American public education, in several essays throughout the book. The reader can visit the Scandia report in the introduction, “April Foolishness” (Part I); “The Dumbing of America?” (Part II) and “Playing It Crooked” (Part III). Since each essay elaborates on both the contents and the authors of the report, the reader experiences a feeling of déjà vu. This happens again as the reader encounters the many essays in which Bracey uses results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to counter the claims that American students are not able to compete with their international peers. Some essays in which Bracey cites student performance on the TIMSS are “The No Child Left Behind Act”, “April Foolishness”, “Getting Dumber in School?” and “Playing It Crooked.” An alternate (essays in chronological order, perhaps) or better developed thematic organizational pattern would be less distracting to the reader, who is often left wondering, “Didn’t he mention that in another essay?”

It may help you to know that I am not a Republican. I am a Democrat. Although Bracey points the finger at Republicans and their questionable educational agendas, I still question his self-description as “public schools’ best defender.” Pointing fingers at politicians is not defending schools. Blaming others will not help those students and teachers who are succeeding and failing in today’s public schools. At this point in the game,

America ’s public schools do not need any more fingers pointed. Education, like other areas of American society, needs concrete solutions, not further explorations of past practices.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 958-961
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11262, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 10:37:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Karen Campbell
    New Jersey Department of Education
    E-mail Author
    A 1988 Teachers College graduate with a Master of Arts in the Teaching of English, KAREN L. CAMPBELL is an Education Program Development Specialist with the New Jersey Department of Education. Ms. Campbell’s experience in state government includes the development and implementation of whole school reform efforts in urban school districts and now assisting schools, districts, and state agencies with knowledge of Title I legislation, policy and programs. Ms. Campbell is a graduate of the Philadelphia Public Schools with over 15 years experience in education ranging from middle school language arts teacher, community college adjunct instructor to university level academic advisor .
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