Saturday, June 19, 2010

19 June 2010 Op-Ed The Greenville News

Test scores aren't the most serious problem

On 28 May 2010, the Huffington Post announced on its top headline, "WHAT WE VALUE"—in all caps and bold blue font. Below, the subhead added, "Wars Get Funded, Laid-Off Workers Don't."

Setting aside the partisan bias of this online publication and also setting aside the direct topics of this headline, we should all consider seriously the evidence of what we value as a society. As the article shows, in the U.S. we are apt to reveal what we genuinely value with what we fund—just as we also reveal what we value by the conditions we allow to exist, especially concerning education and the conditions of the lives of children.

To be blunt, we say we care about education, we say we value children—but we simply don't.

The evidence of our priorities lies in the dishonesty of the century-long demonizing of public schools, including our habit of making international and state-by-state comparisons of education in order to promote the misguided claims that drop-out rates and SAT scores prove that our schools are relentless failures.

Pick-pockets, magicians, politicians, and ideologue prove to have something in common: The ability to draw our attention over here so we don’t look too closely over there—where the real thing is taking place.

Since we value comparisons, let's look carefully at one international comparison. Often U.S. public schools are condemned in comparison with Finland so we'll start there.

In Finland, 2.8% of the children live in relative poverty while in the U.S. 21.9% of children live in relative poverty (UNICEF Innocenti Report Card No. 6, 2005). And here is the point we must not ignore: We as a country are simply willing to tolerate childhood poverty at a rate that other countries will not endure.

And we are also willing to misinform by condemning the quality of our schools—while failing to acknowledge that school achievement is a reflection of social poverty. In other words, the data on student achievement in Finland and the U.S. tells us something about our society—something that isn't very appealing—but almost nothing about our schools.

Yet, we don't have to make any comparisons to see what we truly value. David Berliner offers a snapshot of how we allow out-of-school factors to overburden the lives of children, and ultimately corrupt the achievement of those children when they enter our schools.

Low birth weight (LBW) has profound implications for children, and as Berliner notes, "LBW babies are not distributed randomly among racial or income groups." And the disproportion among races and socioeconomic class of LBW babies parallels exactly the achievement gap in our schools.

Next, and more broadly, Berliner explains, "If a lack of medical insurance (and its correlate, untreated illness) were distributed equally across society, local public schools would all have the same challenges, with instructional problems due to increased illness and untreated injuries dispersed across schools. . . .But this is not the case."

As with LBW, we simply do not value the health of children—particularly if they are children of color or children living in poverty. And that failure by us as a society is reflected again in our schools.

Berliner offers more out-of-school factors—food insecurity, environmental pollutants, family relations and family stress, and neighborhood characteristics—that parallel the two noted above, and they all reveal what we value, or more directly, what we do not value.

The Condition of Education 2010, released 27 May 2010, offers more sobering evidence about what we value. The number of schools labeled as high-poverty is increasing—from 15% to 20% of elementary schools and from 5% to 9% of secondary schools over a nine-year period.

Stern ideological beliefs about individual responsibility concerning adults sit at the heart of American values, and while I find that stance tenuous, I cannot accept that same stern view regarding children.

Children have no political power, even in a free country. And children in poverty by association have even less power due to the factors beyond their control that burden their lives—their access to health care, their access to eye care, their access to healthy and plentiful food, their access to safe housing, and, yes, their access to high quality schools.

All children deserve better schools. We have failed in that promise in too many ways. But to make that charge without acknowledging first that we have failed and continue to fail children as a society is a clear message about what we value—and as a country tolerating a high percentage of children living in poverty, we have much more serious problems than how our test scores compare with Finland.