Skip to content

Research Paper on Why Schools Struggle

October 18, 2012

This is a very good research paper on why schools struggle and why reform, legitimate reform, efforts fail.  I will give you one gigantic hint…Poverty…

The paper was written by David C. Berliner from Arizona State University.  There is more to the paper at this link, this is a a read that you take your time with and digest.  Once you have read it you realize just how off-base education policies are in this country.

What does it take to get politicians and the general public to abandon misleading ideas, such as, “Anyone who tries can pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” or that “Teachers are the most important factor in determining the achievement of our youth”? Many ordinary citizens and politicians believe these statements to be true, even though life and research informs us that such statements are usually not true.

 Certainly people do pull themselves up by their bootstraps and teachers really do turn around the lives of some of their students, but these are more often exceptions, and not usually the rule. Similarly, while there are many overweight, hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking senior citizens, no one seriously uses these exceptions to the rule to suggest that it is perfectly all right to eat, drink, and smoke as much as one wants. Public policies about eating, drinking, and smoking are made on the basis of the general case, not the exceptions to those cases. This is not so in 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, butoccasional 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.

America’s dirty little secret is that a large majority of poor kids attending schools that serve the poor are not going to have successful lives. Reality is not nearly as comforting as myth. Reality does not make us feel good. But the facts are clear. Most children born into the lower social classes will not make it out of that class, even when exposed to heroic educators. A simple statistic illustrates this point: In an age where college degrees are important for determining success in life, only 9% of low-income children will obtain those degrees (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011). And that discouraging figure is based on data from before the recent recession that has hurt family income and resulted in large increases in college tuition. Thus, the current rate of college completion by low-income students is probably lower than suggested by those data. Powerful social forces exist to constrain the lives led by the poor, and our nation pays an enormous price for not trying harder to ameliorate these conditions.

 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.

 Detailed in what follows is the role that inequality in wealth, and poverty, play in determining many of the social outcomes that we value for our youth. It is hoped that our nation’s social and educational policies can be made to work better if the myths we live by are understood to be just that, simple myths, and we learn instead to understand reality better.


 Bi-partisan congressional support in the USA for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2001, demanded that every child in every public and charter school in the country be tested in grades 3-8 and grade 10. There were severe consequences for schools that did not improve rapidly. The high-stakes accountability program at the center of the policy was designed to get lazy students, teachers, and administrators to work harder. It targeted, in particular, those who attended and worked in schools with high concentrations of poor children. In this way it was believed that the achievement gap between poor students and those who were middle-class or wealthy could be closed, as would the gaps in achievement that exist between black, Hispanic, American Indian, and white students. It has not worked. If there have been gains in achievement they have been slight, mostly in mathematics, but not as easily found in reading (see Amrein & Berliner, 2002; Braun, Chapman, & Vezzu, 2010; Chudowsky, Chudowsky, & Kober, 2009; Lee, 2008; Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006, 2012; Smith, 2007). It may well be that the gains now seen are less than those occurring before the NCLB act was put into place. In fact, the prestigious and non-political National Research Council (2011) says clearly that the NCLB policy is a failure, and all the authors of chapters in a recently edited book offering alternative policies to NCLB reached the same conclusion (Timar and Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). Moreover, a plethora of negative side effects associated with high-stakes testing are now well documented (Nichols and Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010).

By 2008-2009, after at least five years of high-stakes testing in all states, about one-third of all U.S. schools failed to meet their targeted goals under NCLB (Dietz, 2010). Estimates in 2011, by the U.S. Secretary of Education, are that more than 80% of all U.S. public schools will fail to reach their achievement targets in 2012 (Duncan, 2011), and almost every school in the nation will fail by 2014. And this widespread failure is with each state using their own testing instruments, setting their own passing rates, and demanding that their teachers prepare students assiduously. The federal government at the time this paper is being written is now quickly backing off the requirements of the failed NCLB act, and granting waivers from its unreachable goals to those states willing to comply with other “reform” efforts that also will not work. These other inadequate reforms required by the federal government include the forced adoption of the Common Core State Standards, using numerous assessments from pre-kindergarten to high school graduation that are linked to the Common Core, and evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test performance.

 In addition, and long overdue, as this paper is being written a backlash against high-stakes testing from teachers, administrators, and parents has begun (see “Growing national movement against ‘high stakes’ testing,” 2012). Still, most state legislatures, departments of education, and the federal congress cling to the belief that if only we can get the assessment program right, we will fix what ails America’s schools. They will not give up their belief in what is now acknowledged by the vast majority of educators and parents to be a failed policy.

 Still further discouraging news for those who advocate testing as a way to reform schools comes from the PISA assessments (The Program for International Student Assessment). Nations with high-stakes testing have generally gone down in scores from 2000 to 2003, and then again by 2006. Finland, on the other hand, which has no high-stakes testing, and an accountability system that relies on teacher judgment and school level professionalism much more than tests, has shown growth over these three PISA administrations (Sahlberg, 2011).

 Finland is often considered the highest-achieving nation in the world. Their enviable position in world rankings of student achievement at age 15 has occurred with a minimum of testing and homework, a minimum of school hours per year, and a minimum of imposition on local schools by the central government (Sahlberg, 2011). Although we are constantly benchmarking American school performance against the Finns, we might be better served by benchmarking our school policies and social programs against theirs. For example, Finland’s social policies result in a rate of children in poverty (those living in families whose income is less than 50% of median income in the nation) that is estimated at well under 5%. In the USA that rate is estimated at well over 20%!

 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.


From → Archives

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: