The Manufactured Crisis Critique Essay

Lawrence C. Stedman


In a provocative new book, The Manufactured Crisis, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle make four sweeping claims about U.S. achievement: there never was a test score decline, today's students are "out-achieving their parents substantially" (p. 33), U.S. students "stack up very well" in international assessments (p. 63), and the general education crisis is a right-wing fabrication. As a progressive, I'm sympathetic to their concerns, but as a scholar who specializes in this material, I find their analysis deeply flawed and misleading. They mischaracterize the test score decline data, mishandle the international findings, and fail to acknowledge students' continuing low levels of academic achievement.


Book Review, Academic Achievement; Achievement Gains; Achievement Tests; Conservatism; Educational History, Educational Trends, Elementary and Secondary Education; International Education, International Studies; Performance Factors; Political Attitudes

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 A passionate defense of our public school system against attacks propagated by budget-slashing conservatives. Education psychologist Berliner (Univ. of Arizona) and Biddle (director of the Center for Research in Social Behavior, Univ. of Missouri) contend that the attack on American schools in the past decade is largely an unwarranted and ``Manufactured Crisis.'' It began when the ``mother of all critiques,'' 1983's A Nation at Risk, was released. Sponsored by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell and endorsed by President Reagan, the report contends that our nation is losing its leadership in science, commerce, and industry as a result of inept educators and inadequacies in teaching programs. Embraced by private school voucher advocates of the right wing, this report is riddled by myths and fraud, according to Berliner and Biddle. The report and its aftermath served to ``scapegoat educators as a way of diverting attention from America's deepening social problems.'' Among the charges that cannot be supported, for example, is the claim that student achievement in American schools has recently declined. Berliner and Biddle explode this myth with detailed analysis of SAT scores and other tests that, they conclude, indicate modest gains in student knowledge and suggest that the nation's academic achievement is now more evenly distributed. While emphatic in their defense of public education, the authors can be rather radical in their proposals for strengthening it. Their vision includes an end to tracking students by abilityand even by age. They would also like to see alternative means of evaluating student performance. Student portfolios, for example, should replace standardized tests. The authors would also like to bring additional funds to bear to counter the ``savage inequalities'' that doom poor school districts to the weakest, tax- based funding. A gutsy, cogent, and well-documented book that both defends public education and offers ways to improve it.


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