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March 22, 2001

Poverty is major problem for U.S. public schools, lecturer says

What failing American public school system?

Despite a drop in relative salaries of teachers, despite the fact that a rising percentage of teachers are teaching outside their field, and despite thinly spread education budgets in this country, test scores still have gone up over the past 30 years, kids continue to learn more than their parents and the American workforce is the most productive in the world, according to a leading U.S. educator.

"In 1983, 'A Nation at Risk' made the case that we can't compete because of poor schools. It said we're in a rising tide of educational mediocrity and America will lose the economic war in an increasingly global economy," David C. Berliner told the audience at the 36th Horace Mann lecture held here March 15. "But 18 years later, actually we're the only economy in the world that is still standing reasonably tall, despite recent stock market setbacks."

Berliner, who is dean and regents professor, College of Education, Arizona State University, challenged the business com-munity's intrusion in public education in this country in a lecture titled, "Business and Education: A Problematic Relationship."

The Horace Mann lecture series, sponsored by Pitt's School of Education and the Omicron Phi Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, is named for the American educator (1796-1859) known for educational reform efforts and advocacy of public schools. Pitt has hosted the lecture series since 1953.

"Criticisms of the public school system are as American as apple pie," Berliner said. Critics say that schools are dominated by professional educators rather than job-skills trainers; that competition is lacking; that schools don't enforce discipline; that foreign language instruction has disappeared; and that public schools are neglecting the average child, or neglecting moral and spiritual values.

"The condemnation of our schools is a little tiring," Berliner said. "A hundred or more years of crying wolf gets old. We hear when the economy goes south, schools are to blame; but when it goes north, business and politicians are responsible. This is not logical, but criticisms don't go away no matter what we do."

Particularly galling, Berliner said, is the recent call by the National Alliance of Business to tie teachers' pay to performance. "To force performance for pay on educators, where the bottom line is not dollars and where performance can't be measured, is simply nonsense," Berliner asserted.

"There are no indicators for promoting citizenship in a democracy; there is no hugging-rate indicator; no way to measure how to help children seek knowledge or the kindness rate in classrooms, or how well we are helping children express themselves in public."

The kind of bottom-line thinking business espouses completely misses the point, Berliner said. "I wouldn't mind as much the business community's recommendations if they tied pay to performance themselves." But with dozens of examples of CEOs getting millions is cash and stock options while running their companies into the ground — Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Xerox, Mattel, Conseco among them — it is the height of hypocrisy to link teachers' pay to performance, he said.

There are some failing schools in the U.S., Berliner acknowledged, but the culprits are poverty, the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots and the misapplication of business ideology, not a flawed educational system.

"We need to improve the lives of all Americans or we'll have a system that will only have an impact on society for those with the social and economic resources to profit from our public schooling."

Poverty has discernible effects on schools, Berliner said.

As evidence, he cited:

* Children born in poverty are at much greater risk for low birth weight and vitamin deficiency and are susceptible to more illnesses.

* Poorer children repeat a grade or are expelled at much higher rates.

* In today's public schools, 23 percent of children are from homes with single parents.

* 14 percent have mothers without a high school degree.

* 18 percent depend on food stamps.

* 9 percent speak another first language, including 50 percent in New York City and 40 percent in parts of California.

* Overall, 66 percent of inner-city school kids have one or more risk factors to educational success.

"Our child poverty rate of 18 percent is the highest in the industrialized world," Berliner pointed out. "It's hard to teach poor kids. From birth to age 17, of a child's waking hours, 15 percent of the time is in school. That means 85 percent is with family and in neighborhoods. If those families are not strong and those neighborhoods are not healthy we lose the battle to get the kids to come in the door ready to be educated. If we want to improve our schools we might want to look at reducing poverty."

Meanwhile, business maintains that the United States spends too much on its schools with too little result. But the facts belie that, Berliner said.

"Twelve nations spend more on education than the U.S. as a percentage of their gross domestic product. In secondary school teachers' starting salaries, we rank 7 of 22 industrialized nations; after 15 years, we're at 8 of 22, and the top of the salary range puts us at 9 of 22. That says something about the prestige of teachers in our society."

Moreover, educational budgets in the United States must accommodate a whole range of costs that are not borne by comparable budgets in other countries, the lecturer said.

"We measure educational budget in per child cost. But some of that budget goes to pay medical costs of the teachers, janitors, administrators. In Canada, they pay health care out of the federal revenue funding. So every figure of student costs here is deflated because we do not have national health care."

U.S. educational budgets also support athletics, computers, transportation, food service, police guards and metal detectors, special education needs, driver education programs and on-site registered nurses. "[Our budgets fund] even day-care facilities and staff," Berliner said, "because many children in this country are having children. It's seems obvious: establish a day-care facility at a school or risk that young mothers will not attend at all.

"My point is that when the business community says we spend the most money on educating our children they are wrong. We spend a lot, yes, but there are costs in our budget not in other countries' budgets," Berliner said. "We hear about failing schools because bad news is news and good news is not. Our schools are really making miracles happen, given their limited resources."

The U.S. also is a society where the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, a kind of "trickle-up economics," Berliner noted.

In the past 20 years, while CEOs' salaries and severance packages have skyrocketed in the midst of the biggest economic boom in history, there are still 11 million children without health care coverage and the bottom 20 percent of the workforce makes less money in real dollars. Typically, both parents are working, and the U.S. leads the industrialized world in hours worked per year, he said.

"Most people would agree, I think, that family involvement in their youth is the best education we can have. Yet we have less adult supervision time for children. Between 1990 and 2000, we're working on average 270 more hours [annually]. That means seven work-weeks' less time with our children.

"I'm not anti-business," Berliner insisted. "I value the opportunities this economy has given me and my family, but business has distorted views when it comes to education."

What happens when the business model is applied to education?

U.S. CEOs are pushing vocational training in high schools and colleges, Berliner said. In contrast, foreign CEOs expect to invest in the workers they get and tailor their training for what fits the corporation, freeing students to pursue a liberal arts education.

"As business ideology enters our schools, what people should know is tied to productivity," Berliner charged. "I am pro standards, but when the curriculum narrows, what happens to learning about life? Particularly when you pay schools and teachers for performance, then schools start teaching for tests, which means sacrificing poetry, sculpture, social studies, music, the liberal arts. Testing becomes the dominant ideology."

A colleague of Berliner's in Mesa, Arizona, determined that between kindergarten and 12th grade a child in public school there spends a year and a half being tested. "It just feels wrong. Schools should help students explore the world broadly. The oldest, most rhetorical, most important question in education is: What knowledge is worth knowing? For business, the market determines the best knowledge," an inversion of the knowledge for knowledge's sake philosophy that should be dominant in education, he said.

"Today, the servile arts, like business, manufacturing, agriculture, the service industries, [are overemphasized in U.S. schools] and the liberal arts have come to service their former employees," Berliner said. "Somehow we have to find a synergy.

"The agenda for improving schools is not primarily about tests and standards — though it should be about higher expectations. Children need to come to school ready to learn. We need more counselors and mentors and, yes, we need a re-distribution of wealth. Is there enough money in our system?

"In Arizona last year, 2,244 people reported an income of $1 million or more. Suppose they made $900,000, would they survive?

"Is there enough money to go around?

"In the year 2000, $42 million was spent on weddings. The average wedding in this country costs $18,874. Would we be so much worse off if it slipped to $17,000?"

–Peter Hart

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