Ideologues Lie About Education Reform

We’re talking ideologues this week on Phil’s Corner, because they are infecting democracy and threaten to hold more control beyond next Tuesday. Hardliner politicians are refusing to budge on fixes to important problems, and the cost of their devout certainty is most apparent in the fascinating field of public education. It’s tough to convey how important schools are to the wellbeing of a community, yet that hasn’t prevented politicians from ignoring experts and barreling ahead with their own mindless agendas.  

In the state-of-the-state address this year, Gov. Susana Martinez cited morality as the argument for her education-reform centerpiece: retention. Her schools bill would require that a student who fails the literacy test administered in 3rd grade be held back to repeat that grade. 

Here’s how Martinez framed the argument in her speech: “My fellow New Mexicans, telling children, regardless of how subtle, that they are not capable of achieving is morally wrong. … (W)e will end social promotion, the practice of passing children from one grade to the next before they have mastered the basics.” 

This is where we see the head of an ideologue rearing back to breathe fire. When Democrats balked and blocked the retention bill, the response was piety and finger wagging. What we haven’t ever seen at the Roundhouse is a substantive debate on this issue. 

Maybe this is why: “Research is quite clear that on average, students left back do not improve as much as do students who are allowed to advance to a higher grade with their age mates,” writes David Berliner, in an exhaustively researched report released earlier this month. Berliner is an author and the regents professor of education at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in educational psychology from Stanford. 

Berliner notes that school districts in America spend, on average, about $10,000 per student per year. Instead of spending that money on a kid repeating 3rd grade, Berliner says, “that same about of money could be better used for small group and tutoring programs over a few years to help the struggling student to perform better. This is precisely the method used by wealthy parents to get their children to achieve well. … (W)hat the best and wisest parents want for their children should be what we want for all children.” 

Finland is considered the highest-achieving nation, education-wise, in the world, Berliner notes. (The UN has Finland tied for first in education.) Finland “has no high-stakes testing, and an accountability system that relies on teacher judgment and school-level professionalism much more than tests….”

In other words, a country that does the opposite of what Martinez is suggesting has much better education results. Finland also “shuns retention,” Berliner says. 

Finland is not the U.S., though. Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted in the New York Times on Sunday that no other developed country compares with America in the one area that most directly impacts student achievement. 

“That American inequity is at historic highs is indisputable,” Stiglitz writes. “It’s not just that the top 1 percent takes in about a fifth of the income, and controls more than a third of the wealth. America has become the country (among the advanced industrial countries) with the least equity of opportunity. Meanwhile, those in the middle are faring badly, in every dimension, in security, in income, and in wealth – the wealth of the typical household is back to where it was in the 1990s.” 

This looks like the grand scheme of phony education reform – to lie about the problems so government can continue ignoring income inequality, the biggest issue that actually addresses what ails our economy and education system. Again, from Berliner: “In the USA if you scale states from those that are more equal in income distribution (for example Utah, New Hampshire and Iowa) to those that are much more unequal in the distribution of income (for example Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi) a strong trend appears. Dropout rates are much higher in the more unequal states (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Poverty and a lack of hope for a good future take their toll on youth in the more unequal states and students drop out of school at high rates. This costs our society a great deal of money through increased need for public assistance by these youth, the loss of tax revenues from their work, and the higher likelihood of their incarceration. Inequality and the poverty that accompanies it take a terrible toll.” 

Last year, the Census Bureau reported that New Mexico has the fourth-greatest degree of income inequality, behind New York, Connecticut and Louisiana. That’s important because out-of-school variables like household income, violence, medical care available and food insecurity account for 60 percent of the variance between high- and low-performing students on their tests. “The current menu of reforms simply may not help education improve as long as we refuse to notice that public education is working fine for many of America’s families and youth, and that there is a common characteristic among families for whom the public schools are failing. That characteristic is poverty brought about through, and exacerbated by, great inequality in wealth,” Berliner writes.

He also presents fixes, none of which is likely to be embraced by a governor beholden to campaign-contributing business interests. Higher taxes is one, so forget that. Paying workers a living wage that’s above the minimum wage is another, so forget that. High-quality preschools for poor children have been shown to dramatically decrease incarceration rates in communities. “A high-quality preschool, of course, requires ‘up-front’ tax dollars to be spent, but ultimately saves society billions of dollars.” 

Susana Martinez isn’t a fixer, so don’t hold your breath. She’s more of a gangster. After Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks criticized the governor’s education reform – presumably because studies say it won’t work – a woman who works for Brooks as a lobbyist says Martinez’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, grabbed her “aggressively” by the arm in the Roundhouse. Gardner then told the woman, she says, that “the bowels of hell were about to open up upon” Brooks if he didn’t get on board with the governor’s agenda. 

That’s crazy. The facts say these school reforms are doomed, though, so belligerence and lies are the best cards this administration has right now. But should some of these elections swing the governor’s way, she’ll have more. She’ll have a team of lackey goons in the Roundhouse, eager to help her perpetuate The Big Lie that whitewashes inequality and education. 

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