Archives for category: Poverty

Peter Schrag has written sensibly about education issues for many years.

In this article, he analyzes the complexities of the Vergara trial, in which a rich and powerful coalition of corporate reformers are trying to eliminate due process rights for teachers.

In the end, he argues, the outcome of the trial won’t change much for poor kids.

If the plaintiffs win, some very good veteran teachers may be fired to save money.

The legislature will enact some new laws, perhaps basing layoffs on “effectiveness” (i.e. test scores) rather than due process, but as we know from the recent report of the American Statistical Association, test-based accountability (VAM) is fraught with problems and will end up stigmatizing those who teach in high-poverty schools.

He quotes Russlyn Ali, who was Secretary Arne Duncan’s assistant secretary for civil rights and is now supporting the Vergara plaintiffs:


Laws that make it hard to dismiss or replace teachers were originally designed to protect them against the nepotism and the racial, social and cultural biases that were all too common in education until well after World War II. If those protections are curtailed, and if a new system relying heavily on “effectiveness” — itself an uncertain standard — is put in place, what’s to say it won’t make teachers competitors and undermine morale and collaboration?
It’s possible that if the courts find that the tenure laws in this case offend constitutional equal protection guarantees, many of the system’s other inequities might be open to legal challenge as well. Ali, among others, has that hope, and she sees Vergara as a first step in that larger battle.
But if the Vergara plaintiffs win a resounding victory in this case, don’t look for any quick change in the schools or some great improvement in outcomes for disadvantaged kids. There are just too many other uncertainties, too many inequities, too many other unmet needs.


My view: the trial continues the blame game favored by the Obama administration and the billionaire boys’ club, in which they blame “bad” teachers as the main culprit in low academic performance. Their refusal to recognize that standardized tests accurately measure family income and family education is their blind spot. It is easier to blame teachers than to take strong action to reduce poverty and racial segregation. It is sad and ironic that the most segregated schools in the United States today are charter schools, yet the Obama administration wants more of them. If the Vergara plaintiffs win, there will be fewer teachers eager to risk their reputation teaching the kids who have the greatest needs. If the plaintiffs win, this case will then be a setback for the rights of the kids, no victory at all.


If the corporate reformers refuse to attack the root causes of low test scores, then Peter Schrag is quite right to say that nothing much will change.,0,3459594.story#ixzz2ygmthcp2


Since there is always a lot of chatter about what international tests scores mean, I invited David Berliner to share his views. Berliner is one of our nation’s pre-eminent scholars of education.



Dear Diane,


A few weeks ago you asked me a question about recent PISA test results and the role that is played by poverty in the scores of the USA and other countries. As I understand it PISA doesn’t compute the poverty-test score relationships in quite the same way we might in the USA, but the results they get are similar to what we get.


Investigations of the poverty-test score relationships in PISA 2012 (OECD, 2013) relied on two variables, each of which was a composite. First, they used a family social class measure that was supposed to capture the income and cultural resources of a family. They combined three factors to get one composite index of family social standing: the highest occupational level of either parent; the highest educational level of the parents; and home possessions (particularly, books in the home). This family index of social class standing is not income, and it is also not always a good measure of social class standing (for example, think of highly educated immigrants who hold low wage jobs). Nevertheless, it is this composite indicator of social standing that was used to examine the scores each nation attained in tests of mathematics, science, or reading. The relationships between social standing and achievement were quite similar on all three tests of subject matter.


When we ask what percent of the variance in US students’ PISA scores was accounted for by this composite of family social class variables, the answer is around 20% (OECD, 2013, Fig ll.2.3). Twenty percent explained variation in PISA scores that arise from differences in socioeconomic factors related to families is low enough to suggest that “poverty is no excuse,” or that, “demography is not destiny.” Such maximssound reasonable because it appears at first that about 80% of the variation in student test scores is still to be accounted for. Thus, if we just had great teachers and great school leaders every child would be successful. But this interpretation is completely misleading.


