Berliner has won numerous awards in education and written more than 200 articles, chapters and books. Among his best-known works are two books he co-wrote, “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools” and “Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools.” He co-edited the first handbook of educational psychology, and his most recent co-written book, “50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools,” was published in 2014.
Berliner sent the following to me. He explained that some of his students had asked how he planned to vote in the midterm elections next month, and he decided to explain in written detail. I am publishing it because it is more than an explanation of one man’s electoral preferences but a detailed look at public schools today and the state of efforts to “reform” them.
By David Berliner
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 asked my students and colleagues not to vote for those who want to improve or reform the schools. I told them that I was done voting for politicians who spout this foolishness over and over again! Too many of them are wasting their time, my time, our money, and they are hurting our country, as well.
I explained that the 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 nations’ 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.
Educational problems also have roots in the numbers of kids living in dysfunctional families where opioid and other drug addictions, or mental illness, is not treated. 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 schools’ doorsteps. Our problems stem also 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 too frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children.
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.
So many of these problems of American education have their start in the tracking of America’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.
When you allow overwhelmingly wealthy, middle-class, and poor neighborhoods to develop, you destroy the chance for the neighborhood school to help better our children by bringing diverse income, racial, and ethnic groups together.
Neighborhood schools, affectionately supported in American folk beliefs as a great equalizer in the melting pot we think of as America, now perform on assessments almost exactly as that neighborhoods’ income predicts they will. The neighborhood school in a society with an apartheid-lite housing policy is killing us!
Do we have an apartheid-lite system of education? 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 those neighborhoods generally go to schools with the other kids from those neighborhoods.
These realities of contemporary American life have powerful effects on schooling in America. For example, I can predict quite accurately the percentage of kids that score at certain levels on standardized tests by knowing characteristics of the families who send their kids to their neighborhood school. I don’t need to know anything at all about the teachers or curriculum at that school. If I want to, I can probably skip the expense of the test!
Research demonstrates that If you know the average income, the average level of parental education, and the percentage of single-parent households in a community — just these three variables — you can predict with great accuracy the performance on the standardized test scores used by that community to judge its schools. We don’t really have to give the tests because we already can accurately predict the aggregate scores of schools and townships. It’s not the quality of our teachers or curriculum that allows such remarkably accurate predictions: Demographics allow for that. 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!
We can demonstrate that fact again 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 almost perfect prediction!
The higher the poverty rate, the lower the scores. This allows me, if I wanted to, to skip the test altogether because I can predict with great accuracy the aggregate performance of the students in these Nebraska schools. And if I wanted to know how individual students were doing, I would simply ask a teacher. They really are quite good at describing the skills possessed by each of their students!
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.
Another research study demonstrates that standardized achievement tests show huge differences in scores based on the income of students’ families, and the schools to which that family income allows access. In this international test with an average score of about 500, low-income kids, in schools that cater to low-income kids, scored 455. But high-income kids in schools that cater to high-income kids scored 607! That is about a standard deviation and half difference — a huge difference. The fiscal, social, and intellectual capital available to kids in these socioeconomically separated schools produces these large differences — independent of the quality of teachers, administrators, or the curriculum used.
These differences in school achievement occur as a function of differences in family income and the housing choices associated with family income, as well as the employment policies, health policies, and policies about law enforcement and the sentencing of those found guilty of crimes. It is this profusion of policies, rarely thought about simultaneously, that determines the huge differences in achievement scores between schools, and between school districts.
It’s really not the teachers. It’s really not the curriculum. It is us! We the people, inhabiting the richest country in the world, have kept too many vulnerable families in positions of vulnerability for far too long. That is what affects their children and the achievement levels of the schools attended by those children. Did you know that when you fall into poverty in the United States of America through loss of job, illness, drug or gambling addiction problems, and the like, you are likely to spend more time in poverty than in many other Western countries? Other countries have social services to get families back on track.
