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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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No shortage of ink had been put to paper pondering what it is that ails America's education system. We know that, on average, our kids' educational outcomes lag behind those of other wealthy countries, but why is that? But one of the core problems, if not the core problem, is only rarely discussed: the staggering, and increasing inequality that marks the American economy today.

That's the conclusion Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, has drawn from her research. AlterNet recently spoke with Darling-Hammond -- below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Joshua Holland: You’ve done research on the connection between poverty and educational outcomes. We hear a lot about how poorly American students do compared to those in other wealthy countries, in terms of math or reading scores, but you found that American kids in wealthier schools do quite well. Tell us a little bit about that.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Well, there are a couple of things to know before we talk about the scores. First of all, the United States has more children living in poverty, by a long shot, than any other industrialized nation. Right now about one in four children are living in poverty. In most other industrialized nations we’re talking about well under 10 percent, because there’s so many more supports for housing, healthcare, employment, and so on.

With that very high poverty rate, our average scores on international tests look a little above the average in reading, about at the average in science and somewhat below the average in math, and a lot has been made out of that in the United States. But in fact, students in American schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students live in poverty actually are number one in the world in reading. Students in schools with up to 25 percent of kids living in poverty would rank number three in the world in reading, and even schools with as many as 50 percent of kids in poverty scored well above the averages in the OECD nations – which is mostly the European and some Asian nations. Our teachers are doing something very right in terms of educating kids to high levels in much more challenging circumstances than children face in other countries.

The place where we really see the negative effects are in the growing number of schools with concentrated poverty, where more than 75 percent of children are poor. And there -- the children in those schools score at levels that are near those of developing countries, with all the challenges that they face.

JH: Let's talk about how this dynamic works. I can see at least two ways: you’d expect poor kids to have problems with preparation rising directly from being poor, and you’d also expect them to go to schools with fewer resources.

Let’s take this second one of those first. I think it's important to understand the way our local schools are financed. They get about 10 percent of their funds from the federal government and the other 90 percent are split more or less equally between state and local governments. So we know a lot about how much money we spend on kids, on average, but that doesn’t tell us about the wide disparities in school funding. If you’re in a wealthy state and in a community with a good property tax base, you’re going to do a lot better. How does that affect educational outcomes, these disparities in school funding?

LDH: Hugely, and there are lots of studies that show that, while of course you can waste money, the amount of money you have spent has a big affect on student achievement. And we have more inequality in funding in our schools then any of the developed nations.

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