Why is it that wave after wave of school reform doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in the problems that they are designed to address? David C. Berliner of Arizona State University offers an answer in this new essay entitled “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth,” which was just published in the Teachers College Record at Columbia University.

Berliner is Regents’ Professor Emeritus in The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University and he is a renowed researcher on educational policy and the study of teaching. He has written for this blog in the past; posts include “Why giving standardized tests to young children is ‘really dumb’ and Why rising test scores may not mean increased learning” and  “Poverty, student achievement and the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Here’s a brief description that appears at the top of the new essay, which you can read in its entirety here.

Background/Context: 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. Correlates associated with the size of the income gap in various nations are well described in Wilkinson & Pickett (2010), whose work is cited throughout this article. They make it clear that the bigger the income gap in a nation or a state, the greater the social problems a nation or a state will encounter. 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.


Purpose/Objective/Research Question: The research question asked is why so many school reform efforts have produced so little improvement in American schools. The answer offered is that the sources of school failure have been thought to reside inside the schools, resulting in attempts to improve America’s teachers, curriculum, testing programs and administration. It is argued in this paper, however, that the sources of America’s educational problems are outside school, primarily a result of income inequality. Thus it is suggested that targeted economic and social policies have more potential to improve the nations schools than almost anything currently being proposed by either political party at federal, state or local levels.


Research Design: This is an analytic essay on the reasons for the failure of almost all contemporary school reform efforts. It is primarily a report about how inequality affects all of our society, and a review of some research and social policies that might improve our nations’ schools.


Conclusions/Recommendations: It is concluded that the best way to improve America’s schools is through jobs that provide families living wages. Other programs are noted that offer some help for students from poor families. But in the end, it is inequality in income and the poverty that accompanies such inequality, that matters most for education.

Two key quotes from the essay:

The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, Hispanics and Anglos, the poor and the rich, are hard to erase because the gaps have only a little to do with what goes on in schools, and a lot to do with social and cultural factors that affect student performance (Berliner 2006; 2009). Policymakers in Washington and state capitals throughout the USA keep looking for a magic bullet that can be fired by school “reformers” to effect a cure for low achievement among the poor, English language learners, and among some minorities. It is, of course, mostly wasted effort if the major cause of school problems stems from social conditions beyond the control of the schools. The evidence is that such is the case.




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. Our patently false ideas about the origins of success have become drivers of national educational policies. This ensures that our nation spends time and money on improvement programs that do not work consistently enough for most children and their families, while simultaneously wasting the good will of the public (Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). In the current policy environment we often end up alienating the youth and families we most want to help, while simultaneously burdening teachers with demands for success that are beyond their capabilities.