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What Real Education Reform Looks Like

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Posted on Dec 8, 2011
Rupert Ganzer (CC-BY-ND)

By David Sirota

As 2011 draws to a close, we can confidently declare that one of the biggest debates over education is—mercifully—resolved. We may not have addressed all of the huge challenges facing our schools, but we finally have empirical data ruling out apocryphal theories and exposing the fundamental problems.

We’ve learned, for instance, that our entire education system is not “in crisis,” as so many executives in the for-profit education industry insist when pushing to privatize public schools. On the contrary, results from Program for International Student Assessment exams show that American students in low-poverty schools are among the highest-achieving students in the world.

We’ve also learned that no matter how much self-styled education “reformers” claim otherwise, the always-demonized teachers’ unions are not holding our education system back. As The New York Times recently noted: “If unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect” felt in the very unionized schools that so consistently graduate top students?

Now, at year-end, we’ve learned from two studies just how powerful economics are in education outcomes—and how disadvantaged kids are being unduly punished by government policy.

The first report, from Stanford University, showed that with a rising “income achievement gap,” a family’s economic situation is a bigger determinative force in a child’s academic performance than any other major demographic factor. For poor kids, that means the intensifying hardships of poverty are now creating massive obstacles to academic progress.

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Because of this reality, schools in destitute areas naturally require more resources than those in rich ones so as to help impoverished kids overcome comparatively steep odds. Yet, according to the second report from the U.S. Department of Education, “Many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding.” As if purposely embodying the old adage about adding insult to injury, the financing scheme “leav(es) students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.” In practice, that equals less funding to recruit teachers, upgrade classrooms, reduce class sizes and sustain all the other basics of a good education.

Put all this together and behold the crux of America’s education problems in bumper-sticker terms: It’s poverty and punitive funding formulas, stupid.

Thus, we arrive at the factor that decides so many things in American society: money.

As the revelations of 2011 prove, students aren’t helped by billionaire-executives-turned-education-dilettantes who leverage their riches to force their faith-based theories into schools. Likewise, they aren’t aided by millionaire pundits sententiously claiming that we just “need better parents.” And kids most certainly don’t benefit from politicians pretending that incessant union-busting, teacher-bashing and standardized testing represent successful school “reforms.”

Instead, America’s youth need the painfully obvious: a national commitment to combating poverty and more funds spent on schools in the poorest areas than on schools in the richest areas—not the other way around.

Within education, achieving those objectives requires efforts to stop financing schools via property tax systems (i.e., systems that by design direct more resources to wealthy areas). It also requires initiatives that better target public education appropriations at schools in low-income neighborhoods—and changing those existing funding formulas that actively exacerbate inequality.

Policywise, it’s a straightforward proposition. The only thing complex is making it happen. Doing that asks us to change resource-hoarding attitudes that encourage us to care only about our own schools, everyone else’s be damned.

In America’s greed-is-good culture, achieving such a shift in mass psychology is about the toughest task imaginable, but it’s the real education reform that’s most needed.


David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now.” He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

© 2011 CREATORS.COM


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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, December 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm Link to this comment

High-poverty schools are defined as schools where more than 75%
of students receive free and reduced priced lunch.  In contrast, low-
poverty schools are defined as schools where 25% or fewer students
receive free and reduced price lunch.

It should be an axiom that when a declaration of a major problem is
“over,” it might be better viewed with jaundiced or squinted eyes. 

I downloaded and read the June 11, 2011 PISA IN FOCUS document about
high achievers and if one really reads it, it can be seen that while “some”
American students socio-economically disadvantaged show high levels
of academic achievement they have shown strong resilience, and as an
aggregate American students are much lower compared to 26 other
countries and are below average.  Resilient students are considered
those who come from a disadvantaged socio-economic background,
relative to other students in their country, and attain high scores by
international standards. The overall relationship between background
and performance, in addition to the student’s own background, are
taken into consideration to make comparisons between countries
meaningful.  Reasons for this are briefly explained in the pdf document
entitled “High-performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds”
(PISA in Focus No.5) may be accessed here.  One could come to
another conclusion that it is still too early to celebrate.

