Conceding Success

Works Discussed in this Essay:

David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud and the Attack on America's Public Schools (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995).

Gerald W. Bracey, "The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," published each October since 1991 in Phi Delta Kappan.

Gerald W. Bracey, Final Exam: A Study of the Perpetual Scrutiny of American Public Schools (TECHNOS Press, 1995).

Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (Viking, 1995).

Samuel G. Freedman, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School (Harper and Row, 1990).

David W. Grissmer, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, Mark Berends, and Stephanie Williamson, Student Achievement and the Changing American Family (RAND, 1994).

Leonie Haimson, and Billy Goodman, eds., A Moment of Truth: Correcting Scientific Errors in Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth (Environmental Defense Fund, 1995).

Christopher Jencks and Susan E. Mayer, Do Official Poverty Rates Provide Useful Information About Trends in Children's Economic Welfare? (North western University Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, 1996).

Tracy Kidder, Among Schoolchildren (Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

Susan Mayer and Christopher Jencks, "War on Poverty: No Apologies, Please" (New York Times, November 9, 1995).

Mike Rose, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1995).

Robert J. Samuelson, The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995 (Times Books, 1995).

Jacob Weisberg, In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust (Scribner, 1996).

Saul Alinsky, Machiavelli of the American left, preached in Rules for Radicals that activists must "rub raw the resentments of the people," awaken dissatisfaction, and "fan latent hostilities." But they also must show change is possible, that "a concrete way of doing it has already proven its effectiveness." Without pride in prior victories, Alinsky insisted, people rarely have the self-confidence to tackle bigger problems. With hostilities fanned without memories of successful reforms, rhetoric escalates to exclude action and reformers become irrelevant.

Alinsky expected community fights for easily winnable reforms (like demanding regular trash pickups) to build popular confidence and lead inexorably to ending war and poverty. But Alinsky's disciples became so obsessed with small successes, they lost the ability to fan bigger hostilities. Today's progressives, on the other hand, may make an opposite blunder: Focused so exclusively on the severity of our problems, we give Americans little pride in past victories and thus little confidence we can achieve new ones.

Americans are now broadly skeptical about the efficacy of government action. A mean-spirited welfare reform tore the safety net last summer because most Americans believed antipoverty programs only made problems worse. While Americans are not so explicitly willing to roll back existing environmental protections, "regulation" itself now has a bad name: New initiatives confront widespread feelings that rules are excessively bureaucratic and destroy jobs. There is substantial momentum behind moves to privatize public education because the schools are perceived failures, with students doing more poorly than before.

Bob Dole may be the most optimistic man in America, but we liberals apparently know better: America is going to hell in a handbasket, which is why voters should trust the left to enact new government programs to fix things. But most of life's glasses are half-full as well as half-empty. Many problems remain unaddressed, but public programs-the fruits of liberal advocacy-have also made this country, and the world, a better place. Might not liberals be more successful if we spent more time bragging about what a good job's been done, and less complaining about how much is left to do?

Gregg Easterbrook thinks so. Easter brook calls himself an environmentalist, but his book A Moment on the Earth enraged environmental advocacy groups when it was published last year because of his charge that they sacrifice credibility by downplaying environmental progress of the last quarter century, accomplished through government regulation.

The air now has less smog (Los Angeles had 148 air-quality warning days in 1988, and only 42 in 1992); water is cleaner (even Boston Harbor now offers safe fishing and swimming); acid rain has been reduced (the Clean Air Act cut sulfur emissions permanently in half); species have been protected (banning the pesticide DDT meant the bald eagle is no longer "endangered," while falcons now live on Manhattan skyscrapers and hunt pigeons in Central Park); forest land has been reclaimed (the U.S. now has 728 million forest acres, up from 600 million in 1920); chlorofluorocarbons have been banned (the United Nation's ozone panel predicts the stratosphere will return to normal by the year 2040). These happened only because environmentalists won campaigns for government regulation.

