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Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform

Posted: 2005-08-20

Below find the opening of David Berliner's Presidential Invited Speech given at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, May 2005. The 63-page essay is published by Teachers College Record .

Over the last three years I have co-authored three reports about the effects of high-stakes
testing on curriculum, instruction, school personnel, and student achievement (Amrein &
Berliner, 2002; Nichols & Berliner, 2005; Nichols, Glass & Berliner, 2005). They were all
depressing. My co-authors and I found high-stakes testing programs in most states ineffective in
achieving their intended purposes, and causing severe unintended negative effects, as well. We
believe that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is a near perfect case of political
spectacle (Smith, 2004), much more theater than substance. Our collectively gloomy conclusions led me to wonder what would really improve the schools that are not now succeeding, for despite the claims of many school critics, only some of America’s schools are not now succeeding
(Berliner, 2004).

I do not believe that NCLB is needed to tell us precisely where those failing schools are
located, and who inhabits them. We have had that information for over a half century. For me,
NCLB is merely delaying the day when our country acknowledges that a common characteristic
is associated with the great majority of schools that are most in need of improvement. It is this
common characteristic of our failing schools that I write about, for by ignoring it, we severely
limit our thinking about school reform.

This is an essay about poverty and its powerful effects on schooling. So these musings
could have been written also by Jean Anyon, Bruce Biddle, Greg Duncan, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn,
Gary Orfield, Richard Rothstein, and many others whose work I admire and from whom I
borrow. Many scholars and teachers understand, though many politicians choose not to, that
school reform is heavily constrained by factors that are outside of America’s classrooms and schools. Although the power of schools and educators to influence individual students is never to be underestimated, the out-of-school factors associated with poverty play both a powerful and a limiting role in what can actually be achieved.

In writing about these issues I ask for the tolerance of sociologists, economists, child
development researchers, and others who read this essay because I discuss variables that are the subject of intense debate within the disciplines. Although scholars dispute the ways we measure the constructs of social class, poverty, and neighborhood, we all still manage to have common enough understandings of these concepts to communicate sensibly. That will suffice for my purposes. In this essay it is not important to argue about the fine points at which poverty is miserable or barely tolerable, or whether a person is stuck in the lowest of the social classes or
merely belongs to the working poor, or whether families are poor at the federal poverty level or
at 200% of the federal poverty level (which is still poor by almost everyone’s standards). We
know well enough what we mean when we talk of poverty, communities of poverty, the very
poor, and the like. We also know that the lower social classes and the communities in which they live are not at all homogenous. It is a simplification, and therefore a mistake, to treat a group as if the individuals who comprise that group were the same. I also ask for my readers’ tolerance for ignoring these distinctions in what follows.

The Basic Problem of Poverty and Educational Reform

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. Our youth are in classrooms, so
when those classrooms do not function as we want them to, we go to work on improving them.
Those classrooms are in schools, so when we decide that those schools are not performing appropriately, we go to work on improving them, as well. But both students and schools are situated in neighborhoods filled with families. And in our country the individuals living in those school neighborhoods are not a random cross section of Americans. Our neighborhoods are highly segregated by social class, and thus, also segregated by race and ethnicity. So all educational efforts that focus on classrooms and schools, as does NCLB, could be reversed by family, could be negated by neighborhoods, and might well be subverted or minimized by what happens to children outside of school. Improving classrooms and schools, working on curricula and standards, improving teacher quality and fostering better use of technology are certainly helpful. But sadly, such activities may also be similar to those of the drunk found on his hands and knees under a street lamp. When asked by a passerby what he was doing, the drunk replied that he was looking for his keys. When asked where he lost them, the drunk replied “over there,” and pointed back up the dark street. When the passerby then asked the drunk why he was looking for the keys where they were located, the drunk answered the light is better here!”

I believe we need to worry whether the more important keys to school reform are up the block, in the shadows, where the light is not as bright. If we do choose to peer into the dark we might see what the recently deceased sociologist Elizabeth Cohen saw quite clearly: That poverty constitutes the unexamined 600 pound gorilla that most affects American education today (cited in Biddle, p. 3, 2001). I think we need to face that gorilla. . . .

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