Archives for category: Race to the Top

Jan Resseger served for many years as program director for education justice of the United Church of Christ. She is a woman with a strong social conscience, who is devoted to the well-being of all children. She lives in Ohio. When I first visited Cleveland, I had the privilege of being escorted by Jan, who showed me the stark disparities between the affluent suburbs and the downtrodden inner-city.

Jan Resseger writes here of the calamities imposed on our nation’s education system by Arne Duncan, who changed the national education goal from equality of educational opportunity for all to a “race to the top” for the few. He shifted our sights from equal opportunity and equitable funding to test scores; he pretended that poverty was unimportant and could be solved by closing public schools and turning children over to private entrepreneurs who had little supervision.

Read Jan’s entire piece: Duncan was a disaster as a molder of education policy. He ignored segregation and it grew more intense on his watch. His successor, John King, was a clone of Duncan in New York state. He too thinks that test scores are the measure of education quality, despite the fact that what they measure best is family income. He too, a founder of charter schools, prefers charters over public education. His hurried implementation of the Common Core standards and tests in New York were universally considered disastrous, even by Governor Cuomo; John King, more than anyone else, ignited the parent opt out movement in New York. And his role model was Arne Duncan.

Jan Resseger writes:

School policy ripped out of time and history: in many ways that is Arne Duncan’s gift to us — school policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity — a Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight — the substitution of the consultant driven, win-lose methodology of philanthropy for formula-driven government policy — school policy that favors social innovation, one charter at a time. Such policies are definitely a break from the past. Whether they promise better opportunity for the mass of our nation’s children, and especially our poorest children, is a very different question.

School policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity: Here is what a Congressional Equity and Excellence Commission charged in 2013, five years into Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities… This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty. Our poverty rate for school-age children—currently more than 22 percent—is twice the OECD average and nearly four times that of leading countries such as Finland.” Arne Duncan’s signature policies ignore these realities. While many of Duncan’s programs have conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ complying with Duncan’s favored policies, none of Duncan’s conditions involved closing opportunity gaps. To qualify for a Race to the Top grant, a state had to remove any statutory cap on the authorization of new charter schools, and to win a No Child Left Behind waiver, a state had to agree to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, but Duncan’s policies never conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ remedying school funding inequity. Even programs like School Improvement Grants for the lowest scoring 5 percent of American schools have emphasized school closure and privatization but have not addressed the root problem of poverty in the communities where children’s scores are low.

A Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight: The nation faces an epidemic of teacher shortages and despair among professionals who feel devalued as states rush to implement the teacher-rating policies they adopted to win their No Child Left Behind waivers from the federal government. Even as evidence continues to demonstrate that students’ test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other factor, and as scholars declare that students’ test scores are unreliable for evaluating teachers, Duncan’s policies have unrelentingly driven state governments to create policy that has contributed to widespread blaming of the teachers who serve in our nation’s poorest communities.

However, Duncan’s Department of Education has been far less attentive to accountability for its own programs. In June, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national organizations made up of the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improves its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program. The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cites formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.” The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.

Most recently, just last week, the Department of Education awarded $249 million to seven states and the District of Columbia for expanding charter schools, with the largest of those grants, $71 million, awarded to Ohio, despite that protracted Ohio legislative debate all year has failed to produce regulations for an out-of-control, for-profit group of online charter schools or to improve Ohio’s oversight of what are too often unethical or incompetent charter school sponsors. The U.S. Department of Education made its grant last week despite that Ohio’s legislature is known to have been influenced by political contributions from the owners of for-profit charter schools.

I am sharing a post written by Anthony Cody.

Anthony notes that teacher evaluations have changed in most states and districts because of Race to the Top. He and others are conducting a study to see how teacher evaluation is working or not working.

Please read his post and respond to the survey, if you are so inclined.

The Los Angeles Times reports that some teachers are unhappy with their unions’ early endorsement of Hillary.

She supports unions. But where does she stand on charters? 90% of charters are nonunion. You can’t be pro-union and pro-charter.

Is she close to Eli Broad? For many teachers, that is the kiss of death.

Will she follow the Bush-Obama line?

She has to make clear where she stands.

Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, writes here about the ruinous, failed policy of closing schools because of their test scores.

This odious, undemocratic practice started with No Child Left Behind, where it was adopted as a sanction for “failing schools.” Any school that couldn’t raise test scores for five years in a row was labeled a failing school, without regard to its needs and struggles. No matter how loudly the community protested, the school was closed.

Race to the Top continued this practice, even though there was no record of success. Frequently, the school closures cleared the way for charters, which didn’t enroll the children with disabilities and the English language learners. Those children were shunted off to another “failing school.”