For example, PISA also informs us that the test score difference attributable to moving up or down one place on the social class measure is 39 points. That works out to nearly one year of schooling on the PISA scale. So, if in the recent great recession your family was hurt and you move down the social class scale one unit, the prediction from PISA data is that children of such families are likely, eventually, to be scoring one full year lower than they might have had their family just stayed at their more advantaged social level. So the “20% variance accounted for” estimate is not a trivial figure when we look at the score points that are involved in having only slightly different social class standing. The data convincingly suggests that social status variables are quite powerful and not quite as easily overcome as the maxims we hear that suggest otherwise.


This becomes even more apparent with some additional information collected by the PISA designers. The 2012 study used information obtained from school principals about the school attended by each child in the sample. Thus, schools were categorized on the basis of the wealth and the poverty of the student body, along with the housing patterns and values in the school catchment areas, the qualities of the teachers assigned to the schools the children attend, the funding of the schools, and a number of other school level variables that are correlated strongly with the incomes of students’ families. This is the second large composite variable used in understanding the relationship of poverty to PISA test scores.


The relevant data is given as the percent of the test score variance that is attributable to differences between schools because of the population they draw. Together the family and the school level variables related to social class account for 58% of the variance we see between schools. This is quite close to the data we usually cite in the USA, namely, that about 60% of the variance we see among schools is the result of outside-of-school factors, not inside-of-school factors. (It is generally agreed that in the USA we often have 20% of the variance in test scores accounted for by school variables, maybe half of which is a teacher effect. So, in the USA, the outside-of-school variables count for about 3 times the effect of the inside-of-school variables, and they count for about 6 times the effect of teachers on the aggregate scores of classes and schools.)


Thus the international data support the estimate of poverty’s effects on test scores that we have obtained from studying internal US test data. In fact, the 2012 PISA data provides a similar estimate to what was found in the Coleman report of the 1960s. The historical record, therefore, tells us that if we want to fix schools that are not now performing well on achievement tests, we might do well to work on the out-of-school factors that influence educational achievement, and not put all our efforts into trying to improve inside-of-the school factors, as the President and Secretary of Education continue to do. Our elected officials and numerous misguided individuals and corporations keep failing to interpret the extant data in a credible way.


To those who say “poverty is no excuse,” I would then ask how they account for poverty’s potency in explaining so much of the variance in achievement test scores in the USA and elsewhere? Indeed, poverty may not be an excuse for poor performance, but it sure is a quite reasonable hypothesis about the origins of student, school, and school district differences in achievement test scores. And, of course, it may not be poverty per se that is the causal factor in the low achievement seen on so many different tests. Rather, it may be poverty’s sequelae that is the culprit. That is, the wealth of families determines such things as housing, and it is housing that determines the types of neighbors one has, the mental health and crime rates in your neighborhood, the availability of role models for children, the number of moves a family makes while children are young, the stability of family relationships, low birth weight, teen pregnancy rates, Otitus Media rates in childhood, and so forth. Discussing “poverty” and “achievement” is a simple way of expressing the relationships we find between dozens of the sequelae associated with poverty and the many forms of achievement valued by our society.


PISA provides still more evidence that poverty is a strong factor in shaping students’ lives, supporting the contention that it is really quite common for demography to determine destiny. PISA looked at “resilient students,” those who are in the bottom quartile of the social class distribution, but in the top quartile in the achievement test distribution. These are 15-year-olds who seem to beak the shackles imposed by family and neighborhood poverty. In the USA, about 6% of the children do that. So 94% of youth born into or raised in that lower quartile of family culture and resources do not make it into the top quartile of school achievers. Admittedly, poverty is hard to overcome in most countries. But why is it that Belgium, Canada, Finland, Turkey, and Portugal, among many others, produce at least 40% more “resilient kids” than do we? Could it be because the class lines are more hardened here in the USA? Whatever the cause, given these data, the mantra that “Poverty is no Excuse” seems weak, and easily countered by the more rational statement that comes directly from the PISA data, namely, that family poverty and its sequelae severely limit the life chances of most children in the lower quartiles, quintiles, and deciles on measures of social class standing.


More evidence of this is also found in the PISA data. Housing patterns seemed to matter a lot in determining scores on the PISA 2012 assessments. There were striking performance differences observed between students in schools with socially advantaged students and those in schools with socially disadvantaged schools. Students attending socioeconomically advantaged schools in OECD countries outscore those in disadvantaged schools, on average, by more than 104 points in mathematics! This is of course quite a common finding in the USA where Jonathan Kozol once described our housing patterns as “Apartheid-Lite.” We should note, too, that a reanalysis of the Coleman report by Borman and Dowling (2010) broke out the variance in test scores attributable to individual background (like variable 1 in PISA) and the social composition of the schools (like variable 2 in PISA). Borman and Dowling say their reanalysis provides “very clear and compelling evidence that going to a high-poverty school or a highly segregated African American school has a profound effect on a student’s achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of his or her individual poverty or minority status. Specifically, both the racial/ethnic and social class composition of a student’s school are more than 1 3/4 times more important than a student’s individual race/ethnicity or social class for understanding educational outcomes. In dramatic contrast to previous analyses of the Coleman data, these findings reveal that school context effects dwarf the effects of family background.”


Many other nations have the same pattern of housing and schooling that we do: wages determine housing, and housing determines the characteristics of the student body and the quality of the school attended by children. This all suggests that there is a lot of support for the statement that demography, in too many instances, really does determine destiny.


The clearest case of this comes from analyses of other, earlier PISA data, by Doug Willms (2006). His analysis suggests that if children of average SES attended one of their own nations high performing schools, or instead attended one of their own nations’ low performing schools, the difference at age 15, the age of PISA testing, would be equivalent to about 4 grade levels. Thus a 10th grader of average SES who can attend a high performing school is likely to score at about the 12th grade level (a grade level approximation from PISA data). And if that same child were to attend a low performing school, he or she would score at about the 8th grade level. It’s the same hypothetical child we are talking about, but with two very different lives to be lead as a function of the makeup of the schools attended. It is not the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, the computers available, or any number of other variables that are often discussed when issues of school quality come up. Instead, the composition of the school seems to be the most powerful factor in changing the life course for this hypothetical, average child. PISA data from an earlier assessment in Australia documents the same phenomena (Perry and McConney, 2010). In science, the score of a low income student in a low income school averages 455. But the score of similar low income students at schools that serve upper income children is over half a standard deviation higher—512. And a high income student in a school serving low income students scores 555, but high income students enrolled in schools with high income peers score half a standard deviation higher—607. Note what is most impressive here: the low income student in a school with low income families scores 455, while a high income student in a school with high income families scores 607. That is about a standard deviation and a half apart! These are 15 year olds that are worlds apart in both housing patterns, school quality, and in measures of cognitive ability. In short, PISA data overwhelmingly supports the belief that demography and destiny are closely related, a terrible embarrassment for democratic countries that pay so much lip service to the principal of equality of opportunity. Apparently, the chant that “poverty is no excuse” can easily become a reason for doing nothing about poverty’s effects on many social variables that consistently, and cross nationally, affect both school outcomes and life chances. Horatio Alger may have never been fully believable, but a few decades ago it looks like Horatio simply died, mostly unnoticed.




Borman, G. D. & Dowling, M. (2010). Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Data. Teachers College Record, 112 (5), 1201–1246.


OECD (2013), PISA 2012 Results: Excellence Through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (Volume II), PISA, OECD Publishing.


Perry, L. B. & McConney, A. (2010). Does the SES of the school matter? An

examination of socioeconomic status and student achievement using PISA

2003. Teachers College Record 112 (4), 1137–1162.


Willms, J. D. (2006). Learning divides: Ten policy questions about the performance and equity of schools and schooling systems. Montreal, Canada: UNESCO Institute for Statistics.





The Rochester Teachers Association is suing the state for its flawed evaluation system, which unfairly judges teachers.

Erica Bryant explains why in this article.

“Years ago, I visited the Kennedy Space Center and bought a coffee mug from the gift shop. It is decorated with some NASA equations, including one used to calculate the speed an object needs to escape Earth’s gravity. This formula fits on one line.

“By contrast, the document that describes how to measure student growth for the purpose of evaluating New York’s teachers and principals is 112 pages.”

