Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Public Education—Blame the 1% for Low Test Scores

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The following is a letter to the editor I sent to the S.F. Chronicle in response to their Sunday Insight editorial: "The end of No Child Left Behind."

Sunday’s Insight editorial suggested students and teachers need to work harder to improve educational outcomes, yet they are already working harder than ever. Many now have homework and test prep in kindergarten. Increasing numbers are taking and passing AP classes, including low income and minority students. Teachers are working longer to implement reforms to improve educational outcomes.

Pundits and critics fail to acknowledge that school failure is due far more to socioeconomic factors than teacher quality. Even conservative Hoover Institute researcher Erik Hanushek argues that test scores are only 10% attributable to teachers, while most school success comes from “out-of-school” factors like family income.

The smoking gun is that the achievement gap exists before children even start school. David Burkam and Valerie Lee observed 60% higher cognitive scores among affluent versus low income kindergarteners, while Betty Hart and Todd Risely found similar class-based differences in language development and IQ among three-year olds. The gap only increases over time, as affluent children participate in more enriching afterschool and summer activities; enjoy better attendance, diet, healthcare; and suffer less financial stress.

To see significant improvements in education, we must first close the wealth gap and ensure all students have material security at home.

While the above was submitted to the Chron to comply with their 200 word limit, I found the editorial troubling on several other accounts. The author implies that teachers unions stand in the way of progress by opposing using student test scores to rank schools and evaluate teachers, calling this the “show stopper,” without any reference to the fact that student test scores cannot measure teacher quality and, at best, are a measure of students’ family income or how bought into school they are.

There is no mention in the piece about the $20 billion or so that the state has ripped off from (and still owes to) public education over the past three years. There is no mention that California now has one of the five lowest rates of per pupil spending in the nation. The was no critique of high stakes tests and accountability or suggestion that they are all red herrings, at best, that allow us to continue to blame teachers and ignore the more salient causes of low student achievement.

NCLB and all high stakes testing and accountability regimes need to tossed out the window. If only 10% of school success is attributable to teachers and they are already working harder than ever, it is certainly time to start addressing the other 90% of school success.

Interestingly, since most of this 90% is due to growing poverty and poor school funding, it can be directly linked to the increasing wealth of the 1%, who, by demanding record low income, business, capital gains and inheritance taxes, help ensure  that states lack the revenues to fund education. Their wealth, luxury and security are only possible by keeping their taxes low relative to ours and by keeping their wages and profits high compared to our incomes.

Therefore, while the Occupy movement, the 99%-ers, blame the 1% for their own bleak job prospects and declining standards of living, the 1% is also far more responsible than teachers for declining educational outcomes. Without increased taxes on the richest Americans, schools will continue to be defunded each year. Without increased wages and living standards for workers, poverty will persist or worsen, increasing the numbers of children who come to school malnourished, ill, homeless, and stressed.

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