Nothing so fully epitomizes the failure of corporate reform as closing schools instead of helping them improve.

Jonathan Alter is an insightful writer about politics but knows little about education. He doesn’t like public education. Unfortunately, he thinks he is an education expert. He had a starring role in “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” where he looked solemnly into the camera and said, “We know what works. Accountability works.” Right. Like No Child Left Behind was a huge success.

Alter adores charters. Recently he wrote an article for the Daily Beast about why liberals should love charters. He doesn’t like me because I don’t love charters. A few years ago, he got very angry at me when I wrote about schools–both charter and public–that claimed to have produced miraculous score increases. Alter and I debated on David Sirota’s radio show in Denver, and Alter made clear that he believes any claim that a charter school made about test scores and graduation rates, no matter how outlandish. I guess I should thank Alter for giving me some good laughs, like the time he compared me to Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who turned against Alger Hiss (Chambers had moved from left to right, while I had moved, in Alter’s words, from right to left, which he thought was a very bad thing for me to do) or the time he interviewed Bill Gates and called me Gates’ “chief adversary.” That still makes me laugh. I loved that and wrote a reply to Gates’ questions in the Alter interview.

Mercedes Schneider responded to Alter and walked him through the facts about charters, and their lack of accountability and oversight. She schools him about the New Orleans “miracle.” She calls her post “Why Liberals Should Think Twice About ‘Learning to Love Charters.'” Alter, she notes, is oblivious to charter mismanagement and scandals, apparently never having heard of them. He knows nothing of the politicians and entrepreneurs who open charters to make a fast buck.

She writes:

In his piece, Alter repeats the misleading statement “charters are public schools.” However, charter schools take public money without being held accountable to the public for that money. That contributes to the charter school scandal and turnover, which Alter refuses to address, instead insisting that the fact that traditional public schools in general outperform charter schools “is not especially relevant” because those “underperforming charters” run by “inexperienced groups” just need closing.

Keep the charter churn going. Never mind how it affects children and communities.

Never mind that 80 percent of charter schools can’t cut it. Alter chooses to pick his own cherries once again and focus on “the top quintile” of charter schools that tend to be charter chains. Since according to Alter this top 20 percent of charters beats traditional public schools (even though such is really “irrelevant”), it justifies the whole under-regulated, scandal-ridden charter venture.

One of her best lines (classic-Mercedes):

Alter thinks it is better for the wealthy to make it possible for the inept to fund their own schools than to buy yachts.

If the Waltons wanted to truly improve public education, they would invest in yachts.

Peter Greene says that he might be convinced to love charters, but they would have to make some very important changes.

He writes:

I’m not categorically opposed to them on principle. My aunt ran a “free school” in Connecticut decades ago, and it was pretty cool. I have a friend whose son has been seriously assisted by cyber school, and I know a few other similar stories. I think it’s possible that charter schools could be an okay thing. But the charter systems we have now in this country are so very, very terrible I can’t even like them a little, let alone love them.

So when will I love charter schools?

I will love them when they’re fully accountable.

Public schools have to account for every dollar spent, every student who falls under their jurisdiction. Charter schools are only “public” when it’s time to be paid. The rest of the time they are non-transparent and non-accountable. We have charter scandals over and over and over and over again in which somebody just makes off with a pile of money, or isn’t really providing services they claim to be, or doesn’t really have a plan in place. This is bananas!

We’re learning that in the New Orleans Wide World O’Charters, nobody is accountable for the students. A school can purge a child from its records by essentially saying, “Yeah, she went somewhere” without even having to confirm what happened to the student. In New Orleans, there are thousands of students missing– school authorities literally do not know where those children are.

Charter schools will be accountable when they are just as transparent and just as accountable as public schools. Financial records completely open to the public. All meetings of governing bodies completely open to the public. And run by people who must answer to the public and whose first responsibility is not to the nominal owners of the school, but to the actual owners of the school– the people who pay the bills and fund the charter– the taxpayers.

I will love them when education is their primary mission

Private industry is plagued with a disease in this country, a disease that has convinced business leaders that the purpose of their widget company is not to make widgets, but to make good ROI for investors. This has led to all manner of stupid, destructive behavior, as well as a glut of really lousy widgets.

Modern charters all too often export that bad business attitude over to the world of education, with everyone from hedge fundies to pop stars getting into charter schools because someone told them it’s a great investment. If financial returns are located anywhere in your success metric for your charter school, just get the hell out. Because all that can mean is that you will view every student and staff member as a drain that is taking money away from you. You’ll want to select students based primarily on how they can help you achieve your financial goals (by looking good on paper and not costing much). I can’t think of a much worse attitude to bring into a school.

This article on “The Costs of Accountability” appeared in The American Interest. It was written by Jerry Z. Muller, a professor of history at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. It is a long and thoughtful article, and I can offer just a few snippets. I urge you to read it. It is a five-star article that explains how much money and energy is wasted in pursuit of the Golden Fleece of “accountability.” It has become an industry unto itself.

He begins:

The Google Ngram Viewer, which instantly searches through thousands of scanned books and other publications, provides a rough but telling portrait of changes in our culture. Set the parameters by years, type in a term or phrase, and up pops a graph showing the incidence of the words selected from 1800 to the present. Look up “gender”, for example, and you will see a line that curves upward around 1972; the slope becomes steeper around 1980, reaches its peak in 2000, and afterwards declines gently. Type in “accountability” and behold a line that begins to curve upward around 1965, with an increasingly steep upward slope after 1985. So too with “metrics”, whose steep increase starts around 1985. “Benchmarks” follows the same pattern, as does “performance indicators.” But unlike “gender”, the lines for “accountability”, “metrics”, “benchmarks”, and “performance indicators” are all still on the upswing.

Today, “accountability” and its kissing cousins “metrics” and “performance indicators” seem to be, if not on every lip, then on every piece of legislation, and certainly on every policy memo in the Western world. In business, government, non-profit organizations, and education, “accountability” has become a ubiquitous meme—a pattern that repeats itself endlessly, albeit with thousands of localized variations.

The characteristic feature of the culture of accountability is the aspiration to replace judgment with standardized measurement. Judgment is understood as personal, subjective, and self-interested; metrics are supposed to provide information that is hard and objective. The strategy behind the numbers is to improve institutional efficiency by offering rewards to those whose metrics are highest or whose benchmarks have been reached, and by punishing those who fall behind relative to them. Policies based on these assumptions have been on the march for decades, hugely enabled in recent years by dramatic technological advances, and as the ever-rising slope of the Ngram graphs indicate, their assumed truth goes marching on.

The attractions of accountability metrics are apparent. Yet like every culture, the culture of accountability has carved out its own unquestioned sacred space and, as with all arguments from presumed authority, possesses its characteristic blind spots. In this case, the virtues of accountability metrics have been oversold and their costs are underappreciated. It is high time to call accountability and metrics to account.

That might seem a quixotic, if not also a perverse, aspiration. What, after all, could be objectionable about accountability? Should not individuals, departments, divisions, be held to account? And how to do that without counting what they are doing in some standardized, numerical form? How can they be held to firm standards and expectations without providing specific achievement goals, that is, “benchmarks”? And how are people and institutions to be motivated unless rewards are tied to measureable performance? To those in thrall to the culture of accountability, to call its virtues into question is tantamount to championing secrecy, irresponsibility, and, worst of all, imprecision. It is to mark oneself as an enemy of democratic transparency.

To be sure, decision-making based on standardized measurement is often superior to judgment based on personal experience and expertise. Decisions based on big data are useful when the experience of any single practitioner is likely to be too limited to develop an intuitive feel for or reliable measure of efficacy. When a physician confronts the symptoms of a rare disorder, for example, she is better advised to rely on standardized criteria based on the aggregation of many cases. Data-based checklists—standardized procedures for how to proceed under routine or sometimes emergency conditions—have proven valuable in fields as varied as airline operation, rescue squad work, urban policing, and nuclear power plant safety, among a great many.

Clearly, the attempt to measure performance, however difficult it can be, is intrinsically desirable if what is actually measured is a reasonable proxy for what is intended to be measured. But that is not always the case, and between the two is where the blind spots form.

Measurement schemes are deceptively attractive because they often “prove” themselves through low-hanging fruit. They may indeed identify and help to remedy specific problems: It’s good to know which hospitals have the highest rates of infections, which airlines have the best on-time arrival records, and so on, because it can energize and improve performance. But, in many cases, the extension of standardized measurement may suffer diminished utility and even become counterproductive if sensible pragmatism gives way to metric madness. Measurement can readily become counterproductive when it tries to measure the unmeasurable and quantify the unquantifiable, whether to determine rewards or for other purposes. This tends to be the case as the scale of what is being measured grows while the activity itself becomes functionally differentiated, and when those tasked with doing the measuring are detached organizationally from the activity being measured.

