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.

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