ANAR and the denial industry

Denial of hard facts and unwelcome implications runs the gamut. At its outer edge, we find a few sorely misguided folks denying that the Holocaust occurred, doubting the wickedness of Stalin, contending the greatness of Lincoln. Once upon a time, the Catholic Church denied Galileo's discovery that the planets revolve around the sun. On a modern denial cloud of their own are those who dispute evolution or the transmission of AIDS. In the privacy of our homes, we may deny increasing avoirdupois, receding hairlines, the tattered state of a favorite garment, the whiff of cigarette (or cannabis) smoke around a protesting teenager.

Denial has many origins and explanations, but its primary source is obvious: facing reality would be inconvenient, embarrassing, unpleasant, or costly (whether in money, votes, reputation, book sales, family relationships, or other metrics). So the denier insists that it isn't true or didn't happen. Sometimes that insistence is just for public consumption and personal aggrandizement--there is attention to be had and money to be made from certain kinds of denial. Often, though, the denier really believes it or manages to convince himself, too.

As we mark the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk on Saturday, most people gratefully acknowledge that epochal commission report's sounding of an overdue and much-needed alarum, pointing out to Americans a generation back that the country faced a quality crisis in its schools that would imperil our very future if we failed to take urgent steps to boost their performance and escalate the academic achievement of our young people. Other influential commentators, analysts, and panels pounded similar drums and helped to usher in an unparalleled era of education reforming--Tom Toch dubbed it "the excellence movement"--in which we still find ourselves.

But then there were--and, amazingly, still are--the deniers, those who declared that ANAR was overwrought, ill-informed, or just plain wrong. Some were social scientists asserting that the data didn't bear out the conclusions. Others were interest groups insisting that the schools had never been better and anything more that was needed to perfect them could easily be handled if we trusted the experts and dug deeper into our pocketbooks. Some were writers and speakers who swiftly saw that they could command an infinity of handsome book sales and lecture fees by reassuring educators that all was well and that dastardly critics were conspiring to weaken public education and replace it with vouchers. Several of the best known deniers were dubbed the "three B's" because their names were Berliner, Biddle, and Bracey. But they weren't alone. Their companions included, to name just two more examples, the so-called Sandia Report and any number of big-selling books by Jonathan Kozol.

Does that sound like ancient history that I need not bother to exhume? Would that it were so. But this very month, writing in the online journal Cato Unbound, none other than Richard Rothstein opted to observe ANAR's silver anniversary by declaring yet again that the Excellence Commission's 1983 diagnosis was gravely flawed and that the reformist course on which it set America "has done more harm than good." Echoing him this week was his Economic Policy Institute colleague Lawrence Mishel, who declared that ANAR's analysis was "simple, seductive--and wrong." (Sol Stern and Rick Hess also responded to Rothstein's piece.)

Observe, first, that Rothstein, a deep-dyed liberal if ever I have met one, a man who expends much time asserting that fundamental social change (e.g., income redistribution, universal health care, etc.) must precede any serious education gains, was airing his latest denials via the ultra-libertarian Cato Institute. Strange company, perhaps. Yet it echoes the odd left-right alliances that have emerged to clobber some of the more obvious reforms (e.g., national tests) that flow logically from ANAR. Overstated, the right so mistrusts government that it would rather retain weak schools than risk new interventions, especially from Washington, whilst the left is protective of interests (minority kids, teacher unions, etc.) that it judges would be harmed by higher standards, greater accountability, and such. This teaming up occasionally besets even choice-style reforms where the left is loath to disturb the public-sector monopoly while the right scorns what it views as tepid half-measures such as charter schools.

Most remarkable to me, though, isn't opposition to specific solutions but denial of the problem itself. It's not as if ANAR were alone in telling America that its education socks need to be pulled up. There's the testimony of employers, the remediation rates in colleges, TIMSS data and PISA data, NAEP data, and much more. (Even SAT scores before they got "recentered"--another instance of denial.)

Rothstein specializes in saying that achievement wasn't really declining at the time of ANAR, indeed was by some measures improving--and that even if it were flagging, fixing it wouldn't do much to strengthen the economy. Then he usually goes on to say--joined, again, from the right, this time most prominently by Charles Murray--that so much of the variation in education achievement is caused by forces beyond the reach of schools that reforming them is pretty nearly futile. In the end, as Sol Stern shrewdly points out, Rothstein contradicts himself regarding the state of education play in 1983 and the Excellence Commission's analysis.

But Rothstein's follies aren't the key issue on this anniversary. He is merely the latest (and perhaps most erudite) of ANAR's deniers. The larger point is that problems only get solved after their existence and gravity are recognized. (Ask any shrink or former alcoholic.) The biggest single reason, I believe, that America's education reform efforts of the past quarter century have yielded such meager returns is that we haven't given them our all. The biggest single reason for that is that the system itself hasn't acknowledged that a full-scale makeover is needed because it doesn't accept the fact that its shortcomings are grave. And the biggest single reason for that refusal is the continued existence of a denial industry that may be more robust and effective than the K-12 enterprise itself.

Happy anniversary indeed.

Additional perspectives on the anniversary of A Nation at Risk can be found at "‘Nation at Risk': The best thing or worst thing for education," by Greg Toppo, USA Today, April 23, 2008 and "Education Lessons We Left Behind," by George Will, Washington Post, April 24, 2008

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