He writes specifically about education:

No Child, Doctor, or Cop Left Behind

In the public sector, the show horse of accountability became “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), an educational act signed into law with bipartisan support by George W. Bush in 2001 whose formal title was, “An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”

The NCLB legislation grew out of more than a decade of heavy lobbying by business groups concerned about the quality of the workforce, civil rights groups worried about differential group achievement, and educational reformers who demanded national standards, tests, and assessment. The benefit of such measures was oversold, in terms little short of utopian.

Thus William Kolberg of the National Alliance of Business asserted that, “the establishment of a system of national standards, coupled with assessment, would ensure that every student leaves compulsory school with a demonstrated ability to read, write, compute and perform at world-class levels in general school subjects.” The first fruit of this effort, on the Federal level, was the “Improving America’s Schools Act” adopted under President Clinton in 1994. Meanwhile, in Texas, Governor George W. Bush became a champion of mandated testing and educational accountability, a stance that presaged his support for NCLB.

Under NCLB states were to test every student in grades 3–8 each year in math, reading, and science. The act was meant to bring all students to “academic proficiency” by 2014, and to ensure that each group of students (including blacks and Hispanics) within each school made “adequate yearly progress” toward proficiency each year. It imposed an escalating series of penalties and sanctions for schools in which the designated groups of students did not make adequate progress. Despite opposition from conservative Republicans antipathetic to the spread of Federal power over education, and of some liberal Democrats, the act was co-sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy and passed both houses of Congress with majority Republican and Democratic support. Advocates of the reforms maintained that the act would create incentives for improved outcomes by aligning the behavior of teachers, students, and schools with “the performance goals of the system.”

Yet more than a decade after its implementation, the benefits of the accountability provisions of NCLB remain elusive. Its advocates grasp at any evidence of improvement on any test at any grade in any demographic group for proof of NCLB’s efficacy. But test scores for primary school students have gone up only slightly, and no more quickly than before the legislation was enacted. Its impact on the test scores of high school students has been more limited still.

The unintended consequences of NCLB’s testing-and-accountability regime are more tangible, however, and exemplify many of the characteristic pitfalls of the culture of accountability. Under NCLB, scores on standardized tests are the numerical metric by which success and failure are judged. And the stakes are high for teachers and principals, whose salaries and very jobs depend on this performance indicator. It is no wonder, then, that teachers (encouraged by their principals) divert class time toward the subjects tested—mathematics and English—and away from history, social studies, art, and music. Instruction in math and English is narrowly focused on the skills required by the test rather than broader cognitive processes: Students learn test-taking strategies rather than substantive knowledge. Much class time is devoted to practicing for tests, hardly a source of stimulation for pupils.

Even worse than the perverse incentives involved in “teaching to the test” is the technique of improving average achievement levels by reclassifying weaker students as disabled, thus removing them from the assessment pool. Then there is out-and-out cheating, as teachers alter student answers or toss out tests by students likely to be low scorers, phenomena well documented in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Dallas, and other cities. Mayors and governors have diminished the difficulty of tests, or lowered the grades required to pass the test, in order to raise the pass rate and thus demonstrate the success of their educational reforms—and get more Federal money by so doing.

Another effect of NCLB is the demoralization of teachers. Many teachers perceive the regimen created by the culture of accountability as robbing them of their autonomy, and of the ability to use their discretion and creativity in designing and implementing the curriculum. The result has been a wave of early retirements by experienced teachers, and the movement of the more creative ones away from public and toward private schools, which are not bound by NCLB.

Despite the pitfalls of NCLB, the Obama Administration doubled down on accountability and metrics in K-12 education. In 2009, it introduced “Race to the Top”, which used funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to induce states “to adopt college- and career-ready standards and assessments; build data systems that measure student growth and success; and link student achievement to teachers and administrators.” This shows what happens these days when accountability metrics do not yield the result desired: Measure more, but differently, until you get the result you want.

Metric madness is not limited to education. Some of the problems evident in NCLB pop up in fields from medicine to policing.

Duane Swacker, teacher and loyal blog discussant, redponds to a comment with a suggestion:

“I teach in SC and we have the same pressure.”

Can we get 50 states chiming in???

I teach in MO and we have the same pressure.

I teach in ____ and we have the same pressure.

The Journal News of the Lower Hudson Valley wrote an editorial explaining the genesis of the testing madness that has gripped the nation for at least 15 years.

First came No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top, destroying education by a mammoth obsession with test scores.

Andrew Cuomo used federal policy to lash out at teachers’ unions. Of Congress passes s new law, reducing federal punishments, what will the states do with their new flexibility?

The editorial sees some positive sights:

“Newly arrived state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has said she will appoint task forces to review the Common Core standards, New York’s 3-to-8 tests that are now tied to Common Core, and how test results are used to evaluate teachers. Elia has a track record of supporting the standards-testing-evaluations approach to improving education, but seems keenly aware that many New Yorkers have little faith in our testing obsession. She’ll soon realize that a whole new group of parents are now irritated because of the recent Regents exam in algebra, which left even top students scratching their heads.”

Giving the boot to Pearson sent a good signal.

But now there is “the Cuomo problem.”

“Then there’s the Cuomo problem. Our governor is the driving force behind New York’s brutish teacher-evaluation system, which will increasingly rely on test scores to label teachers (even though we won’t use the same scores to evaluate students because the tests are unproven). Many classroom teachers and the parents who appreciate them will remain peeved until the system is changed. Elia will have to confront this problem pronto and figure out a way to circumvent Cuomo’s stubbornness, driven largely by his animus for teachers unions.
We hope that Congress will let states decide how to use test data for their own purposes. But it would be up to New York’s leaders to recognize what even those in Washington see: testing should not drive education policy. Many teachers will spend too much time next year trying to protect their jobs by preparing students for tests. This must not continue.”

Minutes ago, a bipartisan majority of the Senate approved the Every Child Achieves Act, which is the bill forged by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Patty Murray (D-WA). This is the long-overdue reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the legislation passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law on January 8, 2002. The underlying legislation is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, whose purpose was to authorize federal aid to education targeted to schools that enrolled significant numbers of children living in poverty. The original bill was about equity, not testing and accountability.


The Senate bill retains annual testing, but removes federal sanctions attached to test results. Any rewards or sanctions attached to test scores will be left to states. The Senate rejected private school vouchers; nine Republican Senators joined with Democrats to defeat the voucher proposal. The bill also strengthens current prohibitions against the Secretary of Education dictating specific curriculum, standards, and tests to states, as well as barring the Secretary from tying test scores to teacher evaluations. The bill repudiates the punitive measures of of NCLB and RTTT.


The House of Representatives has already passed its own bill, called the Student Success Act. A conference committee representing both houses will meet to iron out their differences and craft a bill that will then be presented for a vote in both houses.


As I get additional details, I will post them.


Speaking for the Network for Public Education, I will say that we are pleased to see a decisive rejection of federal micromanagement of curriculum, standards, and assessments, as well as the prohibition of federal imposition of particular modes of evaluating teachers. We oppose annual student testing; no high-performing nation in the world administers annual tests, and there is no good reason for us to do so. We reject the claim that children who are not subjected to annual standardized tests suffer harm or will be neglected. We believe that the standardized tests are shallow and have a disparate impact on children who are Black and Brown, children with disabilities, and children who are English language learners. We believe such tests degrade the quality of education and unfairly stigmatize children as “failures.” We also regret this bill’s financial support for charter schools, which on average do not perform as well as public schools, and in many jurisdictions, perform far worse than public schools. We would have preferred a bill that outlawed the allocation of federal funds to for-profit K-12 schools and that abandoned time-wasting annual testing.


Nonetheless, we support the Senate bill because it draws a close to the punitive methods of NCLB and RTTT. It is an important step forward for children, teachers, and public education. The battle over “reform” now shifts to the states, but we welcome an era in which the voices of parents, educators, and students can mobilize to influence policies in their communities and states. We believe that grassroots groups have a better chance of being heard locally than in Washington, D.C., where Beltway insiders think they speak for the public. We will continue to organize and carry our fight for better education to every state.

David Berliner, distinguished educational researcher, has assembled the facts about the powerful influence of poverty and inequality on students. Until now, the linked article has been behind a paywall. It is now available to all.


Here is the background for the article:


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. Sadly, compared to all other wealthy nations, the USA has the largest income gap between its wealthy and its poor citizens. Correlates associated with the size of the income gap in various nations are well described in Wilkinson & Pickett (2010), whose work is cited throughout this article. They make it clear that the bigger the income gap in a nation or a state, the greater the social problems a nation or a state will encounter. Thus it is argued that the design of better economic and social policies can do more to improve our schools than continued work on educational policy independent of such concerns.


He writes:


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, 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.


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.


Berliner then proceeds to eviscerate the assumptions and theories that undergird the failed policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Most politicians share these failed ideas and support these failed policies. Berliner brings research and knowledge to the issue and shows that there is no debate. On one hand is reality, based in research and experience; on the other is ideology backed by money and power.


The conclusion: The so-called “reformers” are hurting children. They are undermining American public education. They are ruining education. They should inform themselves and work to eliminate the sources of inequality and poverty and poor academic performance.




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