Lulling educators into a false sense of satisfaction – debate over effectiveness of public schools in ‘The Manufactured Crisis’ by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle

The Manufactured Crisis, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, Addison-Wesley, 1995. $25.00 (hardcover)

The debate over the quality and effectiveness of American public schools reached new heights during the last decade. Fueled by ever-increasing economic disparities between Black and white and rich and poor in America, public schools have become the object of significant criticism.

“The Manufactured Crisis” by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, both professors of psychology, is an attempt to discredit the critics of American public education.

Published on the heels of “The Bell Curve,” “The Decline of Intelligence in America,” and “The End of Racism” — controversial books that focus on the social and educational problems of American minorities and the problems of our educational system — “The Manufactured Crisis” represents a radical departure from these naysayers and adds balance to a debate beset with conflicting and controversial data and allegations.

The crisis of confidence in the public schools began with the 1982 White House report, “A Nation at Risk,” which Berliner and Biddle contend falsely proclaims the loss of American heretofore worldwide pre-eminence in education.

Berliner and Biddle attack the myth that Americans have been performing poorly on standardized assessments (ACT, SAT), saying that not only are the data improperly used in comparing the United States with the rest of the world, but that the tests themselves do not properly measure intelligence and academic potential.

In addition, Berliner and Biddle summarily refute what they claim are a number of myths and frauds about American education. The most significant of the claims that they challenge are that achievement and ability are on the decline, that Americans spend more money on education than other countries, that money is not related to school achievement and that American public schools are incompetent.

Berliner and Biddle contend that the critics who manufactured the crisis in education with myths and frauds have also proposed a number of poorly conceived reform ideas based on these myths, including the proposal to introduce vouchers as a means to provide access to private education for poor people in public education.

The authors say that the high-stakes tests now being touted by some are also mistaken. High-stakes tests become the curriculum, they say, and pressure teachers into cheating.

Berliner and Biddle are equally suspicious of enrichment programs, which they state benefit only the “elected and the damned” (the gifted and the poor). Enrichment programs, they contend, lower morale and have not shown that they can improve American education.

After debunking what they call the myths about American public education, Berliner and Biddle examine what they say are the real problems of American public education.

Their central claim is that the inequality of the distribution of wealth is what makes for the unequal quality of its educational systems. The ratio of education spending differences between high- and low-spending school districts presents major problems for a number of school districts and states where well-constructed buildings and facilities and well-paid teachers contribute to the superiority of rich school districts and the lack of them contributes to lower achieving poor districts. But the authors are not quite clear as to whether they believe equalization should be achieved through federal government efforts or through state and local taxation redistribution initiatives.

They also argue that:

* The existence of racism in America poses a serious problem for public education in that it denies equal services for Black children. Furthermore, they postulate that the decline of American cities, coupled with the growth of suburbs as the middle class taxpayers leave the city for suburban exile, has precipitated problems for city school systems.

* The growth of violence and drugs in public schools, the aging American population which is reluctant to support increased taxation for schools, and an environment where resources are increasingly scarce have had deleterious effects on the quality of American schools.

* The age-graded classroom, with its traditional lock-step instructional methodologies is an obstacle to development. The authors cite homogenous ability grouping and tracking, the promotion of competition in classroom, layered bureaucracies and the growth in the number of at-risk children being served by public schools for their deleterious effects.

The authors advocate improving the quality of education by reducing class size, placing emphasis on learning skills needed for good citizenship, adopting innovative teaching methods, cooperative learning, cross-age and peer tutoring, the project method and de-emphasizing the connection between schooling and employment.

The authors contend that there is a great bounty of ideas as to how to improve school, but that none of the innovations can make a difference until all Americans have access to the American dream, the tax system treats corporations and wealthy people fairly, and ordinary people have decent wages, universal health coverage and day care.

Unfortunately, the authors do not devote ample time to this kind of contention. Some critics argue that health care, day care and free quality public education are not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution but are achieved by hard work.

One of the more interesting ideas put forth by the authors is the notion that schools could be improved by eliminating age and ability grading or segregation. This principle, as they label it, is very critical to the success of African educational settings. It has long been understood in the Black community that schools do not recognize the developmental differences of Black children, especially African-American males.

Although not specifically part of the authors’ argument, it is easy to extend it to say that schooling would improve if more allegedly difficult subjects were introduced earlier and that some children — namely African-Americans — should begin and end their formal public schooling much sooner. Berliner and Biddle are to be commended for recommending this modestly radical departure from Western pedagogical principles.

Although Berliner and Biddle devote several sections of their work to decrying the negative effects of racism in public schools, they scarcely address the contentions made by the Black intellectual right and other conservatives who contend that the problem of disparity is caused by the cultural dysfunctionalism in the Black community.

The authors do not adequately critique the potential benefit that a voucher system might have for the inner-city poor children attending Black independent schools. Jawanza Junkufu, the Chicago African-centered educator, argues — as do many Black conservatives — that vouchers should not be categorically dismissed and that the Black independent school movement of the 1960s and ’70s should be revived.

Educators and friends of American education will be pleased to have Berliner and Biddle’s demystify the so-called American educational failures.

They will be even more elated to read their assertions as to how schools can be improved. But there are those of us who will assert that “The Manufactured Crisis” only touches the tip of the iceberg, and that it may even lull some supports into a false sense of satisfaction.

Ronald B. McFadden is director of the Educational Advancement Program and the Ronald McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program at the University of Tennessee.

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