Yet, as Easterbrook claims, many environmentalists take no credit for these remarkable, even revolutionary successes. Instead, the most vocal groups only attack government because pollution standards are too weak, regulators compromise with industry, development continues to threaten species, pesticide phaseouts aren't quick enough, and so on. The result is a dwindling constituency for new environmental regulation; it's understandably difficult to win support for regulatory agencies when their own backers speak only of how compromised they are.

Easterbrook also criticizes a related sin, exaggeration of ecological dangers to scare the public into supporting regulation. There is little dispute concerning many of his examples-alar on apples turned out to be harmless; the dioxin-inspired 1983 evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri, was a needless overreaction; exorbitantly expensive removals of asbestos from schools have stirred more fibers into the air than leaving the asbestos sealed in walls would have done. Others of his claims, more controversial, inspired bitter attacks; the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) issued a 52-page critique of Easterbrook's "extreme naiveté concerning the workings of physical processes and natural ecosystems."

No layperson can resolve these disputes about Easterbrook's scientific accuracy: Easterbrook said that environmentalists overstate the danger of northwest logging to spotted owls because spotted owls still flourish in California; EDF said the California owls are a different subspecies. Easter brook said that expanding glaciers in Greenland suggest global warming may not be as certain as environmentalists project; EDF said the "dynamic role of the oceans" suppresses North Atlantic warming.

But whether Easter brook was right or wrong about some scientific details, it would be foolish to lose sight of his political argument: Environmentalism is suicidal when it fails to promote its own successes. The public is not too simpleminded to support regulation without pressure of exaggerated doomsday warnings. He called on environmentalist organizations to abandon negativism and cranky complaints in favor of optimism and pride in the better world liberal initiatives have created. "On environmental affairs," Easterbrook concluded, "public investments yield significant benefits within the lifetimes of the people who make the investment. The first round of environmental investments did not fail; they worked, which is a great reason to have more."

Easterbrook's editor should have cut at least half the book; after its persuasive "ecorealism," the book degenerates into idiosyncratic New Age nature worship. At 700 pages, it's much too long to win the readership it deserves. But Easterbrook himself illustrates how perverse liberal ideology can become. He lauds the "extraordinary success of modern environmental protection" as "the best instance of government-led social progress in our age," and contrasts this with "vexing policy areas" like public education, where he finds it "difficult to imagine where solutions reside."

But like most Americans, Easterbrook was unaware that liberals' promotion of more school funding has meant that school outcomes have, since the mid-1970s, pretty consistently climbed. An emphasis on compensatory education and similar reforms has caused test scores and educational attainment for minority students especially to jump. Environmental "revisionism" finds a parallel in educational revisionism as well.

In professional education journals, Gerald Bracey, a former school district and National Education Association (NEA) official, has almost single-handedly been beating this revisionist drum for a decade. He has noted a rise in test scores of all kinds (including the Scholastic Aptitude Test, whose nominal fall he correctly attributes to an expansion of the pool of test takers, as a larger proportion of the high school graduating class aspires to attend colleges that require the SAT), and he's called attention to the unreliability of data used to make unfavorable international comparisons of American student achievement.

For example, liberal critics of American education (like Albert Shanker, in his weekly columns that run as paid advertisements in the New Republic and New York Times) often cite studies by Michigan sociologists Harold Stev enson and James Stigler showing that American students achieve less than Japanese or Chinese counterparts. Bracey noticed, however, that student samples for these data were unrepresentative of their respective nations. Students surveyed in Chicago, for example, were 39 percent minority (and 20 percent didn't speak English at home), while a Chinese comparison group had parents with average educations of 11 years-this in the 1980s in a nation whose goal is to universalize ninth-grade education by the year 2000. Bracey also claims that unfavorable comparisons of American students may be attributable to this nation's greater demographic variability. While U.S. students score low on international math tests, for example, students from economically advantaged urban areas score at the top with Taiwan and Korea, while students from Mississippi rank at the bottom with Jordan. Without disaggregating the Taiwanese or Korean samples into sub-populations, we can't know how important this insight might be, but it certainly cautions against typical conclusions about the inferiority of American schools.

