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Berliner takes on test scores in annual Couper Lecture
May 16, 2016Tweet
Don’t blame the teachers for poor standardized test scores; blame the system, said David Berliner, when he delivered the 24th annual Edgar W. Couper Lecture to its largest audience ever at the University Downtown Center My 6.
Berliner, Regents’ Professor of Education Emeritus at Arizona State University, cited example after example of what he calls myths and lies about why the United States is not at the top of international rankings when it comes to educating students in pre-K through grade 12.
His talk – “Myths [and Lies] That Deceive the Public and Harm American Public Education, based on a book he co-wrote with Gene V. Glass and 19 students – began with a review of what he termed the sad state of public education, starting with the No Child Left Behind Law that supported the notion that every student would become proficient. “There are no other words for it, than it is a patently stupid law,” he said. “Didn’t Congress learn that no matter how hard you wish for it, you can’t get more than 50 percent of anything above average?
“I believe in the public school system,” he said, “but it’s a looming tragedy and we need to fight for and protect our public schools as an investment in our democracy.”
Myth #1: Teachers affect the kids they teach a lot, and the tests can affect the trajectory of a life, Berliner said, but the fall and rise of scores on tests are independent of what the teacher does. “What does affect scores are the things that occur outside of schools, in families and neighborhoods,” he said.
We now have a law that assumes all students are born with the same abilities and every student will succeed law in school, he added. “That’s absolutely untrue. Just by naming it doesn’t make it true. Not every plane lands on time. This downgrades the profession,” he said.
Berliner said the reason the federal government became involved in education was because states were discriminating against the poor and minorities. “Now, we’ve thrown the feds out and it’s back to the states, but the feds will have to get involved again in 10 to 15 years because most states run on platforms to cut existing taxes and that will affect education,” he said.
Though funding for pre-K-12 education may be up, Berliner cautioned that increased funding is up due to the rising costs for and enrollment of students in special education. From 1976 to 2012, he said, students enrolled in special education nearly doubled, while, in actual dollars, teachers’ salaries dropped by $180.
Myth #2, Berliner said, is that for decades we’ve been told there is a shortage of STEM graduates, citing people including an NYU engineering dean, former presidents of MIT and Clarkson, and even Bill Gates as proponents of the myth. “I love the STEM fields,” he said. “Some of our greatest achievements are STEM-based, but the data actually reveals that there are 277,000 STEM vacancies per year in the U.S. (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), yet each year we graduate 252,000 bachelor’s, 80,000 master’s, 20,000 PhDs and 40,000 associate degree students, plus 50,000 H-1B visa holders in the STEM fields. That equals a surplus of 165,000 STEM grads a year. That’s hard data.
“We might have spot shortages,” he added, “but that’s a different thing. Nationally, there is no such shortage and we have 11.4 million STEM degree holders working outside the STEM fields.”
Berliner also spoke about international rankings and the differences in cultures across the countries listed. Speaking specifically about students who attend public schools in Asia, specifically China. Instead of going to extracurricular activities, go to “cram” schools, he said, “We’re envying the work ethic of Asian students who are willing to work harder than American kids. It’s not that their public schools are better.”
Each culture is entitled to its own vision of childhood, but we’re different than China, Berliner added. “We want our kids engaged in extracurricular activities. It’s a different conception we have. We shouldn’t criticize ours or theirs. The question is, ‘how do we do for results?’
“Some say we need more rigor, but how about the kindergartener who came home and had been graded on 40 different characteristics?” he asked. “When I was in grade school, I had Miss Maxwell. My mother would go see her and ask ‘How’s David doing?’ Miss Maxwell would say fine and my mother would go home. We’re treating kids poorly by making it so rigorous. The word kindergarten means kids in the garden and the garden is filled with thorns now.”
Berliner said that, yes, we want our children reading literature and thinking beyond the texts, but they should also be reading Dr. Suess, Good Night Moon and other wonderful books. ”I’ve no problem training our teachers in all the aspects that make for good reading, but don’t hold the kids responsible. It’s a misunderstanding of kindergarten.
“It is bizarre to me, to have so many tests for kindergartners,” he said. “We invented childhood only 150 years ago and now we want them to be career- and college-ready by age 5. We shouldn’t be labeling 7-year-olds that they’re going to college or not. Labeling kids so they know they’re smart or dumb by second grade is cruel.”
There is a lot wrong with the argument that the USA will soon perish because of our test scores, Berliner said. He disagrees that there is cause for doom and gloom. First, he said, the Russians were going to beat us and we came up with Why Johnny Can’t Read. ”My generation was considered idiots,” he said. “We were impolite, smoked marijuana, but were higher achieving than Russia. We achieved and it became America’s century.
“Then the Japanese studied more and we were told they would beat us, but then they went on a slide,” Berliner said. “We have cheating scandals and those who say we can’t mount a defense because we don’t have a smart army or militia because our students are so dumb. But it’s phony.
“I’m weary of this kind of talk,” Berliner said. “Socrates worried about this. Old people are always muttering these things. I’m done with old people.”
Another myth: that American schools are doing poorly. Citing international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results for 2012, the mean for the U.S. is #21 for reading, #3 for math and #23 for science. “But here’s what’s missing,” Berliner said. “It reports the mean…variability is what’s hidden by a mean score. The fewer families in a school that live in poverty, the higher the school achievement; it’s the opposite for poverty. At the top level, we’re #6 in the world, even in our toughest subject. That’s 13 million kids and it’s the same pattern for science. Students from the top income level are #2.
“Reading shows the same pattern,” Berliner said. “It’s not a disaster. Our problem is we’re not getting what we hope for kids who live in poverty. It’s not the curriculum or the teachers.”
In an international test of reading, the 13 million students with the highest level incomes in the U.S. outscored every other nation in the world, Berliner said. “That’s really quite, quite good. And why do we get the results we get? Because countries like Finland, at the top of the mean rankings, has about 4 percent of its students living in poverty. The U.S. has about 24 percent. That has to be reflected in how we do internationally. If we switch rates for Finland and the U.S., they change position. Plus, U.S. teachers are the most likely to work in high-poverty schools – 64 percent of them – and that puts us at #1. Not an enviable record.”
Bottom line, Berliner said, it’s the poverty rates that affect student success. “Educational problems are not usually in-school problems. They are much more likely to be out-of-school problems and we can’t run a democracy this way. It will fall apart,” he said.
“Our country is not producing unproductive people,” he added. “The U.S. has the largest shared of the global supply of high-performing students.”
Other myths Berliner cited were:
• leaving students back – it’s terrible and costs society
• early childhood education is a scam – it results in more students going to high school and college and we should fight the myth that preschool doesn’t work
• private and charter schools are better – not after being adjusted for income
“We need a better society before we can improve,” Berliner concluded.
The Edgar W.Couper Endowment Fund for Educational Excellence funds the annual Couper Lecture and Couper Fellows in recognition of the Couper family’s legacy and many contributions to the intellectual life of Binghamton University’s Graduate School of Education.
The year’s lecture opened with remarks from last year’s Couper Fellow, Christine Uliassi, who spoke of the freedom she had for research due to the fellowship, which is given to one or more full-time students in the Graduate School of Education’s doctoral program in educational theory and practice. Uliassi also introduced the two incoming Couper Fellows: Mao Mao Feng and Karin Golden.
In addition, there was a Professional Education Graduate Organization (PEGO) Research Forum featuring poster displays showcasing current research by faculty and doctoral, master and undergraduate scholars.