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Blog: The purported failure of America’s schools, and ways to make them better by David C. Berliner

Thursday, March 2, 2017

For many years I have been writing about the lies told about the poor performance of our students and the failure of our schools and teachers. Journalists and politicians are often our nations’ most irritating commentators about the state of American education because they have access to the same facts that I have. They all can easily learn that the international tests (e. g. PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS), the national tests (e. g. NAEP), the college entrance tests (e. g. SAT, ACT), and each of the individual state tests follow an identical pattern. It is this: As income increases per family from our poorest families (under the 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained.

Similarly, as the families served by a school increase in wealth from the lowest quartile in family wealth to the highest quartile in family wealth, the mean scores of all the students at those schools goes up quite substantially. Thus, characteristics of the cohort attending a school strongly influence the scores obtained by the students at that school.

For example, on the mathematics portion of the 2012  Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to test, poor students (among those from lowest quartile in family income), who attended schools that served the poorest families (a school in the highest quartile of those receiving free and reduced lunch), attained a mean score of 425. But wealthy students (in the highest quartile of family income), who attended schools that served the wealthiest families (schools in the lowest quartile of students receiving free and reduced lunch), scored a mean of 528. That’s a one-hundred point difference!

Since US scores on PISA were stable from 2012 to 2015, we can also use these scores from 2012 to approximate where wealthy and poor American students rank on the latest administration of PISA. On the 2015 mathematics scale, the difference between scores of 528 and 425 is the difference between our nation being ranked about 7th in the world, or being ranked about 50th!

So what does this teach us? We learn that in the US, wealthy children attending public schools that serve the wealthy are competitive with any nation in the world. Since that is the case why would anyone think our public schools are failing?

When compared to other nations some of our students and some of our public schools are not doing well. But having “some” failures is quite a different claim than one indicting our entire public school system. Furthermore, in the schools in which low-income students do not achieve well, we find the common correlates of poverty: low birth weight in the neighborhood, higher than average rates of teen and single parenthood, residential mobility, absenteeism, crime, and students in need of special education or English language instruction. These problems of poverty influence education and are magnified by housing policies that foster segregation. Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste. The wealthy have cordoned off their wealth. They hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do so, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, “Local Control!” The result, by design, is schools segregated by social class, and that also means segregation by race and ethnicity. We have created an apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education.

So “fixing” the schools, about which so many of our editorialists and political leaders talk, needs deeper thinking than a knee-jerk reaction to our mean score on any international test. That mean score hides the diversity of our scores by social class and housing tract, and easily misleads us about what solutions might exist. When our leaders say teachers are not good, we need to point out to them how well some of our students are doing, and that a recent Mathematica report for the U.S. Department of Education states that the quality of teachers working in low-income schools is about the same as the quality of teachers working in high income schools. So blaming teachers won’t fix schools that need fixing!

Likewise, some think our terrible curriculum was to blame for the low mean performance of our students. Thus, in recent years, those critics created the “rigorous” Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Yet with that allegedly lousy curriculum, wealthy children in public schools that serve wealthy families were easily competitive with the highest scoring nations in the world. In each state, higher income students use essentially the same curriculum as lower income students. But the higher income students succeeded admirably. So how then can the curriculum be bad? Blaming the curriculum for our purported failures is as illogical as blaming the teachers.

What might work to produce higher achievement for low-income children attending schools that serve low-income families? High quality early childhood experiences; summer school to address summer loss; parent education programs to build skills needed in school; parent housing vouchers to reduce mobility; after school programs such as sports, chess clubs, and robotics; a full array of AP courses; school counselors and school nurses at the ratios their professions recommend; professional development for teachers and establishment of school cultures of professionalism; pay for teachers at parity with what others at similar educational levels receive; and so forth.

Of course, this will all cost money. But most of what is expended by the state will be returned in the form of taxes paid by a higher-skilled work force, lower rates of special education and incarceration, lower health care costs, and other positive economic outcomes associated with the programs I just listed.

What I have suggested for ameliorating the low performance of low-income children, on all our assessments, are characteristics of child-rearing and schooling now present in wealthier communities. Perhaps, then, we should rely on John Dewey to help low-income students succeed, instead of putting our faith in vouchers, charters, test preparation, teacher accountability and the like. To paraphrase just a little, Dewey said: “What the best and wisest (among the wealthiest) parents want for their children, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

Author Biography

DAVID C. BERLINER, Regents’ Professor of Education Emeritus at Arizona State University, has also taught at many other universities at home and abroad. He is a member of the National Academy of Education, the International Academy of Education, and a past president of both the American Educational Research Association and the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association. He has won numerous awards for his work on behalf of the education profession, and authored or co-authored over 400 articles, chapters and books. Among his best known works are the six editions of the text Educational Psychology, co-authored with N. L. Gage; The Manufactured Crisis, co-authored with B. J. Biddle; Collateral Damage: How high-Stakes Testing Corrupts American Education, co-authored with Sharon Nichols; and 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, co-authored with Gene V Glass. He co-edited the first Handbook of Educational Psychology and the books Talks to Teachers, Perspectives on Instructional Time, and Putting Research to Work in Your School.  He has interest in the study of teaching, teacher education, and educational policy.