Knocking schools: Do critics, big foundations have tunnel vision?

Schools do a very good job with many kids who come prepared to learn. Does the big money behind education reform focus on schools' problems to the point of ignoring the societal issues of poverty that lie behind many of the challenges for schools?

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A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

Schools do a very good job with many kids who come prepared to learn. Does the big money behind education reform focus on schools' problems to the point of ignoring the societal issues of poverty that lie behind many of the challenges for schools?

This may not be the week, at least in Seattle, to put in a good word for public schools, or at least to suggest that judgment of schools is often overly harsh.

But I was struck by an article from education writer Joanne Barkan in the current issue of the magazine Dissent, and by the following:

Education reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests — the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and Trends in International Math and Science Study — break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. 

These studies suggest that the problem is not public schools but poverty. Here’s Barkan:

Students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10% ranked first in reading, first in science and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 to 25%, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose higher still, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75% . . . And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three.

One thing a good education teaches is to be skeptical of simple answers. Laying all blame for student failure (or credit for achievement) on schools, without looking at social context, strikes me as too simple an answer. Moreover, it may be easy to target schools and teachers, pushing choice and competitiveness and deregulation, while turning a blind eye to increased levels of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

In the world of education policy and reform this is hardly a new debate. Does responsibility for student achievement rest with schools or social conditions, on teachers or parents and families? The reasonable answer would be “both.” What goes on in the school is critical, but so too are the social conditions that impact the lives of students and their families.

But the constant hue and cry about public schools is so relentless that you wouldn’t imagine, though it is often the case, that many public schools are doing a good job, and that where they aren’t there are multiple factors to consider.

Barkan’s comments are part of a longish article, "Got dough? How billionaires run our schools," on the role of private foundations in education and school reform movements. She focuses on three in particular, The Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations. These are, in education circles, “the Big Three.”

Barkan argues two points. First, that the translation of “big dough” into major power and influence in public education by these foundations ought to concern us. They are, after all, neither elected nor accountable. Second, that claims for the efficacy of educational reforms advocated by the “big three” are dubious.

Educational reform movements, driven by the Big Three and advocated by Department of Education Secretary, Arne Duncan among others, focus almost entirely on schools and not on social conditions or poverty. In some ways, that makes sense. Focus on what is in your control, focus where you can have the most impact. Changing a school is certainly easier, and aguably more within the purview of education leaders, than changing a national economy.

Moreover, there are certainly aspects of the education reform movement, sponsored by Gates and Duncan et. al. that are sound and overdue. They are consistent with what some of our best educators have long been saying. One theme is the importance of shared goals and broad standards to ensure quality education for all students. Another is that teachers' unions in their efforts to protect their members have sometimes lost sight of, even obstructed, the core mission of educating children.

But here’s the question: Do wealthy philanthropists and these private charitable foundations, which do have enormous influence on public education today, have a vested interest in overlooking larger social and economic questions and conditions? Do they have a vested interest in “reforms” that only look at one part of the equation? Are they likely to overlook evidence that, as Barkan concludes, “The problem is not public schools; it is poverty."

Barkan summarizes the hallmarks of the education agenda of the Big Three: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. The vehicles they fund to achieve these goals are charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, and firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately. By her reading of it, the “evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working.”

One need not dismiss or decry all the themes and innovations of the education reform movement or these private foundations to wonder if instead of an either/ or mentality — it’s either schools or society, either educators or social conditions — it’s really a “both/and.” One need not imply there is a nasty capitalist conspiracy afoot to undermine public education to ask if the educational reform agenda of the foundations is both too single-minded and too influential?

Pursue accountability, use data intelligently, set high expectations for schools, and acknowledge that economic and family factors are also important. Pursue educational reform, but don’t turn it into an ideological movement that has The Truth, admits of no questions, and treats (as Barkan claims) “philanthropists as royalty.”

This article has been updated since it first appeared to correct the spelling of Joanne Barkan's name.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.