We have limited such services, and families that fall into poverty in the United States are more likely to spend many more years in poverty than in other Western countries. I think too many contemporary lawmakers in the United States believe what our Founding Fathers believed — namely, that it is God’s will that some families fall into poverty. Meanwhile, in many European democracies, the state tries to relieve god of her responsibility to determine which families are destined to live in poverty!
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 Arizonans grade our schools A-F (based on their test scores). When we do this, of course, all we have done is judge, from A-F, the kinds of lives that are lived by the majority of the kids at that school. In reality, it’s not the quality of the schools that is assessed. Instead, what is assessed are the lives of the families who attend those schools. 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.
Fifty years ago, James Coleman shocked the education community by asserting that a plethora of out-of-school factors were the real determinants of in-school quality. A recent re-analysis of that report found that Coleman did not recognize in his own data the power of the cohort in a grade, or in a school, to also have a large influence on the quality of schooling, separate from the out-of-school factors that determine school quality.
Independent of those out-of-school factors (such as family income and neighborhood characteristics) were the characteristics of the cohort in one’s class or school. The cohort had independent effects on learning outcomes. What this means is that in America’s neighborhood schools, an apartheid-lite system of housing affects scores in two ways: first through the out-of-school factors that negatively affect achievement, and secondly, though powerful cohort effects in the schools attended by children of a particular neighborhood.
Neighborhoods that might be just a few blocks from each other have a formidable influence on school cultures through the cohort effects at a school site. Students just a few blocks apart have been found to have quite different adult earnings and social status. Middle-class visions of appropriate behavior and preparation for college may be the norms developed at one neighborhood school, while lower-class visions of appropriate behavior and schooling could well be the norms that pervade another school just a few blocks away.
So the A-F grades given to schools according to their achievement test scores really have their roots in neighborhood income; the percentage of single-parent families in the neighborhood; the churn rates of teachers and administrators at the school, as well as the churn rate of families in the neighborhood; the absentee rates of students at the school; and so forth. These A-F grades simply do not provide insight into the quality of the teachers and the nurturance of students at a particular school site.
Neighborhood schools in the U.S. hurt our nation. But this is not a reason to support charter or private schools, which are too frequently highly selective about who they let in and who they are willing to keep in their schools. In a democracy, if any public dollars are used for schooling, that school should serve all our kids, just as we expect the police and fire departments to serve us all.
Despite the naysayers and advocates for charter and private education at public expense, it turns out that America’s public education system is remarkably successful. For example, on the recent PISA international tests, white public-school students in the U.S.A. outscored students in Korea and Hong Kong in science. That’s not too shabby, but it was underreported. And on the reading test, our white public-school kids outscored Korea and Japan, two nations that are often held up as models for our schools to emulate. Again, that’s not too shabby! We should note that white kids in the United States have a poverty rate of about 9 percent, while black and Hispanic kids, who did not score nearly as well, have poverty rates exceeding 20 percent! Could it be poverty and its sequelae, rather than teacher incompetence, is at the root of America’s educational problems?
Our public schools produced other effects our newspapers too often refuse to report. For example, in international ratings of entrepreneurship, we hold the highest ranking in the world, both for men and for woman. In international comparisons of creativity, we rank among the highest in the world. In gross domestic product earned per hour worked by American labor, we are by far the leaders of the industrialized world.
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. The policies I see most helping our schools are not directed toward teaching and learning in our schools. My concerns are elsewhere.
I am certainly not against improving our schools. Like many others who study schooling, I have my own suggestions about how to do that, based on some solid research evidence. But if 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. It is past time that we stop worrying about reforming and improving our schools. Instead, we need to ensure that we have programs that can improve our society. Shifting our gaze away from schooling and looking instead at the quality of the lives lived by the families whose children attend our schools might prove to be the surest way to improve American education. From now on, candidates who understand that are the ones who will get my vote.