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Teachers Make Handy Scapegoats, But Spiraling Inequality Is Really What Ails Our Education System

Stanford University scholar Linda Darling-Hammond explains the connection.

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LDH: We know that there’s a huge gap at kindergarten between children from low-income families and children from high-income families. There’s a vocabulary gap -- the children from low-income families have, on average, about a third of the number of words, and concepts that go with those words, when they come into kindergarten. Now, this is greatly ameliorated by pre-school, but we do not provide free universal pre-school and lots of low-income kids do not get access to early learning opportunities.

Then there are the general things you would expect – about having books in the home, opportunities to go to museums, enrichment activities and all of those kind of things. I mentioned pre-school already, but there also the effects of things like stress. It’s very stressful to be a low-income person in the United States. There is eviction, there are people who are homeless, and in a number of districts near me in California we actually have as many as one in 10 kids who are homeless right now. Homelessness has been increasing, and 40 percent of the homeless are families with children. You have the stresses of unemployment, of making ends meet, and stress actually impedes learning. There is a whole physiological response to stress that shuts down cognition.

There are also effects of living, as many poor people do, in toxic areas, where there are health challenges that also pose cognitive challenges -- everything from pollution and asthma to lead paint and so on. So there are many, many challenges for people living in poverty to getting the educational start that you would want. Now some of these things we could address if we took up policies like some other countries have, but right now we are not addressing these in any kind of systematic way in most states.

JH: Now, there has been a lot of controversy about "teaching to the test,” and about evaluating teachers based on those test scores. Is there a connection between poverty and testing outcomes? We know that there’s been a great acceleration of these standardized tests and more emphasis put on their outcomes.

LDH: There are, of course, relationships between students' circumstances and test scores in general. For many, many years studies have found that 50 or 60 percent of the difference in achievement scores is accounted for by various socioeconomic variables, like income and parent education and similar variables. So you have these differentials in access to learning resources, and in some of the lowest income communities you have class sizes of up to 40, even in the early grades – in kindergarten and first grade. All of those are the aggregated effects of the way we treat children in poverty in this country and in specific school systems.

The measures of student learning that are being proposed for teacher evaluation are theoretically supposed to count for these things by measuring gains and not just average scores. But, unfortunately, what researchers have found is that these evaluation measures are unable to completely account for all of the differentials in who the students are and what other opportunities they have and what the conditions of teaching and learning are.

And the data are showing that they are very, very unstable and unreliable measures and biased against teachers who teach certain types of students. There are big inaccuracies in the specific kinds of measures that have been proposed for teacher evaluation and while I think it’s useful to include student learning progress in everything we do in education, including evaluating professionals, we need much better measures than the ones that have currently been put on the table.

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