Do Schools And Educators Take Too Much Blame For Failed Reform Efforts?

As someone who is passionate about school improvement, I was very interested in a post this morning by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post column (The Answer Sheet).  The post, titled Why almost all school reform efforts have failed, highlights the findings of David C. Berliner of Arizona State University in a new essay entitled Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth just published in the Teachers College Record at Columbia University.

The basic premise of the essay is that the problems in our nation’s schools are due more to economic and social policy than to education policy.  Having said this, there are clear examples of a shortsighted education agenda as well, but it is clear that many of our education outcomes are a result of the impoverished conditions impacting many students. Despite the fact that we have tremendous work to do in improving the our educational system nationally, we need to stop targeting poor teaching and inadequate schools as the primary issue that will resolve our country’s poor ranking on global measures such as The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  

While I encourage those interested in schools and school reform to read the entire essay, I have taken the liberty of citing (in italics) some of the excerpts that I found most interesting below.  

This paper arises out of frustration with the results of school reforms carried out over the past few decades. These efforts have failed. They need to be abandoned. In their place must come recognition that income inequality causes many social problems, including problems associated with education. Sadly, compared to all other wealthy nations, the USA has the largest income gap between its wealthy and its poor citizens.

Thus it is argued that the design of better economic and social policies can do more to improve our schools than continued work on educational policy independent of such concerns.

A question we all need to ask! 

The research question asked is why so many school reform efforts have produced so little improvement in American schools.

 The problem with blaming teachers and schools for all of our country’s ills… 

What does it take to get politicians and the general public to abandon misleading ideas, such as,“Anyone who tries can pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” or that “Teachers are the most important factor in determining the achievement of our youth”?

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. 

America’s dirty little secret is that a large majority of poor kids attending schools that serve the poor are not going to have successful lives

Most children born into the lower social classes will not make it out of that class, even when exposed to heroic educatorsA simple statistic illustrates this point: In an age where college degrees are important for determining success in life, only 9% of low-income children will obtain those degrees (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011).

Because of our tendency to expect individuals to overcome their own handicaps, and teachers to save the poor from stressful lives, we design social policies that are sure to fail since they are not based on reality.  

The problems with our national Education Reform efforts 

It may well be that the gains now seen are less than those occurring before the NCLB act was put into place. In fact, the prestigious and non-political National Research Council (2011) says clearly that the NCLB policy is a failure, and all the authors of chapters in a recently edited book offering alternative policies to NCLB reached the same conclusion (Timar and Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). Moreover, a plethora of negative side effects associated with high-stakes testing are now well documented (Nichols and Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010).

Nations with high-stakes testing have generally gone down in scores from 2000 to 2003, and then again by 2006. Finland, on the other hand, which has no high-stakes testing, and an accountability system that relies on teacher judgment and school level professionalism much more than tests, has shown growth over these three PISA administrations (Sahlberg, 2011).

Still, most state legislatures, departments of education, and the federal congress cling to the belief that if only we can get the assessment program right, we will fix what ails America’s schools. They will not give up their belief in what is now acknowledged by the vast majority of educators and parents to be a failed policy. 

The Finland Phenomenon is also more about social policy than education policy 

Although we are constantly benchmarking American school performance against the Finns, we might be better served by benchmarking our school policies and social programs against theirs. For example, Finland’s social policies result in a rate of children in poverty (those living in families whose income is less than 50% of median income in the nation) that is estimated at well under 5%. In the USA that rate is estimated at well over 20%!

Virtually every scholar of teaching and schooling knows that when the variance in student scores on achievement tests is examined along with the many potential factors that may have contributed to those test scores, school effects account for about 20% of the variation in achievement test scores, and teachers are only a part of that constellation of variables associated with “school.”

On the other hand, out-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement. 

What is it that keeps politicians and others now castigating teachers and public schools from acknowledging this simple social science fact, a fact that is not in dispute: Outside-of-school factors are three times more powerful in affecting student achievement than are the inside-the-school factors (Berliner, 2009)?

Berliner goes on to cite a number of possible policy changes that we could implement to do change the course of our failed education reform efforts. Again, I encourage you to read the entire essay.

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