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Fixing Schools Isn’t Everything


Education researcher David Berliner argues that school reform is only a part of the solution for closing the achievement gaps.


By David Berliner

Do you know the story about the drunk man who loses his car keys? He’s discovered under a streetlight, on his hands and knees, fumbling fruitlessly. Can’t find the darn things! But when asked where he lost them, our sorry fellow points to a dim corner a block away.

“Why aren’t you looking there?” he’s asked. Answer: “The light is better here!”

And so goes the nation’s efforts to reform education. Blindly, we’ve fumbled for years on federal stages such as the No Child Left Behind law, refusing to search up the block.

Over the last three years, I’ve co-authored three reports on the effects of high-stakes testing on curriculum, instruction, school personnel, and student achievement. They were all depressing. High-stakes testing has failed dismally in its intended goals. But these reports did make me wonder, what really could help?

Working on curricula and standards, improving teacher quality, and using technology are certainly helpful. But in the rush to embrace testing, our policy-makers have forgotten, or can’t understand, or are deliberately avoiding the truth about our children’s lives.

That is, they don’t live at school.

I believe we need to peer into the darkness. If we did, we might see what sociologist Elizabeth Cohen saw quite clearly: Poverty is the 600-pound gorilla in the classroom.

I think we need to face that gorilla.

An American Shame

The United States likes to be first, and when it comes to poor children, we maintain our remarkable status. No other wealthy nation in the world has a greater percentage of children living in poverty, except for Mexico. (And the average per capita income there is a whopping $8,900.) In Denmark, 2.4 percent of kids live in poverty, in Germany, 10 percent. Here, it’s nearly 22 percent.

And surely, it’s no surprise to hear poor children do worse in school. If the poor were set off as their own country, it would be a largely Black and Latino nation, and compared to other industrialized nations, it would score near the bottom of any academic ranking. Meanwhile, our White and wealthier students, were they a nation, would score up at the top with the likes of Japan and Sweden.

Thousands of studies have linked poverty to academic achievement. The relationship is every bit as strong as the connection between cigarettes and cancer. So why, when we have as much credible research making connections between poverty and school success, do we keep looking for other answers? (For example, it must be the low expectations of teachers!)

What’s surprising is, in the face of that research, we still concentrate our attention and resources on what happens inside low-performing schools when the real problems are outside those schools.

Poor Neighborhoods

Here’s what happens to a poor child with a recurring ear infection. He stays home, because his parents can’t afford a doctor, and suffers hearing damage. What was that? I said he likely won’t learn words efficiently, and will probably lag behind his classmates in reading.

Poor children suffer from a whole host of medical problems that their wealthier classmates often evade. These days, asthma is an epidemic among the poor. In the South Bronx, a fourth-grade teacher reports that nearly a third of his students carry breathing pumps. They miss school—up to 40 days a year—and, of course, miss out on learning.

The list goes on and on. Even small amounts of lead can diminish a child’s ability to learn and millions of children suffer lead poisoning annually. Do they have anything else in common? They’re mostly children of color, living in contaminated, inner-city buildings.

And it’s not just the body that suffers, but the mind too. A “good” zip code can make a bigger difference than good parenting. Take two students in the same school with identical family backgrounds—the first lives among wealthy neighbors and the other among poor. The difference in their scores can be as much as the gap between the 10th and 90th percentile!

But move that child from the ’hood to the ’burbs, and watch his scores soar—a stunning effect that was well-documented when the Gautreaux program began moving families out of inner-city Chicago in the early 1970s.

Yes, family involvement and school programs can help and yes, of course, they should be supported. But other adult role models obviously mean a lot. Strong peer influences mean a lot. The availability of well-paid jobs, decent housing, greater stability, and higher expectations all mean a lot.

How to Help

Obviously one way to help schools would be to weave low-income housing into more middle class zip codes. But we are an economically segregated country, often by choice. Another way would be to ensure that poor people have access to better-paying jobs.

In a remarkable 2001 study, researchers followed families for three years, taking note of parents’ income and children’s scores. When income went up, for whatever reason, so did test scores. In those lucky families, children ended up scoring as well as the students who never were poor! From this, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that rising incomes provide families with dignity and hope and, in turn, with greater stability and childcare.

David Berliner is a Regents’ Professor in the College of Education at Arizona State University. This is an abridged version of his essay, Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform, published in the August 2005 online edition of Teachers College Record.
Raising a family’s income by $13,000 a year is estimated to improve children’s IQ significantly, and also to reduce bad behavior. At that rate, raising income is a less costly strategy to closing the gaps than the annual cost per-child in Head Start! It is impossible not to wonder how society might benefit if all families had access to high-quality early childhood programs and adequate incomes.

So what can you and I do? When we push for higher qualifications for teachers of the poor, as we should, we also should push ourselves to stop shopping at companies like Wal-Mart, which doesn’t provide the pay or medical insurance needed to promote healthy families. They have a terrible record in their treatment of mothers, and they’re a major impediment to school reform.

When we push for professional development and mentoring programs for teachers, push for a raise in the minimum wage too—better yet, for a living wage for all. And when we demand college-prep curricula for all, also demand medical coverage for all. Argue for affordable housing! Fight for an economically equitable society!

All I’m saying is, I’m tired of acting like schools, all alone, can fix everything. As political economist Jean Anyon put it, “Attempting to fix inner-city schools without fixing the city…is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a bit about doing that. What we seem not to know in America is how to “raise” the village so that all of our children prosper.

Photo: Getty Images

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February, 2006