Gerald Bracey was a serious gadfly who believed in statistics but insisted that students could not be reduced to numbers.
A complicated man (and we mean that in a good way)
Todd Alan Price
Jerry Bracey was an icon and a friend. I “met” him during Education Week at the UW-Madison campus when he gave a sterling speech to the crowd of teachers, students, faculty, and curious onlookers gathered. We were a partisan crowd; I remember seeing critical educators in the crowd there, including Michael Apple, one of the scholars whose books drew me to Madison.
Bracey didn’t disappoint. With academic “vigor” as opposed to “rigor,” he deconstructed numbers that claimed public education was failing, and provided a glimpse at what was to come; a steady barrage and relentless rant, an educated one nonetheless, on how research and numbers can mislead, misinform and just plain lie, depending on the manipulations of those to whom the numbers and research represent ultimate truth.
Don’t misunderstand: Numbers matter, and research of the quantitative as well as the qualitative kind matters. Bracey, with credentials as a statistician, educational scientist and researcher, opinion writer for Phi Delta Kappan, prickly blogger on education reform or “deform” topics, and more recently political commentator on all things under the sun concerning the transformation of education-as-business model for the Huffington Post.
Muckraker and gadfly was he, but it is important to set this legacy straight. Jerry should rightly be understood as an excellent teacher, which is and will be, I believe, his enduring legacy.
With his “old school” approach, armed with a transparency and overhead (my colleague Karen Chin, who videotaped Bracey at a number of different venues, offered other technology applications from the 21st century but Jerry would have none of it), Jerry just methodically and effectively dissected, discerned, critiqued, analyzed, and revealed the “smoke and mirrors” of statistics that confuse and mystify and lead to false negatives, or at worst vilify teachers, students, and schools. Jerry’s defense was to suggest that when the media, perhaps the worst offender of spreading misinformation about public education, gets it wrong, they need to be called on it. What was the sample? Who is being tested and what are results? These are the usual questions offered by good researchers and good teachers, and Bracey was both.
For example, he critiqued the logic behind A Nation at Risk and more recently No Child Left Behind Act, debunking the myth that educated students cause the economy to soar. Research not surprisingly indicates that there is no discernible link. He debunked the logic of using one-size-fits-all tests to measure and find a statistically significant gap between U.S. students and those of Singapore. There is none, when, as Bracey pointed out, we compare our richest kids; they outperform everyone. So he asked the more problematic question, "If we actually compared similar samples what would we find?" How can public education be deemed failing if we educate more, better, than any other country in the world?
But his main point was that two more years of NCLB would be a “disaster.” The reader might consider researching that one.
It is appropriate to take a moment, as an academic and in solidarity with those who might rightly consider theirselves, advocates, even activists as one must be today, for public education. One of the great ones has left the battle, and it is a battle, but his rich contribution remains.
Gerald Bracey was a man who believed in the noble cause, that of equal educational opportunity. And a fierce defender of the mission of public education, that of providing the knowledge, skills and resources to lead to a better more productive and certainly more fulfilling life for our children. He might not have said it this way, but he was a numbers guy who pointed that children matter and we risk losing the entire enterprise if we reduce children to numbers.
But he believed firmly in the value of numbers. His greatest contribution is that he demonstrated time and again that numbers and statistics can be used to mislead, that the public and politicians might misread research and overgeneralize, leading to conclusions that are not warranted.
But don’t take my word for it. Do the careful research, and if you can, listen to the teachers’ own words.
Through On the Earth Productions, Karen Chin and I documented Jerry on several occasions. Here and here are links to two of our favorite presentations of his.
October 27, 2009
post a letter about this article »
read letters on this article (0)
Todd Price is a professor of education in the National College of Education at National-Louis University in Chicago, a partner in On the Earth Productions, and a former candidate for Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction.