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

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.

In most of the countries that rank near the top and have equitable outcomes, they spend the same amount per child in each school and sometimes they add money when they have low income or new immigrants in a school. It is just about the reverse in the United States: we have some states that spend as much as three times more than other states, and the high spenders are not surprisingly the high achievers, like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The low achievers are not surprisingly the low spenders – Mississippi, California, Louisiana. But then within states it’s quite typical for the high-spending districts to spend three or four times as much as the low-spending districts. In New York right now, the spending out in Scarsdale or Long Island is significantly higher than the spending in New York City, which in turn is higher than some of the poor rural areas.

That translates into differential salaries, differential working conditions, differential class sizes, etc. All of those things add up to produce a very different quality of education from one school community to the other.

JH: As a Californian, professor, I have to tell you how happy I am to be lumped in with Mississippi and Alabama. We’re not doing a great job right now.

LDH: California essentially made itself a Southern state by disinvesting its schools over the last 20 years.

JH: And they did that by passing a requirement that you need a super-majority vote to raise taxes, which has caused us basically to ruin what was once a gem of our educational system.

Now we know that in the last 40 years the United States has seen a dramatic increase in inequality. That’s not in dispute -- everybody agrees with that. Have the funding disparities over that time become more pronounced as well? I know that there are various federal programs that try to equalize these things; how affective are they? What is the status of school inequality in terms of funding over that period of time?

LDH: It’s gotten worse. The point in our history at which we had the highest rate of equity in funding and spendingwas in the 1970s. In fact, the “war on poverty” -- the Great Society period -- made a big difference; there was far less childhood poverty than there is now. Unemployment was lower, there was a lot of federal money going into urban school districts and poor rural schools districts and school finance litigation had caused quite a bit of equalization. In 1975, for the first time, the rate of black, Latino and white students going to college was exactly equal. We had made a lot of strides.

But most of those programs were eliminated or greatly reduced in the 1980s as part of the Reagan revolution and so we saw the federal dollars get cut in half for public schools. Almost all of that came out of equity-oriented programs that were facilitating both fiscal equity and school desegregation – and making investments in tiny communities.

Similarly, during the 1990s -- during the 1980s and the 1990s -- we had many states doing as California did: putting in place tax caps and other strategies to make it harder to invest in public education and those reforms basically increased the inequality in funding for schools and in the other resources that communities receive.

JH: Now we all know that educational outcomes aren’t only influenced by schools. There’s more going on, like the involvement of parents. What are the direct effects of poverty on educational outcomes. These kids are poor, but are they less prepared to learn when they come into the classroom?

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.

JH: What about the other side of the coin: we hear a lot about teachers' unions hurting kids. We heard this from, of course, school reformers who would like to diminish their influence, but as far as the empirical evidence, is there research that suggests unions are a problem?

LDH: That has become a mantra in the United States. It's interesting when you look at these high-achieving nations that people like to compare us to -- like Finland and Singapore and some others. Ninety-eight percent of teachers and principals in Finland belong to the educators' union. They have one union, and it has not impeded their achievement. In the United States, the highest-achieving states are typically in the Northern states that have collective bargaining, and the lowest-achieving states are in the Southern region, where typically there hasn’t been collective bargaining.

If unions were the major or only problem we would seeing very different kinds of trends. I think it’s certainly true that we’ve grown up over the last century with some pretty cumbersome collective bargaining agreements, which are a product of the way that school boards and unions have dealt with the factory model of schooling that we inherited. There is room for reform in the way we do bargaining, but it is also true that things that teachers often bargain for things like smaller class sizes, higher salaries, which actually help kids because when you get better compensation, you bring more capable people into the profession and you keep them there. When you have smaller class sizes, the kids have more opportunities to learn.

So I think it would be way too simplistic to say that the problem in education is on the doorstep of teachers' unions alone.

JH: I think what people need to understand about our economy is that between World War II and 1980, when Ronald Reagan came to office, the top 1 percent of all households took in an average of 10 percent of our nation’s pre-tax income and it was very steady -- year in and year out, they never grabbed more than 13 percent. But by the time Reagan left office, the top 1 percent of household was taking in over 15 percent of the nation’s income, and by the time George Bush got elected they were grabbing over 21 percent of the take – twice as much as they had during the post-war era.

That means that the rest of us are splitting a smaller share of the pie, and we are seeing more inequality, more poverty as a result. And this effects our kids -- this effects our communities, our classrooms – and teachers unions, in my view, are being scapegoated for some of these social problems that are entirely beyond their control by people who don’t want to really tackle the root problem of inequality and poverty.

Professor, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

LDH: It was my pleasure. 


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