By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009
Gerald W. Bracey, 69, one of the most erudite, prolific and acidic critics of national education policy, died unexpectedly early Oct. 20 at his home in Port Townsend, Wash.
His wife, Iris, said his death could have resulted from a number of potential causes, including his prostate cancer, according to his doctors. Mr. Bracey, a Richmond native, had until recently been a Northern Virginia resident.
He had the analytic skill and academic standing -- including a doctorate in developmental psychology from Stanford University -- to become a leading government or university policy analyst. But he was unable to curb his sharp tongue or his outrage at the way American schools were being demeaned by politicians and editorial writers, so he chose a less financially secure career as lecturer, writer, author and sender of e-mails eviscerating people who disagreed with him.
When an international study of high school science and mathematics was about to be released, with American students scoring below average, Mr. Bracey faxed a droll and prickly bulletin to education writers and experts nationwide.
"NOTE THAT GREECE IS SUBSTANTIALLY ABOVE THE U.S. IN BOTH PHYSICS AND ADVANCED MATHEMATICS," he wrote. "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?"
Mr. Bracey, who had lived for a while in Greece, was skeptical that Greeks could score so well on high school tests but perform near the bottom on fourth-grade and eighth-grade tests.
"Do you really think these Greek kids suddenly encountered Socratic teachers in their high schools and shot their advanced students beyond ours?" he told The Washington Post. "In a pig's eye!"
He published articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers and wrote 10 books during the last two decades of his life. He skewered the educational policies of the George W. Bush administration and donated money to and voted for presidential candidate Barack Obama. By May of this year, Mr. Bracey was hitting Obama too, noting that the president was wrong when he said "in 8th grade math we've fallen to 9th place."
Actually, this was an improvement from 28th place in 1995, Mr. Bracey pointed out.
In his book, "Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality," published this year, Mr. Bracey attacked the misuses of standardized testing, a subject on which he was an acknowledged national expert. "We went from a system that valued producing good citizens for a democracy to one that worshipped at the temple of high test scores," Mr. Bracey wrote. "We should be asking, what were we thinking?"
Gerald Watkins Bracey was born Aug. 12, 1940, and grew up in Williamsburg. After graduating from the College of William & Mary and getting his doctorate, he worked for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., and as a researcher and assistant professor at Indiana University before spending the mid-1970s traveling through Asia, Africa and Europe. He became an expert on international cuisine and wine and reviewed restaurants as part of his freelance writing career.
He began a monthly column on research for the educational journal Phi Delta Kappan in the mid-1980s while working for the Virginia Department of Education. His prominence increased in 1990 when he reacted angrily to a column by The Post's Richard Cohen decrying a national decline in SAT scores, which Mr. Bracey knew had been caused not by bad schools but more women and minorities taking the test.
At Cohen's urging, he responded in The Post's Outlook section, then began writing an annual critique of the mistakes made in education reporting. His bosses at the National Education Association, where he was a senior policy analyst, told him he was being "too entrepreneurial" and he resigned.
The last annual Bracey Report, formerly known as the Rotten Apple Awards, will be published soon, fellow critic Susan Ohanian said.
Mr. Bracey's first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, survivors include two stepchildren, Noel Petrie of Maryville, Tenn., and Kira Mekeburg of Herndon; and four grandchildren.