Even in 112 pages, the teacher evaluation system is unfair and senseless and penalizes teachers who work with the poorest students.

It is all the rage among the pseudo-reformers to dismiss the importance of poverty. Although most of the pseudo-reformers grew up in affluence, attended elite private school, and send their own children to equally splendid private schools, they feel certain in their hearts that poverty is a state of mind that can be easily overcome. All it takes is one great teacher. Or three effective teachers in a row. Or lots of grit. Or a no-excuses school where children dress for success, follow rules without questioning, and act like little test-taking machines. One by one, the pseudo-reformers insist, they will end poverty.

No one needs a higher minimum wage. No one needs a change in the tax structure. Nothing need be done except fire teachers who can’t raise test scores and hire lots of TFA, whose enthusiasm is sure to overcome their lack of training and experience.

The fact that social scientists have demonstrated the significance of poverty on one’s life chances never penetrates the discussion. In one State of the Union Address, the President lauded a peculiar study which claimed that the influence of a third or fourth grade teacher affected one’s lifetime earnings, even prevented pregnancies years later. Enough such teachers, one surmises, and poverty will be vanquished. The Secretary of Education used to point to schools where 100% of the students, impoverished as could be, went to college, until the news media realized that such schools usually had a trick, like high attrition rates.

The fact is that poverty does matter. No matter what standardized test you look at, the results portray the influence of socioeconomic status on test scores . Despite outliers, the kids with the most advantages are at the top, the kids with the fewest advantages are at the bottom. This is true of international tests, state tests, federal tests, the ACT, the SAT.

Standardized tests are the means by which privilege is distributed. The outcomes are predictable.

Here is yet another demonstration that poverty matters. So does advantage. But no matter what research or evidence shows, the charade goes on.

David Welch is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is spending millions of dollars in legal fees to try to strip teachers of any due process rights or job security.

Who is he and who are his allies?

This investigative report provides some answers, though no one can truly explain the animus towards teachers that blames them for poverty, inequitable funding, large classes, poor leadership, racism, incompetent administrators, and myriad factors beyond their control. Even the most expert, dedicated teachers will lose if Welch wins.

The Néw York Times blog published a debate about whether parents are to blame for “failing schools.”

The question is: “Do parents care enough about schools?”

Various writers offer their opinions.

The debate is based on President Obama’s assertion in his State of the Union address that parents don’t demand enough.

Of course, that begs the question of which schools are “failing” and how they are identified. It leaves aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of such schools enroll high proportions of students who are poor, are English language learners, have severe disabilities, and/or are racially segregated. It leaves aside inequitable resources that affect class size and availability of programs, after-school activities, music, technology, and other amenities that affluent districts take for granted.

Leonie Haimson has an excellent contribution arguing that this is an effort to shift blame from policy makers to parents

Brian Jones says that the question shifts blame from society–which is indifferent to children–to their parents, many of whom struggle for daily survival in a society that accepts poverty as inevitable.

Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, patiently explains that none of the “reforms” endorsed by the legislature, like charters and vouchers, will make a difference. The major obstacle causing low educational performance is poverty, not bad teachers or bad schools

He writes:

“The troubling correlation between education and poverty places North Carolina reform efforts in odd posture. For the powers-that-be on Jones Street and in the governor’s office, the obsession to “reform” our education system – through vouchers, charters, endless tests, performance measures and the like – is matched only by an unequaled, defining pledge to ignore and, in operation, actually increase child poverty.

“We’ll use every school reform tool in the arsenal except the one the entire world knows matters most: lifting kids from debilitating hardship. As if a child can learn effectively when she is hungry, sick, ill-clad, unsupported, unchallenged and unprepared.”

He adds:

“The marriage of poverty and educational underperformance should give pause to the many Tar Heels who claim, I can attest, that the only anti-poverty program they support is education. It’s a consoling thought, perhaps.

“But it is literally, quite literally, impossible to secure equal educational opportunity while 26 percent of our children – 41 percent of our children of color – live in torturous poverty.”

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote the following:


Poverty and the Education Opportunity Gap: Will the SOTU Step Up?