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By Kronoberger, December 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My big sister, a retired teacher, liked the article but
had the following comment: “... he didn’t mention the
huge tax breaks given to business in the cities that
have the effect of depriving inner city schools of the
money that would help these schools become superbly
effective. There is a disconnect between what
corporations say they want in an educated work force
and what they are willing to pay to make it happen.”
I have a very smart big sister.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, December 9, 2011 at 9:23 pm Link to this comment

Sandy Berman - I enjoyed your comment immensely. I think you really nailed it with your observation:

“There’s more to a country than just its ‘economy.’”

We have become a rather boring lot we Americans. Our schools are geared not to produce well-rounded, curious participants in life but to create legions of “consumers.” After all, what better life is there than to have the Chuck-e-Cheese right across the street from Walmart?

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By Connie Tolleson, December 9, 2011 at 7:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What is the specific thing about poverty that causes problems for the student? 
Parents are the child’s first teachers and their best teachers.  Before the child is
old enough to go to school, she or he has learned a language and to control
their bodies and their emotions. They have also internalized a self identity
based on a culture.  A culture that values education or not, that values human
relationships or not, that values them as a specific human being or not.  The
wealthy have many adults surrounding their children who demonstrate that they
value the child by giving them aware attention.  Poor children may have no
parent at home, both working to keep a roof over their head and food on the
table.  Poverty means that both sets of Grandparents are probably still working
as well. So who values children enough to put the time in to get them ready for
school. 
In England in the mid 1800’s poor girls were brought into a charity school and
taught how to sew, because the industrial revolution had broken that mother to
daughter to daughter handed-down skill for so many generations that it was a
forgotten skill. 
You need to give each child a great quantity of quality time if you want them to
be well educated, well adjusted and happy. 
We treat our children like dogs, throwing them scraps of our time and our
money.  But they are resilient and it looks like they may have formed a cohort
to fix a lot of these problems.

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By rumblingspire, December 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

despite the risk of invasion, reduce the military budget and use that tax money for an open free non-mandatory education system.

:someday we may wish we are invaded.}

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By Diana, December 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To Sandy & Si: Just when I think I will stop reading
another Blog., I find some thoughtful, educated
individuals like yourselves who contribute something
of importance here. The vulgar trash-talk of a few
reminds me of the desperate need for education reform
in this country. 

Yes, the public schools are a joke. I tried teaching,
for a short period of time, and left feeling
absolutely discouraged. I knew dealing with today’s
students would be a challenge, but found the bigger
problem was the system itself, and the (well-
paid)administrators who “enforce” the nonsense: they
want robots who follow their illogical guidelines and
question nothing. 

It’s their way or no way, and most teachers seem to
live in a state of anxiety. Everyone knows NCLB is
not working. . . but no one dares to stop the game.
Students are not learning how to think, read or write
and our society is already paying the price.

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By marcus medler, December 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Too bad little is said about how schools are funded—it is the crux of the problem.

Property tax school funding—from local districts is old, I mean old hat. Rural districts suffer from this burden as too poor big city districts.

But wait, I think that was what white flight was all about. Now, all colors move to the suburbs and most say:“the schools” are the draw.

Today the price is the cost of a single family home, two cars and willingness to drive thirty or more minutes to work.(two income earners)

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By balkas, December 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm Link to this comment

@EmileZ,
did u understand what i wrote? understanding what i wrote does not, tho, force u to agree with what i wrote.
perhaps saying that everything is caused and that there is THE FIRST CAUSE for every event; includes also u.s system
or structure of governance and society explains the idea better.
fortunately for us, a structure can be seen—cause of it either postulated or posited; thus one does not have to go
harvard in order to see it, like/dislike it or accept as [in]valid [for a peaceful/prosperous life for all, that is]
the word “structure” cld be defined i terms of how structural members are ordered spatially and in importance and
how they interrelate; however, each being inseparable from one another or the structure itself.

in case of u.s system of rule, structural members appear clear: police, army echelons, judiciary, fbi, MSM, cia, bankers,
schooling; each having an assigned task to perform, but each espousing one and the only ideology and working for it
in perfect unison.