Bracey's prolific defenses of American education are featured in an annual "Bracey Report" in the professional education journal, Phi Delta Kappan, and in his recent Final Exam, issued by an obscure technical publisher. He deserves wider exposure.

Getting better distribution is a 1995 book by educational psychologists David Berliner and Bruce Biddle. Berliner and Biddle cover much the same "revisionist" ground as Bracey, with better graphs and additional information. They describe, for example, New Zealand psychologist James Flynn's documentation of an approximate 15-point increase in mean IQ scores in all industrial nations, including the U.S., an increase too great to be attributed to better genetic selection and therefore almost certainly at least partly a product of better schools. They publicize findings that, contrary to popular myth, schools don't produce a workforce with inadequate skills and, on the contrary, that Ame rica's educational institutions continue to produce more than enough scientists and engineers (plus many technical workers with associate degrees from junior colleges). Berliner and Biddle summarize research by Princeton economists David Card and Alan Krueger showing that when educational outcomes are measured by subsequent earnings, not test scores, earnings are highest for those who attended schools in states with lower pupil-teacher ratios and better-paid teachers.

But the impact of Berliner and Biddle's book will be limited by its conspiratorial tone-their title, The Manufactured Crisis, refers to their reckless proposition that conventional analysis of school failure was consciously cooked up by a cabal of corporate interests, neoconservative ideologues, and Reagan administration officials who, knowing it to be false, created a myth to justify privatizing the schools and denying equal opportunity to minorities. While it's possible such ideological motives were at play, the Berliner-Biddle slant assures that an otherwise excellent book is unlikely to influence a broad public. But Berliner and Biddle's documentation of school success is impressive, and it has done wonders for the morale of professional educators-The Manufactured Crisis won "book of the year" honors last April from the American Educational Research Association.

Popular literature providing evidence that schools perform well has previously been available to counter the dominant schools-are-failing view. But before Bracey and Berliner and Biddle, the available literature was anecdotal and ethnographic. Dedicated teachers can be appealing book subjects, and three books in recent years reported classroom observations in the most challenging of circumstances, making impressive indirect cases for public education. Samuel Freedman's Small Victories, Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren, and Mike Rose's Possible Lives amply illustrated the real public school accomplishments that Bracey and Berliner and Biddle report.

Impressive original research relating to school effects is also accessible, though rarely publicized to a popular audience. Two years ago, for example, RAND's David Grissmer and his colleagues analyzed tests given to adolescents in 1980 and in 1988. Test takers had been surveyed about family income, number of parents at home, number of siblings, and parental education levels, as well as race and ethnicity. RAND was able to confirm what researchers have known for 25 years: Students from poorer families, or whose parents were less educated, scored lower than students who came from more fortunate backgrounds; students' social and economic characteristics predict academic success more accurately than other factors do.


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But then Grissmer did something quite creative by taking into account the great changes in students' family situations since 1970. Utilizing known relationships between scores and student backgrounds, he examined the National Assessment of Educa tional Progress (our only nationally representative student test) and calculated what NAEP scores would have been if students who took it in 1970 had family characteristics of 1990 students. There were two surprising results.

First, most people would expect this exercise to provide excuses for lagging school performance. After all, today there's apparently more poverty and more single-parent families. But Grissmer found that when he pretended 1970 students had 1990 characteristics, their scores jumped. In other words, when he "predicted" 1990 scores from their scores in 1970, he found that they had risen because parental education levels increased in the last generation and family size decreased. (In 1970, for example, 36 percent of all black adults had completed high school; by 1990, it was up to 69 percent.) This makes some sense: More parental education means children get more academic support at home; smaller family size means they get more parental attention. These factors, which produce higher scores, improved more than enough to cancel negative influences of greater measured poverty. So changing family characteristics should have produced higher scores in 1990, without schools having to do anything different.

