In a recent analysis at the California website Capital & Main, Bill Raden reflects: “It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools. The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security. Yet three decades later, and in spite of the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening. But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place? That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.”
“What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions got it all wrong in the first place?” It is the essential question, especially this year as Congress once again considers the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act, whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a version that folded teacher bashing, punishing struggling schools instead of helping them, and privatizing schools into the law of the land. But the news is not new to researchers, who have for some time been reporting evidence that refutes such an assumption. Test-and-punish school reform, long supported by politicians, has been exhaustively questioned over the years by academic research.
Raden interviews Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara, the husband and wife directors of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Orfield tells Raden, “I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts, and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the (wealthier) kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.” Gandara adds, “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.'”
Orfield has been confronting the strategies embedded in NCLB for many years, as have other researchers at the Civil Rights Project, whose April 2009 study by Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman came to the same conclusion. In the forward to that report, Orfield wrote: “Now, as the country thinks about what to do next, it is important to focus on some fundamental design problems with the NCLB that undermine its very important goal of increasing the equity and success of American schools. The first is that it was not designed around real educational experience, nor does it utilize what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality or the possibilities and conditions necessary for reform work. Instead, NLCB is based on the dual assumptions that children are falling behind very largely because educators don’t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem so that all subgroups of children will become proficient by 2014. The second problem is that it often punishes schools that are making a positive difference for students, discouraging the staff and undermining future prospects for the school. The third is that it has a very narrow definition of education that not only diverts attention from other vital goals but also produces a strong focus on tactics that create a semblance rather than reality of success in those limited areas. The fourth is that all schools are being required to attain goals that are impossible to attain on any broad level…. At the same time, the law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools… Blaming schools and their teachers takes the pressure off political leaders (and privileged communities) to play a serious role in solving the problems in a society that tolerates a level of child poverty higher than any other nation of similar stature.”
Academic research has continued to document the trends that have been known since James Coleman conducted research in the 1960s that identified students’ poverty and segregation as challenges to academic achievement.
In Public Education Under Siege, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228) In 2013, the Southern Education Foundation documented the poverty concentration across America’s cities: “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools. Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.” Low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities. In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children also make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities. In Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Perspectives and Strategies for Challenging Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012) Thomas Timar, a professor at the University of California at Davis explains: “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education: Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty…. Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990…. Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…. In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” (p. 232) In America’s large cities many children live in extreme poverty, that is half the federal poverty line, which is around $11,925 for a family of four. Children in such circumstances are very likely to struggle at school. The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.
Standardized test scores have always served in large part as a wealth indicator. According to a chapter by Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao in Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (Oxford University Press, 2013): “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112) And from long-time education researcher David Berliner: “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives… But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”
Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income—with the rich living near each other in wealthy enclaves and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos. Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documented in 2011 research that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents. The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.
There is one exhaustive new book that connects the dots between poverty, inequality and school achievement. In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015) Robert Putnam asks: “Do K-12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse? The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them. The American public school today is as a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.” (p. 182)
In Reign of Error (Knopf, 2013), Diane Ravitch’s indictment of the education “reform” movement, she wonders why, with the enormous mountain of evidence that we must help poor children with poverty and segregation, we persist in assuming the problem can be fixed by punishing teachers: “Should we ‘fix’ poverty first or ‘fix’ schools first? It is a false choice. I have never heard anyone say that our society should ‘fix’ poverty before fixing the schools. Most thoughtful people who want to help children and families speak of doing both at the same time, or at least trying. Yet here are all these powerful people saying we should ‘fix’ the schools first, then, someday, turn our attention to poverty… The reformers’ belief that fixing schools will fix poverty has no basis in reality, experience, or evidence. It delays the steps necessary to heal our society and help children. And at the same time, it castigates and demoralizes teachers for conditions they did not cause and do not control. ” (pp. 92-98)
Once again, the Congressional debate about reauthorizing NCLB seems to be falling apart. I think this is probably a good thing. There is no agreement about reducing test-and-punish. The civil rights community, alarmed by the continuing racial achievement gap, is understandingly demanding that someone be held accountable—-through continued annual testing and disaggregated reporting, and Congress seems ready to accept that test-and-punish must continue. Congress seems at the same time poised to push for a continuation of austerity budgeting by extending the sequester that would cripple our federal government’s capacity to do anything at all about addressing poverty. While the data about what’s wrong isn’t new, there is a massive consensus among the experts about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home. That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation. What can we do to make that possible?