it cld be likened onto a study of a cancer cell. first of all, one must see its structure [imaging it is not of any help]
before one cld do anything against it.
and we only gather knowledge about anything from seeing and other senses and only then use the language to direct
us to go on to second and third step.
this is sane and natural method of evaluating/learning; alas, religious people and nobility had reversed the natural
order [probably first time ever just a few millennia go in mesopotamia, egypt] and we not knowing this thought: my
god are we ever stupid, vile, uncivilized, etc.

regarding the god, imaging IT is of no help to me. when i see IT, i’ll tell u about it! i know u’d be dying to hear from
me when that happens. tnx

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, December 9, 2011 at 11:35 am Link to this comment

@ Balkas

for the sake of dominating the conversation…

i am with you 98 percent my man.

i don’t even know what the fuck i am talking about anymore but i am always moved by your sincerity.

i am not fucking with you. (i am fucking with me, I suppose)

it is kind of impressive and kind of sad. (where do you begin and me end???)

we will do our best, but is your voice listened to???

I haven’t the foggiest.

Don’t mind me I am just bullshiting (thanks a lot brother).

AArghhh

-EmileZ

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By balkas, December 9, 2011 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

hello, out there? it’s the system, stupid; it is systemic that one get’s
better education than another. and not just in u.s, but in lots of lands.
it is systemic that one go to iraq, afgh’n to kill/maim or get
killed/maimed/mentally damaged and for another to go to yale, W.H.,
congress, hollywood and teach god and american values/ideals.

it is the PERSONAL SUPREMACISM/MERITOCRACY/GODOLOGY, STUPID.
and if u dare propose another system or try to change the existing one,
u’d be demonized, fired, persecuted, or even killed/jailed because U.S
SYSTEM, BEING INFALLIBLE, DEMONIZES ALL OTHERS AND WILL NEVER GO
AWAY ON ITS OWN.
and i think that lots of columnists and posters [perhaps as high 99.999
per mile] avoid even to mention THE SYSTEM.

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, December 9, 2011 at 11:09 am Link to this comment

@ Anarcissie

Though you make a strong case for being “interestingly ineffectual” perhaps “throwing money around” may not be such a bad strategy after all.

You (I am quite confident) will never know.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, December 9, 2011 at 10:53 am Link to this comment

EmileZ—I am just going by what almighty Science says, and has been saying for some time: statistically speaking, the higher the class of children’s families, the better the children do in school.

It seems to me the primary conclusion we can draw from this fact is not that we must give more money to the schools, or less, but that we must figure out what we are doing, unless of course we just want to throw money around.

The big problem is probably that most people want to keep capitalism and its class system in spite of the harms it does, including blighting the lives of children whose parents don’t happen to be class winners.  So if, as Science says, class is the problem, then there is no acceptable solution.

But at least let’s get a handle on the problem, not just recite this party-line dogma or that.  We may be ineffectual but at least we’ll be interestingly ineffectual.

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, December 9, 2011 at 10:34 am Link to this comment

@ Anarcissie

I am not sure we have been properly introduced, but what I am hearing from you is a bunch of nonsense.

Perhaps you cannot change the class of the family, but that should not in any way shape or form, effect the student.

Growing up in a privileged environment might be just as much (or more) of a hinderance as growing up among people of color.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, December 9, 2011 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

‘[A] family’s economic situation is a bigger determinative force in a child’s academic performance than any other major demographic factor. ... Because of this reality, schools in destitute areas naturally require more resources than those in rich ones so as to help impoverished kids overcome comparatively steep odds.’

The second sentence does not follow from the first.  Rather, the first suggests that spending more money on the destitute is a waste of resources, because the effective factor is the class of the student’s family which will be unchanged by the amount of resources allocated to the local schools.

Incidentally, the findings of the study from Stanford were already pretty well-known forty years ago, if not long before: children learn more at home than they do in school.  Needless to say, the education industry does not like this finding and tends to flip it (as in Sirota’s article) into a demand for more money, contrary to the logic of the problem, which demands an investigation of how learning takes place, and a reform, if not complete replacement, of the present system.

