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Eduardo Porter’s Tough Question for Public School Critics

“School vs. Society in America’s Failing Schools”, Eduardo Porter’s column in today’s paper poses several tough questions for the critics of public education, all of which are framed in the initial two paragraphs:

Here’s the good news: American schools may not be as bad as we have been led to believe.

Ah, but here’s the bad news: The rest of American society is failing its disadvantaged citizens even more than we realize.The question is, Should educators be responsible for fixing this?

Throughout the column Porter offers evidence supporting the assertions made in the opening paragraph, drawing heavily on a report released last week by Martin Carnoy from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, Emma García from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and Tatiana Khavenson from the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which suggests “…that socioeconomic deficits impose a particularly heavy burden on American schools.”

After outlining the impact of socioeconomic deficits on test scores, Porter offers counterarguments to the findings by Andreas Schleicher, the O.E.C.D.’s top educational expert, who runs the organization’s PISA tests whose results triggered the research by Carnoy et al.

“When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

…As part of the PISA exercise, the O.E.C.D. collects information about parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status — and combines them into one index.

By that standard, fewer than 15 percent of American students come from the bottom rung of society. And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.

“I found this contrast between actual and perceived disadvantage so interesting that I intend to publish it shortly,” he told me.

This discrepancy is relatively easy to explain since “disadvantage” is often defined in schools by whether or not a student qualifies for free or reduced lunch… and over 50% of US school students now meet that threshold.

Schleicher and Carnoy do agree on one issue: parents of disadvantaged students should expect more from their children. This is a glib recommendation that is easy for policy makers to advance but far more difficult for schools to implement, especially when the parents of disadvantaged children have heard and absorbed the message that they are failures and heard and absorbed the message that the schools their children attend are failures.

Near the conclusion of the article, Carnoy contends that policy makers could learn more from comparisons between States that do well on assessments than countries that do well. But Scheicher disagrees:

Comparing the United States with other countries, he notes, allows researchers to identify particularly egregious deficits of American education.

There’s the wide disparity in resources devoted to education, which flows naturally from a system of school finance based on local property taxes. There’s the informal tracking that happens when smart children are grouped separately in gifted and talented classes while the less able are held back a year.

Teachers are paid poorly, compared to those working in other occupations. And the best of them are not deployed to the most challenging schools.

In a country like the United States, with its lopsided distribution of opportunity and reward, social disadvantage will always pose a challenge. What’s frustrating, Mr. Schleicher said, is “the inability of the school system to moderate the disadvantage.”

In this case, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Schleicher’s perspective, and the bottom line question they pose for politicians and policy makers: What steps are we willing to take to address the “particularly egregious deficits” identified as a result of the tests given to our students? And Mr. Schleicher’s identification of these deficits offers a clear answer to Mr. Porter’s initial question of whether educators should be responsible for fixing these deficits: NO!

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