Published in the Delaware County Daily Times Sunday, February 3, 2019
By Joseph Batory
Some people believe that there are magic formulas which create miracle school improvements. In this view, all students across the USA are ready to learn, so all schools have to do is simply wave their magic wands and successful educational results for all students will happen.
However, with 50 million students from an increasingly diverse and unequal American society attending more than 98,000 public schools, the challenges facing public education are much more complex than such simplistic magical solutions. The reality is that most public schools already do a myriad of innovative things in trying to reach all students. There are certainly many individual success stories with needy and disadvantaged youth but the existing challenge of creating universal achievement for all pupils in the USA is far from being met. That’s because the “built-in” difficulties of learning for millions of students nationally are not easily overcome.
Education psychologist David Berliner, one of this country’s most distinguished education researchers, has refuted the “school miracle” philosophy. That’s because Berliner’s research has found that the big problems of building universal student achievement in American education are not in our nation’s schools.
Berliner’s bottom line is that schools and the problems of our society are closely linked. His research has found that out-of-school factors (OSFs) play the most powerful role in educational achievement gaps and this is what needs to be addressed and improved. There are six OSFs (often seen among the poorest Americans) that significantly affect the learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often resulting from inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family dysfunction and family stress; and, (6) neighborhood violence and inadequate community resources.
Additionally, thirteen million American children (one in every five) live in poverty. In fact, children are the poorest Americans … and the younger these children are, the poorer they are. According to the most recent federal data, six million of these 13 million poor children in America live in extreme poverty. The USA is the world’s greatest food-producing nation, yet 14.8 million American children live in food-insecure households. There are more than one million homeless children in our schools; 3.9 million children lack health insurance. These are just some of the out-of-school factors across America which clearly hamper the efforts of schools with students.
Psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups. What they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in the number of spoken words. Professional parents on average spoke more than 2000 words per hour to their children whereas poverty parents on average spoke only about 600 words per hour to their children. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words between rich and poor children by the time the youngsters reached the age of 4. This matters greatly because more than 85 percent of the foundation for effective communication, problem solving, and critical thinking is developed by age 5.
Most developed nations internationally have built widespread pre-kindergarten education programs for three and four-year-old children in their countries as the critical step in equalizing student potential. Yet, the USA seems to be blind to this need. Millions of American children never receive the advantages of a quality pre-school experience for ages 3 and 4. Yet this is what creates those educational, health and social supports that build the basis for a child’s future success.
In conclusion, the idea that all children are equally ready to learn and that schools are at fault when achievement for all does not happen, is a fallacy that ignores the inequalities and disadvantages for children throughout our society. Schools of course have to keep getting better and improving what they do with students, but America also has to confront the many negative impacts on education outside the schools in our society.
So what about those well publicized school miracles? Well, it is not that unusual to learn that these magical educational achievements often turn out to be artificial with fraudulent accomplishments.
One recent example is the private K-12 T.M. Landry School in Louisiana, which was glorified as “exemplary” for getting its mostly black and working-class students into elite colleges. Landry’s success stories had been recently highlighted on the “Today” show, “Ellen” and the “CBS This Morning.” However, an expose by The New York Times has now found that the Landry school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and created the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landry School, according to teachers and students, also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse. This New York Times expose just points out the need to be cautious about “miracles” in education.
Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss has cited other fake miracles:
(1.) President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, were criticized by Education historian Diane Ravitch for praising schools that, on inspection, were not the successes that had been claimed. At the school Duncan cited, only 17 percent passed state tests. The middle school students which Obama praised did not have anywhere near the alleged high achievement levels.
(2.) In the early part this decade, Joel Klein, chancellor of New York public schools, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted dramatic test score improvements at New York city schools. However, it was discovered that the standardized test score improvements were in large part due to the fact that the exams had been revised and been made easier to pass.
(3.) And, in New Orleans, where a collection of charter schools replaced the traditional system after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city, the charter experiment there was labeled “miraculous” because test scores had risen. But, according to 2018 results for the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program exams — which assess a student’s understanding of English, math, science and social studies in grades three through eight — only 26 percent of these New Orleans students achieved “mastery” or above. That is well below the Louisiana statewide average of 34 percent.
So be careful about buying into alleged magical solutions for schools. Meaningful improvement of public education in the USA requires a political commitment to address the nation’s societal inequalities, rampant poverty, and many other negative factors outside the schools as the key parts, as the most effective formula, to create educational achievement for all.
Joseph Batory is the author three books and many published articles re politics and education.