Tuesday’s State of the Union address will apparently focus on issues of wealth inequality in the United States. The impact of poverty is extremely important for issues such as housing, nutrition, health and safety. Additionally, education researchers like me have been hollering from the rooftops, hoping policymakers and others will understand that poverty is the biggest impediment to children’s academic success. So this focus is long overdue and certainly welcome. Yet I worry that the President will slip from an accurate diagnosis to unproven and ineffectual treatments.

The diagnosis is straightforward. I expect that the President will have no trouble describing enormous and increasing wealth gaps. We learned from Oxfam last week that “the world’s 85 richest people own the same amount as the bottom half of the entire global population,” which is over 7 billion people.

In the US, the picture is just as shocking. In a 2013 UNICEF report on child poverty in 35 developed countries, the US came in 34th, second to last—between Bulgaria and Romania, two much poorer countries overall. Twenty-three percent (23%) of children in the US live in poverty.

According to analyses in an October 2013 report from the Southern Education Foundation, 48% of the nation’s 50 million public-school students were in low-income families (qualified for free or reduced-price meals). This level of child poverty implicates not just access to breakfast or lunch. These children face issues of:

  • Housing security and housing (and thus school) transiency,
  • Resources available at the local school,
  • Resources available in the child’s home and community as well as the safety in that community,
  • Access to enriching programs after school and over the summer (and within the school),
  • Access to medical and dental care,
  • The expectations that educators and others have for a child’s academic and employment future,
  • The likelihood of the child being subjected to disproportionate discipline and being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline, and
  • The viability and affordability of attending college.

Many of the opportunity gaps of the sort described above arise from policies and practices within our schools. But many more—and arguably the most devastating—arise from opportunities denied to children in their lives outside of schools.

When the speeches are rolled out on Tuesday, watch out for evidence-free policy promises. President Obama, I fear, may continue to push for more test-based accountability policies like No Child Left Behind and may hold out the false hope of so-called high-achieving charter schools. The Republican response, I fear, will hold out the related false hope of vouchers, neo-vouchers, and other policies that shift public money from public to private schools. Neither charter schools nor voucher programs have been shown to make a meaningful dent in opportunity gaps or achievement gaps.

Poverty is the main cause of these gaps, and addressing poverty is the most sensible and practical approach for closing those gaps. Our nation will not escape its devastating educational inequality so long as we have massive wealth inequality. Yes, if we ever truly invested in the schools serving our children in poverty—invested in a way that provided tremendously enriched opportunities for those children, giving them equal overall opportunities with the nation’s more advantaged children—we might expect to see a meaningful reduction of intergenerational inequality. But that’s not what we do. Instead, we heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be “failing schools” when they don’t perform miracles.

These nonsensical policies come with an astronomical economic cost and cost to our democracy. Economists Clive Belfield and Hank Levin conservatively estimate that the economic benefit of closing the opportunity gap by just one-third would result in $50 billion in fiscal savings and $200 billion in savings from a societal perspective (for example, by lowering rates of crime and incarceration). These figures are annual in the sense that, for instance, each year a group of students drops out and, over their lifetimes, that dropping out will collectively result in a fiscal burden of $50 billion. By point of comparison, Belfield and Levin note, total annual taxpayer spending on K-12 education, including national, state and local expenditures, is approximately $570 billion. (These analyses are from their chapter in Closing the Opportunity Gap.)

The President’s State of the Union Address and the Republican response will both, it seems, speak to the American people about wealth inequality. They will both, it seems, offer some policy proposals aimed—rhetorically, at least—at addressing this major impediment to the American Dream. To some extent, we may hear about wise, evidenced-based approaches like expanding access to high-quality preschool. But watch out for speeches that identify real problems but then offer nothing more than repackaged, failed policies.

Those who are not serious about addressing inequality will cynically try to figure out, “How do I repackage my existing policy agenda and sell it as a cure for inequality?” Instead, the serious question we should be asking is, “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”

The nation’s most vulnerable children deserve answers to that serious question. We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy. The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality. Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.

