Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sad news about Jerry Bracey.

Hours after starting my blog, I heard from Jerry Bracey. If you are an education reporter at any sizable media outlet and never heard from Jerry Bracey, I am surprised. He dedicated himself to correcting, not always politely, what he saw as misinformation in education research and journalism. As a frequent recipient of his long analyses, let me tell you, he found misinformation everywhere.

News is flying through the lefty education world that Jerry has passed away. Susan Ohanian spoke with a friend who talked with his wife yesterday, who said he died in his sleep at his home in Port Townsend, Washington. (It goes against everything I learned in a decade at the Washington Post to type this without knowing more.) I can tell you he went to bed late, as his rant to me—about a piece on teachers in the L.A. Times—was mailed at 2:20 a.m. Typical Bracey.

I didn’t always agree with Jerry. I didn’t always understand Jerry. But I always appreciated his passion and his attempts to get journalists to think critically—and back himself up with data.


  1. Sad to hear the news. I didn't always read to the end of Jerry Bracey's e-mails, but in my view his general position on standardized testing has held true through various changes in the current...And I admired his passion.

  2. Coming to education from another field, I had no idea who Gerald Bracey was until I read him in Kappan. But his work blew me away. I got my start in blogging through his EDDRA. Sunday night I gave Jerry a heads up that he'd be mentioned irreverantly in my Monday post he he responded "It's 'irreverently' which is better than irrelevantly and as long as the name is spelled right...."

    Wouldn't it be nice if facts were different regarding recent issues, so that Jerry wasn't right so much?

    On the other hand, he was very clear about what educators were doing right. And he embodied so much that was wonderful about educational research, education in general, and our democratic culture that has spawned so much excellence. And the same should be said about his humor.

  3. I have friends, respected friends, who called Jerry crazy. And he certainly was an original.
    But crazy? Perhaps. Crazy like a fox. Izzy Stone crazy.
    Did his ideological lens ever filter rational observation? Yes, of course.
    But his passionate perspectives challenged conventional wisdom and group think and made our responses to his challenge, in agreement or disagreement, clearer. Stronger.
    May others be inspired by Jerry's commitment to announcing that the Emperor is indeed naked, and may they grab his fallen megaphone and shout the truth, as they see it, from the rooftops.

  4. I have a question, in Jerry Bracey's memory. There's probably quiet shared consensus even among those who agree with Jerry that he was maybe a bit too strong in his denunciation of sloppy and clueless education reporting and that it may have reduced his effectiveness.

    But what IS an effective way to respond to sloppy and clueless education reporting? (Obviously I realize that my choice of adjectives is provocative -- also in Jerry's memory.)

    In Jay Mathews' obit for Jerry Bracey, Jay describes a classic example that set Jerry off: "His prominence increased in 1990 when he reacted angrily to a column by The Post's Richard Cohen decrying a national decline in SAT scores, which Mr. Bracey knew had been caused not by bad schools but more women and minorities taking the test."

    Well, the kind of misreporting and misplaced, misleading analysis that Cohen was guilty of goes on constantly. I could send you example after example (and happily will, if you like)! Jerry's pointing it out seems to have had little impact in getting reporters to make an effort to grasp confounding factors, to question whether correlation equals causation, and the like -- or it hasn't had ENOUGH impact. When we readers/critics see this kind of journalism, what can we do not to just tell the reporter "you screwed up," but also to change journalism for the better so this kind of lapse doesn't keep happening?

  5. Oh, and also, just in my locale, two former education reporters for struggling newspapers* have career-changed into the mightily funded charter school business. Doesn't this potentially compromise all reporting on charter schools, and if not, now does it not?

    OK, I'll shut up and go away now -- have to go do some volunteer work at my kids' urban public school anyway;!

    *Jonathan Schorr, formerly of the Oakland Tribune, and Nick Driver, formerly of the post-Hearst San Francisco Examiner.

  6. Are you suggesting that if any journalist goes to work for an organization related to what they once covered, all reporting on that topic (by anyone? anywhere?) is compromised?

  7. Well, it's a tough one. The newspaper business is struggling, to put it mildly. No jobs in newspapers are stable or secure. The charter school business currently is rolling in money -- though IMHO not forever, since it will eventually become evident that it's not a miracle cure after all and those private funders will find some other cause.

    But currently, the charter business is a source of lucrative jobs. Reporters who write favorably about charters may be in line for those jobs; reporters who ask tough questions or expose the problem charters presumably won't be. That situation DOES pose ethical questions, doesn't it?

    I wouldn't necessarily see this if it were theoretical, but as I say, two reporters, just in MY locale, where all the newspapers are on the bring of collapse and all newspaper journalists are running seriously scared. You don't think? (OK, now I'm really done.)

  8. Linda, I followed Jerry's work for the past few years and found his work to be a moderate perspective. His bias was one of academic reason. It was certainly not a radical left position. The advocacy research of conservative and privatization bodies pushed him toward the margin.

    As a teacher of second graders, I introduced author's purpose as a reading comprehension strategy. Certainly this is a stretch for seven year olds, but it is a California standard and required instruction. So, my suggestion is that reporters use this reading strategy to identify the source of research and the likely purpose of the research.

    Journalists could broaden public understanding by distinguishing between peer-reviewed and advocacy research. Journalists could state the biases of an advocacy group, when its reports are published. Sure, at times reporters do this. Unfortunately this critical information is typically absent.