Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Which Has a Greater Effect On Student Achievement: Inequality/Poverty or Teachers/Schooling?

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2015 at 5:30 PM

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I was about to write a completely different post, about an article maintaining that disadvantaged kids have less access to top quality teachers than kids from higher income families. But then I came across a very long paper by David Berliner, a highly regarded, much-published emeritus professor of education at ASU and a fellow at the National Education Policy Center, and I decided to go another way and look at Berliner's assertion that problems related to income inequality and poverty have more impact on students' educational achievement than schools and teachers. So I'll save the "problem with schools" post for another day and focus on the argument that the major source of our educational problems originate outside the school walls.

There are two basic schools of thought about why children from low income families tend to achieve at a significantly lower level than higher income children. One school of thought says failing schools are to blame. If we just figure out how to get these kids into "successful" schools—maybe set up a bunch of great charter schools or give kids vouchers to private schools that can succeed where "government schools" fail, maybe "fix" the problems with schools that are part of our traditional education system, maybe combine both approaches—student achievement will soar and our educational problems will be solved. The other school of thought says schools can't fix the educational problems that are linked to children living in poverty. We need to address the economic and social issues plaguing our society to see a significant improvement in achievement in lower income kids.

Obviously, these two views aren't diametrically opposed. People who think "failing schools" are the problem acknowledge the fact that kids living in poverty have educational disadvantages, and people who think the problems are more societally based acknowledge that better schools lead to better outcomes. But the decision about where to put our energies and resources is determined by which aspect we think is more important.

Right now, the "good schools are the answer" side is winning, big time. The whole conservative privatization/"education reform" movement is based on the idea that all we need is better schools. And that's the basic direction Obama and many other somewhat progressive Democrats have gone as well, even if they don't emphasize privatization as much as the conservatives.

David Berliner disagrees, and I'm on his side of the argument. Here are some passages from his paper, Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth, which summarize his ideas.

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. . . . [T]he design of better economic and social policies can do more to improve our schools than continued work on educational policy independent of such concerns.


[T]he 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.


For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule. Presidents and politicians of both parties are quick to point out the wonderful but occasional story of a child’s rise from poverty to success and riches. They also often proudly recite the heroic, remarkable, but occasional impact of a teacher or a school on a child. These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives about our land and people, celebrated in the press, on television, and in the movies. But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American. These stories of success reflect real events, and thus they are certainly worth studying and celebrating so we might learn more about how they occur (cf. Casanova, 2010). But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.


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.


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.


Virtually every scholar of teaching and schooling knows that when the variance in student scores on achievement tests is examined along with the many potential factors that may have contributed to those test scores, school effects account for about 20% of the variation in achievement test scores, and teachers are only a part of that constellation of variables associated with “school.” Other school variables such as peer group effects, quality of principal leadership, school finance, availability of counseling and special education services, number and variety of AP courses, turnover rates of teachers, and so forth, also play an important role in student achievement. Teachers only account for a portion of the “school” effect, and the school effect itself is only modest in its impact on achievement.

On the other hand, out-of-school variables account for about 60% of the variance that can be accounted for in student achievement. In aggregate, such factors as family income; the neighborhood’s sense of collective efficacy, violence rate, and average income; medical and dental care available and used; level of food insecurity; number of moves a family makes over the course of a child’s school years; whether one parent or two parents are raising the child; provision of high-quality early education in the neighborhood; language spoken at home; and so forth, all substantially affect school achievement.

What is it that keeps politicians and others now castigating teachers and public schools from acknowledging this simple social science fact, a fact that is not in dispute: Outside-of-school factors are three times more powerful in affecting student achievement than are the inside-the-school factors (Berliner, 2009)? And why wouldn’t that be so? Do the math! On average, by age 18, children and youth have spent about 10 percent of their lives in what we call schools, while spending around 90 percent of their lives in family and neighborhood. Thus, if families and neighborhoods are dysfunctional or toxic, their chance to influence youth is nine times greater than the schools’! So it seems foolish to continue trying to affect student achievement with the most popular contemporary educational policies, mostly oriented toward teachers and schools, while assiduously ignoring the power of the outside-of-school factors. Perhaps it is more than foolish. If one believes that doing the same thing over and over and getting no results is a reasonable definition of madness, then what we are doing is not merely foolish: it is insane.


It is hard to argue against school reformers who want more rigorous course work, higher standards of student performance, the removal of poor teachers, greater accountability from teachers and schools, higher standards for teacher education, and so forth. I stand with them all! But in various forms and in various places, all of that has been tried and the system has improved little—if at all. The current menu of reforms simply may not help education improve as long as we refuse to notice that public education is working fine for many of America’s families and youth, and that there is a common characteristic among families for whom the public schools are failing. That characteristic is poverty brought about through, and exacerbated by, great inequality in wealth.

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