Guest Column

Loss of a Voice

by FREDERICK JOHNSON

Several months ago I learned of the death of Gerald Bracey. His passing was almost without notice. I did not know Bracey and never had a chance to meet him.

However, he was one education writer and researcher I always enjoyed reading and upon whose work I enjoyed reflecting.

We know Bracey was a popular and an in-demand presenter at AASA national conferences. He seemed to be one of only a few voices that vigorously supported public education and defended it against every unfair attack.

Because I do not totally understand the testing and data world of NAEP, PISA or TIMSS, Bracey brought these testing instruments and the data results down to a level I could understand. As he discussed rank, proportion and raw numbers of the statistical data gleaned from standardized tests, his writings helped me make sense — and nonsense — out of the data. He provided comfort to my own reasoning when I felt it was ridiculous to compare the 50 states’ public education systems with a population of about 300 million people to the tiny homogeneous city-states like Singapore (4.5 million) or Hong Kong (6.9 million).

Bracey brought to our awareness the unfairness of comparing the almost universal testing of our students, regardless of the individual’s condition, against those countries that significantly limit who gets tested in school. As we all know, the international testing field is not level.

I have enjoyed how he examined the details of the various testing programs and explained what the data from these tests might actually mean. He was always quick to make us aware of the myths that were promoted by political leaders at the federal and state levels to attack public education.

My particular favorite is what Bracey called the “Education/Economy Fallacy.” I can remember quite vividly the business literature of the 1980s extolling the virtues of the Japanese business leadership models (remember total quality management?), only to see the Japanese economy go through the normal boom/bust cycle that all free enterprise systems eventually experience.

I loved his biting comment in a recent article that “It is doubtful that the ability of 4th and 8th graders to bubble in answer sheets has any connection to the economy.” I enjoyed what seemed to be professional banter and serious, important debate with his antithesis, Chester (Checker) Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan White House and now the widely quoted president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Major Footsteps
However, Bracey never let us feel complacent, and I felt he did want public education to improve its performance. He reminded us that “education reform has a long and ignoble history of searching for magic bullets.” I think that may be why I was drawn to his writing and his public speaking. I have seen too many education reforms come and go throughout my career, and I really do understand that most of these reforms did not make a difference in student achievement. His death even caused me to pull down from the bookshelf my copy of The Manufactured Crisis and re-read his contributions to that 1995 book.

My concern at this point is that I am not aware of any author or researcher who has the same knack for reducing and explaining the technicalities of these complex testing programs to a level I can understand and digest and then present to my board of education. For those who understand standardized testing at the level that Bracey did, you have a great opportunity to become a new and important voice in this arena.

I know many education leaders across the country have this understanding of testing and assessment, but maybe they have not felt the need nor believe they have the time to write and speak out and share their insights with those of us who need your help. Now is your opportunity, and AASA has the network to make it happen.

As with all losses, there always are opportunities for growth. We will miss the writings and sharp insights of Gerald Bracey, but now we need to find the next generation of writers and researchers who will lead the way. I believe we have the talent and expertise right in our own professional organization. Let’s go, public school leaders. Make it happen!

Frederick Johnson is superintendent of the Selins-grove Area School District in Selinsgrove, Pa. E-mail: fjohnson@seal-pa.org. An earlier version of this column appeared in the PASA Flyer.