A new report published in the US this week highlights a major problem that will come to the fore in Australia with the publication of school league tables. This is the tendency to blame schools for low levels of student achievement and gaps between rich and poor students without regard to factors outside schools that continually impact on student achievement.
“Schools are told to fix problems that largely lie outside their zone of influence,” says David Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University, and author of the report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. The report is jointly published by the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) of ASU and the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Berliner’s report comes as debate continues over the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act in the US, which imposed stiff accountability measures on schools in return for federal aid. NCLB requires public schools to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” toward the eventual elimination of gaps in achievement among all demographic groups of students and imposes a variety of sanctions if they fall short.
“This report provides exactly the type of information that should guide policy,” says EPIC director Kevin Welner of CU-Boulder. “It clearly and concisely explains why poverty must be directly addressed by anyone who hopes to close the achievement gap. Just as importantly, it explains why just tinkering with NCLB is a fool’s errand.”
Last week, Education Secretary Duncan told the Washington Post that those who would use the social ills of poor children as an excuse for not educating them “are part of the problem.” Welner agrees. “But,” he says, “those who point to schools as an excuse for failure to address social ills are equally at fault.”
Berliner explains that NCLB “focuses almost exclusively on school outputs, particularly reading and mathematics achievement test scores.” He says, “The law was purposely designed to pay little attention to school inputs in order to ensure that teachers and school administrators had ‘no excuses’ when it came to better educating impoverished youth.”
Yet, as explained in the new report, that position is not merely unrealistic, but certain to fail. Berliner says that NCLB’s accountability system is “fatally flawed” because it makes schools accountable for achievement without regard for out-of-school factors.
Berliner reviews a half-dozen out-of-school factors that have been clearly linked to lower achievement among poor and minority-group students: birth weight and non-genetic parental influences; medical care; food insecurity; environmental pollution; family breakdown and stress; and neighbourhood norms and conditions.
Additionally, he notes a seventh factor: extended learning opportunities in the form of summer programs, after-school programs, and pre-school programs. Access to these resources by poor and minority students could help mitigate the effects of the other six factors.
Because of the extraordinary influence of the six factors that Berliner identifies, “increased spending on schools, as beneficial as that might be, will probably come up short in closing the gaps.” Instead, he calls for an approach to school improvement that would demand “a reasonable level of societal accountability for children’s physical and mental health and safety.” “At that point,” he concludes, “maybe we can sensibly and productively demand that schools be accountable for comparable levels of academic achievement for all America’s children.”
Berliner’s report is a sobering reminder for Australian education policy makers that reporting school results to encourage parents to vote with their feet ignores key causes of the large achievement gap between rich and poor. It is a reminder that more comprehensive policies have to be put in place to deal with the impact of low income and poverty on student achievement. League tables will only exacerbate the tendency to blame schools for factors outside their control.