However, the basis of the problem, class, is not going to go away immediately; in fact, part of the purpose of articles like this is to pursue the fond liberal hope that class may be preserved, but made nicer in its effects.  With the soft Left and the Right in agreement, then, ‘real education reform’ is impossible, and we may expect continued arguments about fables and fantasies like this one.

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By Thorstein2, December 9, 2011 at 8:13 am Link to this comment

Thanks for the links, David, but I would have liked links to the studies you reference.

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By si, December 9, 2011 at 8:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Money cuts both ways. The entire culture of the current education machine is dispiriting and destructive. I’m a teacher of more than 28 years, all in low income minority schools.

Currently at a middle school in the first year of a multi-million dollar NCLB SIG (school improvement grant) grant for an “under-performing” -according to state multiple choice tests.  We now have tons of money for: test prep classes and materials, academic coaches (that’s middle management…or teachers who no longer teach), data specialists, after school tutoring (test prep), a full time hall monitor, spirit boosting school t shirts for all, computer labs for more test taking,  a PR consultant etc.

My students often have 3 hours of remedial language arts classes(that’s test prep- not writing, reading literature or thinking)  and 2 similar math “support” classes.  No time for much else and the school only offers PE to those lucky enough to have an elective (some get no science). 

The school offers no shop, art, home economics, music, not even current events.  Teachers must teach a scripted curricula (created by fabulously profitable corporations like Scholastic and others).  Middle management is in place to assure that we teach these curricula day after day “With fidelity”... or else.  Test scores trump everything.

The message to the students is: school will continue to suck until test scores rise.  The attitude of an increasing number is “f*** this”.

I’ve been an effective, innovative teacher all these years (my students and evals all support this) but this morning I’m feeling ready to adopt the same attitude.

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, December 9, 2011 at 6:56 am Link to this comment

If having a Supreme Court packed with the corporate party’s disingenuous Democrats would provide the just society that “progressives” claim it would, then black kids wouldn’t still be in separate and unequal schools today… more than 57 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

Liberals conveniently solved the civil rights problem by establishing a big bureaucracy to maintain poverty, to confine most blacks within a permanent underclass.

But, yes, America’s “education” system has been remarkably successful. It has produced voters with 99% robotic reliability of being fooled all the time every time by the Republican/Democrat corporate party partnership… election results regularly providing positive proof that near all students have successfully been “educated” into being uneducable.

Jill Stein for President:

http://www.jillstein.org

Voter Consent Wastes Dissent:

http://chenangogreens.org/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=498&Itemid=1

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By Big B, December 9, 2011 at 6:11 am Link to this comment

There has always been and will always be a direct link between how much is spent educating a student and his or hers level of success. It’s really simple, the more money you spend, the smarter the kids are.

Here in PA schools are funded primarily by local income and property taxes (as they are in most states) That fact alone has created a 3 tiered system. The first being the upper middle class suburban and private schools. These mostly white schools have graduation rates at or over 90% and send nearly every student off to college. Here in pa those schools are able to spend in excezz of $10,000 per year per student. The second are our older rural schools. With dwindling populations and incomes, their property values dropping, They are barely able to keep their schools open. These districts have fund raisers to purchase books. They spend about $3000 per student. Then of course, the older urban schools. Located in blighted rust belt towns, these schools offer only basic educations to most students, have drop out rates of over 50%, send few off to college and spend only about $2500 per student.

Our system is creating a permanent lower class of morlocks. And we all know what the morlocks eventually did to the Eloi.

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Albion's Fall's avatar

By Albion's Fall, December 9, 2011 at 6:01 am Link to this comment

Emile,

Race To The Top also mandates the creation of “alternative teacher certification programs” that are not affiliated with universities or teachers’ colleges; in other words, that means licensing for-profit certification programs typically run by education-based corporations. Specifically, the mandate demands that such programs be substantially less time-intensive than traditional programs, and also that they be less expensive. In practice, most alternative certification programs (Texas has been doing this for years - surprise, surprise) certify teachers in a year to eighteen months. That’s right, just a year’s training (usually online) to become a “fully qualified” teacher.

