Researcher Berliner describes how the education “crisis” is manufactured

David Berliner began criticizing the school reform industrial complex when he co-authored The Manufactured Crisis 17 years ago. He brought his case, strengthened by new statistical evidence, to delegates at the CFT Convention.

Berliner, now a Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University, wrote in that book that attackers of the public schools were citing big drops in the performance of public school students.

These so-called declines are a product of deliberate negative framing, he said, and he warned that education policy “cannot be left to the real estate developers and businessmen who populate our legislatures. We need more teachers.”

Berliner, a past president of the American Educational Research Association, came armed with statistics to support his argument, and used them with scalpel-like precision to eviscerate the myths of the Global Education Reform Movement. In this contingent he included President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

There are two things preventing public schools from presenting better scores, Berliner said. The first is the disappearance of a broad middle class and the other is a system that ignores the evidence. He linked the war on education and the war on the poor. “We lost a strong middle class through legislation and we can regain it through political action.”

Berliner compared the reading scores of developed countries from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. He said people look at only the broad averages and then complain about American performance.

The evidence shows that public schools serving the middle class and the wealthy are doing very well, suggesting that an unequal economy, not bad teachers, create the problem.

But when Berliner displays scores to show American schools by the percentage of students in poverty, the picture is different. American schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty score higher than any country in the world. It continues from there: Schools under 24.9 percent rank third in the world and schools from 25 percent to 49.9 percent rank tenth and still above the PISA and the U.S. averages.

The U.S. results, however, are dismal for the next two fractions: 50 to 74.9 percent of students in poverty score low; schools with over 75 percent of students in poverty have reading scores so low they outrank only Mexico.

A common myth, Berliner said, is to showcase a student who transcends the ghetto and the teacher who helps her and conclude on that basis that poverty is no excuse. “It is no excuse,” Berliner said, “but it is a good predictor of outcomes.”

He said exceptional teachers and schools that arise in the midst of poverty deserve praise but they do not change the overall relationships shown in the data. The evidence shows that public schools serving the middle class and the wealthy are doing very well, suggesting that an unequal economy, not bad teachers, create the problem.

Another myth Berliner attacked was the reliability of using the results of value-added student testing for teacher evaluation. He gave an example of a proprietary system called EVAAS used in Houston and said, “The word ‘proprietary’ simply means that we have no clue how their system adjusts for all the differences between classes.”

He described a teacher who was rated extremely highly by supervisors four out of five years and who received $7,800 in excellence bonuses over three of five years. The teacher was named “Teacher of the Month” by colleagues in 2010 and “Teacher of the Year” in 2008.

Her EVAAS scores, meanwhile, were above average eight times, significantly so five times, and below average eight times, significantly so five times. She was fired after her fifth year. Berliner concluded that a coin toss might have decided her teaching competence as accurately as this expensive, privately-owned system.

Berliner is writing a new book with a working title of 50 Myths Used to Attack Public Schools, but he has already collected 54 myths.

— By Malcolm Terence, CFT Reporter