Arne Duncan’s useful exaggeration

As my colleague Nick Anderson reported recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan estimates that 82 percent of U.S. public schools will miss their academic targets this year as the federal No Child Left Behind law raises the bar higher than most schools can jump.

This was predicted by many experts when the law took effect in 2002. Its demand that nearly all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 was hopeless, but unavoidable. Members of Congress knew they would be ridiculed if they passed a law saying that 15 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent---pick your favorite number—of children would not learn.

What is most interesting about Duncan’s estimate, however, is not that so many schools are unable to meet the law’s standards, but that so many experts insisted Duncan’s expected 82 percent failure rate for 2011 was wildly exaggerated. Only 37 percent of schools missed their targets last year. This year’s percentage will be more than that, experts said, but nowhere near that much.

What is going on is an old clash of statistics and politics. It reminds education wonks like me of the tirades our late friend Gerald W. Bracey, once the nation’s most irascible educational psychologist. Bracey, who died in 2009, objected every time a U.S. education secretary, or governor, or major corporation chairman, distorted the data so they could get their budget passed or their faces on the evening news.

I would say to Bracey: Well, the numbers are wrong, but aren’t they following standard Washington procedure? Politicians had been emphasizing the negative for years. Remember how John F. Kennedy inflated the missile gap in the 1960 presidential campaign, or Ronald Reagan’s exploitation of what he called a south Chicago welfare queen in 1976? If someone is fudging our latest education numbers they are just trying to get more money for schools to help kids.

Bracey would not hear of it.For example, he cited a sentence from “A Nation At Risk,” the 1983 report by an important Reagan education commission. The report said: “Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests in now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.” Bracey noted there was only one standardized test that measured that period, and it showed scores going up the most recent five years, something the report did not mention.

A favorite book for Bracey and me was “The Manufactured Crisis” by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle. Published in 1995, it exposed policymakers’ exaggerating tendencies in great detail. They were particularly hard on pundits and politicians who said our economy was losing out to the Japanese because their schools were so much better than ours. The Japanese economy eventually went flat and that argument disappeared,. Few gave Berliner or Biddle much credit for pointing out the flaws years before.

Maybe Duncan’s estimate of an 82 percent failure to reach federal targets will prove accurate. It is hard for me to see how that is going to happen when state officials control the formulas used to determine school failure, but stranger things have happened.

Maybe we should be more understanding of the secretary’s embrace of embarrassing results from No Child Left Behind. He and President Obama are trying to persuade Congress to discard the weakest parts of that law, like its insistence that nearly everyone be proficient in 2014. The secretary and the president are indirectly warning members of Congress that if their local schools show up on the bad list, they themselves will look ineffective.

But well-meaning distortions have never helped that much to make our schools better. Public-spirited officials like Duncan should consider not ringing that alarm bell so loudly. We know we have a problem. In the long run it is better to say how big it is as close to exactly as we can, so whatever solution we arrive at will fit.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.

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