In 2011, David Brooks heard me speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where I talked about a life course approach to improving the lives of children. Days later, he published an article criticizing me for saying that testing and choice were inadequate to overcome the problems of kids who live in poverty.

At the time, he was still enthralled by the idea that charters were a systemic answer to these problems..

But –mirabile dictu!–Brooks has a column today recanting his earlier views. He actually says it takes a generation to raise a child.

He writes:

“….we’ve probably put too much weight on school reform. Again, reforming education is important. But getting the academics right is not going to get you far if millions of students can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.

“So when President Obama talks about expanding opportunity in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’m hoping he’ll widen the debate. I’m hoping he’ll sketch out a stage-by-stage developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to the middle class.”

This is a sign of real progress for those of us who have argued that the “reform movement”–focused on testing, charters, and vouchers– is a distraction at best and a threat to the survival of American public education at worst.

David Berliner has designed a provocative thought experiment.

He offers you State A and State B.

He describes salient differences between them.

Can you predict which state has high-performing schools and which state has low-performing schools?

The Roots of Academic Achievement
David C. Berliner
Regents’ Professor Emeritus
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
Arizona State University

Let’s do a thought experiment. I will slowly parcel out data about two different states. Eventually, when you are nearly 100% certain of your choice, I want you to choose between them by identifying the state in which an average child is likely to be achieving better in school. But you have to be nearly 100% certain that you can make that choice.

To check the accuracy of your choice I will use the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as the measure of school achievement. It is considered by experts to be the best indicator we have to determine how children in our nation are doing in reading and mathematics, and both states take this test.

Let’s start. In State A the percent of three and four year old children attending a state associated prekindergarten is 8.8% while in State B the percent is 1.7%. With these data think about where students might be doing better in 4th and 8th grade, the grades NAEP evaluates student progress in all our states. I imagine that most people will hold onto this information about preschool for a while and not yet want to choose one state over the other. A cautious person might rightly say it is too soon to make such a prediction based on a difference of this size, on a variable that has modest, though real effects on later school success.

So let me add more information to consider. In State A the percent of children living in poverty is 14% while in State B the percent is 24%. Got a prediction yet? See a trend? How about this related statistic: In State A the percent of households with food insecurity is 11.4% while in State B the percent is 14.9%. I also can inform you also that in State A the percent of people without health insurance is 3.8% while in State B the percent is 17.7%. Are you getting the picture? Are you ready to pick one state over another in terms of the likelihood that one state has its average student scoring higher on the NAEP achievement tests than the other?

​If you still say that this is not enough data to make yourself almost 100% sure of your pick, let me add more to help you. In State A the per capita personal income is $54,687 while in state B the per capita personal income is $35,979. Since per capita personal income in the country is now at about $42,693, we see that state A is considerably above the national average and State B is considerably below the national average. Still not ready to choose a state where kids might be doing better in school?

Alright, if you are still cautious in expressing your opinions, here is some more to think about. In State A the per capita spending on education is $2,764 while in State B the per capita spending on education is $2,095, about 25% less. Enough? Ready to choose now?
Maybe you should also examine some statistics related to the expenditure data, namely, that the pupil/teacher ratio (not the class sizes) in State A is 14.5 to one, while in State B it is 19.8 to one.

As you might now suspect, class size differences also occur in the two states. At the elementary and the secondary level, respectively, the class sizes for State A average 18.7 and 20.6. For State B those class sizes at elementary and secondary are 23.5 and 25.6, respectively. State B, therefore, averages at least 20% higher in the number of students per classroom. Ready now to pick the higher achieving state with near 100% certainty? If not, maybe a little more data will make you as sure as I am of my prediction.

​In State A the percent of those who are 25 years of age or older with bachelors degrees is 38.7% while in State B that percent is 26.4%. Furthermore, the two states have just about the same size population. But State A has 370 public libraries and State B has 89.
Let me try to tip the data scales for what I imagine are only a few people who are reluctant to make a prediction. The percent of teachers with Master degrees is 62% in State A and 41.6% in State B. And, the average public school teacher salary in the time period 2010-2012 was $72,000 in State A and $46,358 in State B. Moreover, during the time period from the academic year 1999-2000 to the academic year 2011-2012 the percent change in average teacher salaries in the public schools was +15% in State A. Over that same time period, in State B public school teacher salaries dropped -1.8%.