The real surprise, however, came next: Grissmer looked at actual 1990 NAEP scores, to determine what part of the change from 1970 to 1990 was due to changes in students' family characteristics and what part was due to other factors-like changes in school effectiveness. He discovered that, again contrary to common belief, test scores for white students rose in this 20-year period just as his demographic theory predicted they should. More important, however, he found that black students' reading and math scores improved by more than twice what demographic factors can explain. For all minority students, math test scores jumped 3 times as much as demographic changes alone lead us to expect-a rather impressive jump.

In the last generation, funding for compensatory and bilingual education programs has grown faster than funding for regular education. Could this have caused the results RAND documented? We can't know for sure, though it's a fair guess. If so, it's a good reason to argue for further expansion of these programs to raise scores even more-a better reason than sky-is-falling handwringing about school failures.

Liberal revisionism in environmental and educational advocacy, with pride in what's been accomplished, has parallels in social welfare research as well. Christopher Jencks and Susan Mayer, among others, have for a decade written academic papers and op-ed articles claiming that the War on Poverty was more successful than we're wont to credit: Poverty, they say, is not increasing in America, even for children. This iconoclastic view is feared by welfare advocates, because it could lead to the conclusion that we don't need to address the poverty that remains. But the accepted notion that poverty is intensifying has reinforced Charles Murray's conservative claim that all attempts to address it have not only failed, but also exacerbated deprivation and dependency. When there came an opportunity to reform welfare last summer, existing programs had few defenders on left or right. Most accepted that the welfare system had made things worse.

But maybe it hadn't. The conventional view is that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) has created a culture of dependency in which more single mothers don't work and thus more children suffer. Liberals generally consider this a good reason to increase the safety net (more child care, food stamps, and public service jobs) while conservatives see confirmation of the corruption of the entire system. But in a new academic paper, Jencks and Mayer assert that the widely reported increase in child poverty from 1970 to 1990 is based on statistical errors and (they wouldn't use this word) stacked assumptions. For example, Census poverty data count only incomes of related family members, not households; so an unmarried couple's children are counted as poor based on the mother's income alone, though the father's (or mother's companion's) income may contribute to the household's standard of living. Changes in family relationships make this an increasingly significant factor. Also, such public benefits as Medicaid, food stamps, and rent subsidies have improved children's well-being, though the substantial monetary value of these benefits is not counted as "income" in computing alleged increases in poverty. "Using assumptions at least as plausible as those embodied in the official poverty measure," Jencks and Mayer conclude, "we can show that child poverty declined by 5 points between 1969 and 1989 rather than rising by 5 points." In a New York Times op-ed last year, they noted: "When we look at the overall antipoverty effort, the bottom line looks quite good. Medicaid, food stamps, rent subsidies and SSI all did what they were meant to do. . . . AFDC . . . survived . . . because it was cheaper than any politically acceptable alternative. This is not a record for which liberal politicians need apologize. Nor is it evidence that government spending does not work."

Jacob Weisberg's In Defense of Government tries to weave a neoliberal's middle ground between revisionists who argue that public programs have been successful enough to justify reinforcing them and traditional liberals who believe doomsday pronouncements are the best means of awakening concern. Weisberg fears that even the limited government activism he advocates won't survive a refusal to give government credit where it's due. He bemoans liberals' failure to brag about some successes - like Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security, and even the generally despised community action programs of the War on Poverty, which he argues helped to develop a black professional class.

Weisberg partly attributes the low esteem in which even these successful government programs find themselves to "overpromising" results even perfect programs couldn't possibly achieve: When Lyndon Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" to assure every American a decent home (among other benefits), LBJ guaranteed his effort would ultimately be judged a failure-and inspire a counterrevolution-no matter how substantial the results. Or consider the declaration of Senator Edmund Muskie, original sponsor of the Clean Air Act, that his legislation would assure "that all Americans in all parts of the country shall have clean air to breathe" in a few years. "Only against that absolutist standard can our efforts to control air pollution be judged a failure," Weisberg notes: Lowering the bar to increase the likelihood of successful verdicts on government programs is needed before support can be built for future efforts.

