Startling New Poverty Data


Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools The Southern Education Foundation published (January, 2015) a report showing that low income students became the majority population in US schools in 2013.  From the report: “In 40 of … Continue reading

PISA Scores and Poverty Rates


Poverty’s impact on test scores is real I am a bit like a broken record when it comes to talking about poverty and test scores.  I’ve recently heard David Berliner talk about his book 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten … Continue reading

Is School Reform Failing?

We are inundated every day with pundits talking about how our school reforms will improve our results, yet after years of more and more testing and more and more accountability based on public reporting or test scores, our schools appear to remain problematic. Two recent articles exemplify the ideas of researchers who offer insights on changing the direction of the reform movement.

David Berliner, in “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth,” provides a strong argument that economic inequality and poverty are the issues that must be addressed to see any wide-spread improvement in student achievement.  Go to, look under Articles, and search for Berliner to find an executive summary.

His content derives from his own and other research on how socio-economic issues are the driving forces that work against student achievement. He provides analysis of American student test scores broken out by levels of poverty in schools, and makes a clear case showing that our scores, when comparing like levels of student poverty, rise to the top, or very near the top on the international tests that are regularly used to claim our schools are failing. He makes it clear that our social support systems have failed, and our international competitors have done a far better job of providing supports to families and children in need. So, our schools are not failing upper and middle class students, but our society is failing lower-income families and schools.

What I find encouraging in his work (and he has a long history of debunking the critics of American education, which you might want to examine separately) is his willingness to identify sloppy reasoning and utter nonsense found in the media and in the arguments of reformers with political agendas. He recognizes there are examples of “occasional” (the emphasis is Berliner’s) success stories from individual schools and families who are successful and rise from poverty, or the “occasional” teacher who breaks through with low-income children, but he points out that these are exceptions, not the norms. Americans want to believe in this idealized version of the American Dream, but as policy, it simply doesn’t work. He point out that while we have long-living overweight smokers, no one seriously suggests building public health policy by examining these exceptions—these exceptions don’t drive public health policy, except in education, where reformers hold on to the unrealistic notion that finding only exceptional teachers for low performing schools will render poverty irrelevant, and testing to find great teachers will cure educational ills.

Taking a different, more traditional view on reform, David L. Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkley, wrote “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools” on February 10, 2013, in the New York Times. Kirp talks about the “striking achievement” of Union City, N.J. schools, an urban district that has done school reform successfully. They enroll almost every 3 and 4 year old in prekindergarten, work on character, focus on the individual needs of children, “figuring out what’s best for each child, rather than batch-processing them.” Strong principals encourage teachers to raise expectations, and teachers have responded. In Kirp’s words, “What makes Union City remarkable is, paradoxically, the absence of pizazz. It hasn’t followed the herd by closing ‘underperforming’ schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools.”

They started transforming their schools years ago when poor performance threatened them with a state take-over. The district designed an evidence based curriculum where “learning by doing replaced learning by rote.” Teachers were encouraged to work together and coaching and mentoring supported staff who struggled. Principals became education leaders.

Now folks from all over are visiting to see what Union City has done. Frankly, the research on what works in education has been rather clear for many years–Union City simply read it and implemented it in their school improvement work. So, here’s an interesting example of a school district that is one of the “occasional” examples of success that Berliner talks about.

Where do these two articles overlap? While at first they seem to reflect opposite approaches, I find them more complementary than not. These researches are not in the testing to find and fire weak teachers camp. They both want to see schools address root causes of academic failure with responsible strategies–Union City brings in high expectations, parent involvement, support for weak teachers, and a cultural shift that reflects a long-term strategy of continuous improvement. They both reject the current direction of school reformers who want to reinvent education with unproved quick fixes.

Kirp’s recent book is Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools, a more detailed look at the Union City Schools and what they represent as a legitimate model for school reform. Google him –his vitae lists lots of articles he’s written–many for Huffington Post–on education policy issues.

Are schools really failing?

One of the charms of ‘retirement’ will be having the time to read and pass on commentary, blogs, research, and new articles that I find online day by day. An issue I have been following for my entire career revolves around the controversy of whether American schools are failing.

I recall reading Why Johnny Can’t Read when I was in junior high in 1958, though I admit I read the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the book and didn’t read the original until I started teaching.  The school success/failure debate rages on, reincarnating every few years, but generally it’s fueled by the same basic issues–why don’t all students succeed, and what can we do about it?  When you’ve worked with educators who comment on the status of school reform over a spectrum of 90 years as I have (the educators I started working with in 1968 had 45 years of experience to share with me, and I have 45 years of my own), you hear again and again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I want to feature two authors today who appear to support opposite sides of this debate.  Michael Lind, in Education Reform’s Central Myth, (, August 1) points out that when one considers the performance of most American schools where poverty does not affect achievement, our schools are actually pretty good.  He uses South Korea and Finland as examples, pointing out that the percent of GDP spent on education there exceeds that spent in the US.  He suggests the 35% of students in poverty produce the low international rankings, not the 65% of US students who are actually doing well.

Taking the other side, Marilyn Rhames, a Chicago Charter School teacher, in Reforming the ‘Myth’ of America’s Failing Schools (It’s Actually True) (Education Week Teacher, August 8) highlights her experiences in poor urban schools, suggests Lind is off-base suggesting poor kids can’t learn, and offers a coherent commentary on the danger of loosing sight of the problems of bad schools in low-income communities by suggesting schools are not really failing.

Interestingly, both are fundamentally correct, though I think Rhames has misread Lind, which is so often the case when authors point out the links between community incomes and poor schools.  When the reality of poverty’s connection to low achievement is made clear, those who are concerned about how to close this gap quickly raise the race card to say bad schools are the problem, not poverty.  But bad schools are found in communities where poor families have no political clout, fewer connections to schools, less awareness of what a quality education should look like, poor nutrition, children who come to school with large vocabulary gaps compared to middle class children,… the list goes on.  In this chicken or egg question, I believe poverty ’causes’ bad schools, and the effect is immensely challenging to overcome.

Lind does not suggest poor kids can’t learn.  I’ll offer a bit of extrapolation from Lind’s argument–schools are failing for poor children, but not overall. Schools in poor communities are under-resourced, often staffed by less experienced teachers, and have high turn-over rates and leadership issues that are less common in schools from higher income communities.  Schools are doing as well for middle class and well-off kids in America as they are anywhere in the world.  The issue gets back to community poverty.  Where nations deal with poverty (there is a massive social welfare net in Finland–poverty does not spill over to affect classrooms) they have good schools.  Where they don’t, schools suffer.

Lind is correct to point out that America chooses to paint all schools as bad and try economic models of competition to make up for inconsistency in performance.  No nation anywhere has tried this successfully, but we are driven by the notion that competition is the solution to everything, including poverty.  Rhames correctly notes that good teachers can go a long way to improve bad schools, and we can’t give up on kids because they are poor.  They are not in disagreement–they are talking about two different issues.

In future commentaries, I’ll dig deeper into international tests to highlight how American kids actually are doing.  In the meantime, interested readers can Google materials by Gerald Bracey and get his 2004 book, Setting the Record Straight: responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S.  While it’s 8 years old, he does a fantastic job of skewering the selective and misleading use of data by public education critics.