What’s Wrong with America’s Schools? David Berliner Blames America’s Failure to Eradicate Child Poverty

Despite lots of evidence about why we shouldn’t use test scores as a measure of school quality, for nearly twenty years, government programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have taught people to judge public schools by their standardized test scores. Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an in-depth reflection by David Berliner on what standardized test scores really measure. David Berliner is an expert, a Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association, and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State.

Berliner is blunt in his analysis: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.”  (Emphasis in the original.)

Many of the greatest in-school factors that affect test scores, Berliner believes, are in the drastic funding cuts across the states that last spring’s walkouts by teachers brought to our attention: “Yes, of course, there are in-school problems that need fixing, such as the re-employment of all the social workers, nurses, counselors and school psychologists lost after the recession of 2008.  While all these people are important staff at their schools, we should remember that their skills are particularly needed because of all the problems I just mentioned above.”

The concentration of poverty in particular schools concerns Berliner: “So many of these problems of American education have their start in the tracking of American’s children—but not necessarily by their schools! Our children are tracked into different neighborhoods on the basis of their family’s income, ethnicity, and race. This is where our school problems begin. We seem blind to the fact that housing policies that promote that kind of segregation are educational policies, as well.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids. And throughout rural America there is almost always a ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ neighborhood, or a trailer park area, in which poorer people are expected to live.  And kids in these neighborhoods generally go to schools with the other kids from those neighborhoods.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Berliner emphasizes that teachers are not the key variable causing disparate test scores across schools: “We can demonstrate that fact… by going to America’s heartland, Nebraska.  In a recent year, the poverty rate in a middle school in the Elkhorn school district, near Omaha, was under 3 percent.  In that same year the poverty rate in a middle school in the nearby city of Omaha was about 90 percent.  If you determined the poverty rate for every middle school and correlated that with their achievement scores in reading on the Nebraska State Accountability system (NeSA), you would find that they correlate: -.92. This is an almost perfect prediction!  The higher the poverty rate, the lower the scores… What we are left to wonder about from Nebraska’s data is this: Do all the good teachers and administrators in Nebraska work in the Elkhorn district?  Similarly, we must wonder if all the bad teachers and administrators work in Omaha’s poorest schools. I don’t think so!  It is much more likely to be family income, and all that correlates with income, that determines the standardized achievement test scores in Nebraska and elsewhere.”

Berliner believes test scores are not an accurate measure of school quality and, therefore, not an accurate yardstick by which policy makers should be identifying schools that should be punished because their scores don’t rise.  Punishments imposed these days on schools with low test scores include: ranking and rating schools and publishing the ratings in the newspapers, closing schools, and charterizing schools.  His own state, Arizona, imposes a punishment on its poorest schools and rewards its richest schools: “Despite the irrefutable relationship of poverty to school achievement, some states, like my own, go on to promote an insulting and highly misleading educational policy. We Arizonians grade our schools A-F (based on their test scores).  When we do this, of course, all we have done is judge from the A-F, the kinds of lives that are lived by the majority of the kids at that school… The grading of schools serves the real estate community quite well.  But those grades tell the public nothing about the quality of teaching and caring in a particular school.”

Berliner concludes: “What we have is an amazingly successful system of public education, overall, but one that simultaneously fails too many of our minorities and too many of our poor people.  In my opinion, democracy’s most serious contemporary problem is the fact that minority status and poverty are so highly correlated. What would provide a public-school system that might work for all its attendees?  I’d nominate housing policies that can help integrate various income and racial groups who attend our public schools; policies related to a minimum wage and employer-provided benefits, such that workers can afford decent housing and nutrition, and where workers can expect a decent pension at the end of their working lives; policies that provide access to health care for all; policies that help our police and our courts to be more family-friendly.”  “As the midterm elections draw near, my students asked me to talk a bit about my voting preferences.  I decided to write out my answer to them because my response is lengthy and perhaps a bit unusual… (I)f I can find them, I am only going to vote for those who understand that the root problems of our schools are not in our schools.” (Emphasis in the original.)

This summary is superficial.  Please do read David Berliner’s assessment of America’s education problem in full.

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4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with America’s Schools? David Berliner Blames America’s Failure to Eradicate Child Poverty

  1. It is maddening that for so long this nation and its elected officials have chosen to ignore the effects poverty has on children’s development and thus their educational progress along with the lack of educational opportunities. Teachers have been the easy scapegoat. It sounds so sweet to the ear to tell teachers to do better and if they don’t they’ll pay the price. The children are just suffering from poor educational pedagogy or lazy teachers. This is just one more example of racism in America. Too many don’t want children of color to advance educationally and compete with wealthy white children, in my opinion.

  2. Jan,
    As you know, most of my work and writing focuses on ways to improve learning experiences for students. The importance of these efforts pales in comparison with the issue you shared in this post. Umair Haque, in his writings about the threat to our nation posed by the continued growth of predatory capitalism, describe the ongoing policies and beliefs which contain to blame the victims of poverty for their plight. I believe that our nation cannot if we don’t commit ourselves to the elimination of poverty and, with it, the belief in white supremacy. Thanks for this powerful piece.

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