As to Sirota’s column, there’s nothing in it that progressive educators haven’t been saying for several decades now. Research has been conducted on the relationships between socioeconomic class, race, and culture to school performance since the 1970s, but such research has been largely qualitative in nature and is thus buried by empiricists, who haven’t the moral or intellectual capacity to recognize the value of such studies. I see little chance of reorganizing funding policies along the lines he suggests; the educational lobby would never go in for it - such changes would interfere with their dreams of privatization. The Nation has a disturbing report on the rise of online education this month; the short of it is that education is far too big a market to be ignored, with no less than Rupert Murdoch predicting it will someday approach the $500 billion range - once privatization is fully realized. Sirota’s “hopey-changey” piece ignores the ugly reality of what’s actually occurring, in bipartisan fashion, right under our noses. Anyone interested in seeing how privatization is being accomplished should really check out the Nation piece: http://www.thenation.com/article/164651/how-online-learning-companies-bought-americas-schools

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, December 9, 2011 at 2:24 am Link to this comment

@ Sandy Berman

I am enamored.

Haven’t we met before somewhere???

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Sandy Berman's avatar

By Sandy Berman, December 9, 2011 at 1:24 am Link to this comment

Even more than “accumulating knowledge”, education is about teaching
students to THINK… about honing the ability for abstract thought.

Problem solving is more than regurgitating formulae and punching data into a
computer.. it is being able to actualize the formulae… design the computer.

We need visionaries more than we need expeditors… creators more than
dispatchers.

The Classical Greeks knew that music was the most important focus of all study
(in fact, those without a knowledge of it were considered illiterate for
thousands of years hence in just about every enlightened society)...  and that
math and science were outgrowths of it.
Believe it or not, art and music, literature and drama are all as important
subjects as are math and science (the “panaceas-du-jour”).. for without them,
creative abilities atrophy and we end up with a society of drones… which might
very well be the goal of the corporatists, the oligarchs and the plutocrats who
seem hellbent on establishing a permanent underclass of indentured servants.

Milton Friedmans wettest of dreams.

It also never ceases to amaze me that so many republicans, teabaggers and
right-wingers in general feel that a comprehensive liberal arts education is
somehow a “liability”... that being “creative”, an “intellectual” or an “academic” is
somehow a “fault”…. that to be a “scholar” and to be honored as part of an
“elite” group of achievers somehow makes one worthy of contempt.

These are not pejoratives.
These are things to take great pride in.

What I find even more disturbing is that these very same semi-literates insist
on controlling our schools in what all evidence points to is a deliberate move to
dumb this Nation down even more than it has already been (if that is even
possible), not only intellectually but morally as well.

An uneducated populace is easiest to control.

We must no longer allow the thugs and the haters, those who conjure the
pounding of jackbooted lockstep with every utterance to hijack the language
and sciences.. our history (warts and all) and the arts… just as they have our
culture.. a slimy, cynical tactic used by those craving despotic power who once
(and still do) sport virtual armbands to try to lull the masses into thinking that
they are somehow in danger by those who have dared read a book or enter the
halls of a museum.
Filling them with ignorance, with fear, with hatred.

FDR, in similar economic circumstances to that we currently suffer knew, in his
infinite wisdom, what we must relearn today.

Amongst other stimuli, he created the Works Progress Administration which
commissioned artists and composers, architects and writers that not only
created an American culture enjoyed by all, but introduced and made accessible
to the public to great works that defined a nation comprised of literate, refined,
cultivated people.

Our “Greatest Generation”.

There is more to a country than just it’s “economy”.

There is also a tremendous need to rejuvenate our culture and to, once again,
promote and fund more Art and Music, more Literature and Theatre, and finally
retake our National Identity, one that has been hijacked by “cheap imports”,
vapid amusement and corporate mediocrity.

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, December 8, 2011 at 11:08 pm Link to this comment

Anyone with an ounce of common sense should be able to see that “race to the top” is a backwards, stupid, counterproductive program if they think about it for more than ten seconds.

It awards money to schools that need it the least, and punishes teachers who are trying to help those who need it the most.

MY GOD IT IS STUPID!!!!

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