We have endured 30 years of lies, half-truths, and myths. Bruce Biddle and I debunked many of these untruths in our book, The Manufactured Crisis, in 1995. But more falsehoods continue to surface all the time. The most recent nonsense was "U. S. Education Reform and National Security," a report presented to us last year by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice. A Nation at Risk had us losing the political and economic races to the Soviet Union and Japan. Did we? No. Our economy took off, the Soviet political system collapsed, and Japan's economy has retreated for two decades. So much for the predictions of A Nation at Risk.
David C. Berliner
The newest version of this genre by Klein/Rice has us losing the military and economic races to China and others. But this odd couple seems to forget that militarily we spend more than Turkey, China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, Australia, and Canada combined. If we are in any danger now, or in the foreseeable future, we must have the most incompetent military in the world.
As for economic subjugation? Not likely. The Chinese are still stealing our patents. They still manufacture things for us. More important, they still have around 300 million of their population in remarkably deep poverty and millions more in near-poverty. They need to bring a population about the same size as the United States out of poverty. They must provide enough food, drinkable water, clean energy, breathable air, and employment for an urban population that is expected to reach nearly 1 billion people in coming decades.
Will China be competing with us, or will they be so deeply involved in trying to satisfy these pressing internal needs that we are of only secondary concern to them? None of us is smart enough to know, but Klein/Rice, like the authors of A Nation at Risk, like to create devils. Be afraid! Be very afraid! Then, as part of the exorcism, these writers promote destroying the evil public schools, which then brings to us a new age of national success though vouchers, charters, tax credits, and online schooling. What a crock.
These critics never blame our economic woes on, say, Jack Welch, America's most admired CEO. Welch is quoted as saying he wishes he could put every factory GE had on a barge and tow it to wherever in the world labor was cheapest. Could such leadership affect our economic problems? None of these school critics ever blame GE for the neglected neighborhoods and family poverty that hampers success in many of our schools. Yet it has been reported that GE, led by patriots like Welch, earned profits of more than $14.2 billion in 2010, and paid no federal taxes that year. In addition, GE received $3.2 billion in tax benefits that year. (GE disputes such reporting.) Is it possible that the health of our economy and military are related to factors like these? Nah, blame the schools. In A Nation at Risk and the Klein/Rice report, it is not Welch and his ilk that endanger the United States, it is our teachers and their unions; it is lazy parents and incompetent administrators.
Condoleezza Rice must be quite trustworthy as an educational critic since I once read a column of hers titled "Why We Know Iraq is Lying." Joel Klein is a trustworthy critic since he gained experience failing to help the New York City schools improve, and was linked in the press to what some people regard as educational fraud. He now works at a for profit educational company.
And Bill Bennett, who promoted A Nation at Risk and was first author on "A Nation Still at Risk," is also not to be taken seriously. He made a lot of money from speeches that promoted morality and attacked the public schools. But at the same time he was losing money gambling, and went into the "for profit" ed business. So Bennett and Klein gain much by badmouthing public schools and promoting privatization plans.
Frankly, it looks to me like our nation is more at risk from critics like these than it is from the hard-working teachers and administrators trying to help poor kids and their families get ahead in a nation that is increasingly stacking the deck against the poor. It really is not an achievement gap between the United States and other nations that is our problem. We actually do quite well for a large and a diverse nation. It's really the opportunity gap, not the achievement gap that could destroy us. If only the wealthy have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a post-industrial economy we are, indeed, a nation at risk.
David C. Berliner is Regents' Professor Emeritus at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University. His interests are in the study of teaching and general educational policy. He is the author, with Bruce J. Biddle, of The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools.