‘Our Impoverished View of School Reform’

Sunday, May 17th, 2009 at 8:56 pm by

This week, Columbia’s Teachers College Record reprises one of the most provocative education articles I’ve come across in the past several years – “Our Impoverished View of School Reform,” by David Berliner. It was first published in 2005.

Ordinarily, TCR requires paid registration to access archived articles such as this one. But for this week, access is free. It’s a lengthy article, but worth the effort.

Berliner introduces his theme, “It seems to me that in the rush to improve student achievement through accountability systems relying on high-stakes tests, our policy makers and citizens forgot, or cannot understand, or deliberately avoid the fact, that our children live nested lives.”  By this he means that students spend most of their lives outside school, in families and communities.

He goes on, “Our youth are in classrooms, so when those classrooms do not function as we want them to, we go to work on improving them,” as well as the schools those classrooms are in. But he stresses that “all educational efforts that focus on classrooms and schools, as does NCLB … might well be subverted or minimized by what happens to children outside of school.”

The performance of America’s schools in international comparisons is frequently bemoaned. But Berliner stresses that the United States ranks even worse on other measures of child well-being – 23rd out of 24 “wealthy” nations in the percentage of children living poverty according to UNICEF for example. Only Mexico ranked lower.

As is well-known, poverty in America is highly correlated with race and Berliner illustrates that the ranking of U.S. compared with peers in other countries also correlates with race – white students typically rank closer to the top, while African-American and Hispanic students typically rank near the bottom. Berliner then recites the ways in which poverty hurts prospects for school success – children in poverty are more likely to suffer asthma, low birth-weight, poor nutrition, lead poisoning, and uncorrected vision, hearing, dental, or other health problems

The article – again published in 2005 – foreshadowed policy debates over education in the recent presidential campaign. Two competing agendas vied for attention among Democrats. The “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education Reform” argued for attention to out of school factors affecting students’ success in school. The Educational Equality Project focused on holding schools and educators more accountable for closing achievement gaps, and empowering parents to do so.

Interestingly, Arne Duncan, now the U.S. Education Secretary, was one of the few education leaders to sign on to support both agendas.

The debate will be resurrected in the coming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, or a successor statute to govern most federal education programs.

The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson used to tell audiences of disadvantaged youth, “You’re not responsible for being down, but you are responsible for getting up.”

Something similar might be said of educators’ duties – we are not responsible for all the impediments to learning which too many children encounter, but we are responsible for helping the children to overcome them.

Our national affiliate – the American Association of School Administrators – is urging that the reauthorization of the NCLB take a more integrated approach to helping disadvantaged students with both the in- and out-of-school factors impeding their academic achievement.

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