But Weisberg accepts conventional critiques of the public sector too easily, establishing his moderate bona fides by embracing common antigovernment mantras. He claims "overwhelming evidence" that AFDC traps "an underclass in poverty," where such evidence is more like "underwhelming." He's hung up on the alleged inefficiency of government employees, and so makes an odd argument that breaking public employee unions is a precondition for revived government activism. In fact, while there is considerable room for reform in how public-sector unions function, there's little evidence that government is less efficient than the private sector. Much of the perceived decline in public-sector efficiency is attributable to the greater labor intensivity of the public sector, and thus government's inability to realize the magnitude of productivity improvements that technology brings to manufacturing.

Still, Weisberg's book could help resuscitate enthusiasm for public action. Ironically, so too could some recent works of writers normally thought "conservative." If most liberals are caught in the conundrum of denying glasses are half-full, their counterparts are conservatives who deny they're half-empty, concluding that therefore we've already done enough. But the argument can easily be turned around.

Robert Samuelson, for instance, the Newsweek and Washington Post columnist, last year published The Good Life and Its Discontents, a critique of the "entitlement society" and the notion that appropriate government action could permanently avoid recessions, meet every interest group's ever-increasing goals, and abolish poverty, discrimination, and even disease. His is a call for lowered expectations, balanced budgets, reduced Social Security for the aged, and the need for choices between ever-competing economic priorities. But underlying Samuelson's conclusions is a much more optimistic view of government action than many liberals embrace. It also has more activist implications than Samuelson himself, at his most strident points, can acknowledge.

Much of Samuelson's argument is irrefutable: "choices force us to select among things that are inconsistent"; we've "not adequately distinguished among problems that are genuinely soluble, those that aren't, and those that aren't worth the effort." But on the way to demolition of liberals' demands for perfection, he's forced to insist that we've solved a lot more problems than perfectionists can admit:

Americans now receive more health care than ever, much of it paid by employer-provided or government health insurance. . . . Americans enjoy cleaner air and water than a few decades ago and safer working conditions. . . . Even the poor generally live better. . . . In the United States today, things are much better than they seem or are routinely portrayed. . . . The outlawing of racial and sexual discrimination has been profoundly liberating. . . .

"Yet we fixate on societal flaws," Samuelson continues.

What has consistently been missing is a sense of proportion. . . . We are ill served by either excessive optimism or excessive pessimism. The first regularly leads us into romantic schemes that are doomed to failure, while the second may condemn us to hopelessness and continued paralysis.

This is no unambiguous conservative tract. Samuelson's premise could more easily support the conclusion that since our record of solving social problems is so good, let's focus on doing more of the same; correction is needed more in our expectations than in our practice.

We certainly face daunting problems. There is the prospect of environmental catastrophe as the developing world industrializes and First World consumption increases. Inequa lity is growing in the First and Third Worlds alike, real incomes seem to have stagnated, and for many-perhaps even most-they've declined from postwar peaks. Our public schools fail large numbers of children and don't prepare them for skilled jobs and fulfilling lives.

But we'll never address these problems, much less solve them, if we fail to acknowledge and build on past successes. If, despite 30 years of environmental politics, things only get steadily worse, what hope is there of heading off disaster? If, after pouring more and more money into our public schools, we still can't do any better, why should we believe we can suddenly make a difference? The reality is that we can't, unless the premises are false. They are, and a revisionist interpretation, drawing on both liberal and conservative critics, can help build a foundation for a new progressive activism.

Bob Dole may be right that optimists look to the past. But while he looks with fondness on a time when life was palpably worse for the majority of Americans, progressives should look to the past to gain sustenance from memories of fights well-fought. Sure, we should rub raw resentments about unsolved problems, but not without remembering the skills we've learned from competently fixing many others.

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