I will assume by now we almost all have reached the opinion that children in state A are far more likely to perform better on the NAEP tests than will children in State B. Everything we know about the ways we structure the societies we live in, and how those structures affect school achievement, suggests that State A will have higher achieving students. In addition, I will further assume that if you don’t think that State A is more likely to have higher performing students than State B you are a really difficult and very peculiar person. You should seek help!

So, for the majority of us, it should come as no surprise that in the 2013 data set on the 4th grade NAEP mathematics test State A was the highest performing state in the nation (tied with two others). And it had 16 percent of its children scoring at the Advanced level—the highest level of mathematics achievement. State B’s score was behind 32 other states, and it had only 7% of its students scoring at the Advanced level. The two states were even further apart on the 8th grade mathematics test, with State A the highest scoring state in the nation, by far, and with State B lagging behind 35 other states.

Similarly, it now should come as no surprise that State A was number 1 in the nation in the 4th grade reading test, although tied with 2 others. State A also had 14% of its students scoring at the advanced level, the highest rate in the nation. Students in State B scored behind 44 other states and only 5% of its students scored at the Advanced level. The 8th grade reading data was the same: State A walloped State B!

States A and B really exist. State B is my home state of Arizona, which obviously cares not to have its children achieve as well as do those in state A. It’s poor achievement is by design. Proof of that is not hard to find. We just learned that 6000 phone calls reporting child abuse to the state were uninvestigated. Ignored and buried! Such callous disregard for the safety of our children can only occur in an environment that fosters, and then condones a lack of concern for the children of the Arizona, perhaps because they are often poor and often minorities. Arizona, given the data we have, apparently does not choose to take care of its children. The agency with the express directive of insuring the welfare of children may need 350 more investigators of child abuse. But the governor and the majority of our legislature is currently against increased funding for that agency.

State A, where kids do a lot better, is Massachusetts. It is generally a progressive state in politics. To me, Massachusetts, with all its warts, resembles Northern European countries like Sweden, Finland, and Denmark more than it does states like Alabama, Mississippi or Arizona. According to UNESCO data and epidemiological studies it is the progressive societies like those in Northern Europe and Massachusetts that care much better for their children. On average, in comparisons with other wealthy nations, the U. S. turns out not to take good care of its children. With few exceptions, our politicians appear less likely to kiss our babies and more likely to hang out with individuals and corporations that won’t pay the taxes needed to care for our children, thereby insuring that our schools will not function well.

But enough political commentary: Here is the most important part of this thought experiment for those who care about education. Everyone of you who predicted that Massachusetts would out perform Arizona did so without knowing anything about the unions’ roles in the two states, the curriculum used by the schools, the quality of the instruction, the quality of the leadership of the schools, and so forth. You made your prediction about achievement without recourse to any of the variables the anti-public school forces love to shout about –incompetent teachers, a dumbed down curriculum, coddling of students, not enough discipline, not enough homework, and so forth. From a few variables about life in two different states you were able to predict differences in student achievement test scores quite accurately.

I believe it is time for the President, the Secretary of Education, and many in the press to get off the backs of educators and focus their anger on those who will not support societies in which families and children can flourish. Massachusetts still has many problems to face and overcome—but they are nowhere as severe as those in my home state and a dozen other states that will not support programs for neighborhoods, families, and children to thrive.

This little thought experiment also suggests also that a caution for Massachusetts is in order. It seems to me that despite all their bragging about their fine performance on international tests and NAEP tests, it’s not likely that Massachusetts’ teachers, or their curriculum, or their assessments are the basis of their outstanding achievements in reading and mathematics. It is much more likely that Massachusetts is a high performing state because it has chosen to take better care of its citizens than do those of us living in other states. The roots of high achievement on standardized tests is less likely to be found in the classrooms of Massachusetts and more likely to be discovered in its neighborhoods and families, a refection of the prevailing economic health of the community served by the schools of that state.


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