Posted in David Berliner, DeVos, MLK, OECD, PISA, poverty, Public Ed, Stephen Krashen, Testing

The Myth of America’s Failing Public Schools

Betsy DeVos, who recently bought the office of U.S. Secretary of Education, spouts the same myth that’s been going around for decades…that American public schools are “failing.”

The Answer Sheet, in DeVos: Outcomes at U.S. schools are so bad, they probably can’t get much worse, reported

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Wednesday that U.S. public schools nationwide are in such bad shape that she isn’t “sure how they could get a lot worse.”

And, like other myth-spouters in the “education reform” movement, she invoked international tests, adding,

“I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today. I mean, the fact that our PISA scores have continued to deteriorate as compared to the rest of the world…

She’s wrong.

The U.S. is regularly in the “middle of the pack” when it comes to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international test administered by the OECD. In 2015 U.S. students were 31st, 20th, and 19th in Math, Reading, and Science respectively. This score, and previous, similar scores, have been used by politicians and policy makers to claim that America’s public schools are failing.

The problem that DeVos and others don’t understand, or just simply ignore, is poverty. American public schools accept everyone and test everyone. Not all countries do that. We don’t weed out our poor and low-achieving students as they get older, so everyone gets tested. To be fair, Secretary DeVos might not know this. She never attended a public school and never sent her children to public schools. In her experience, children who weren’t achieving academically might have been weeded out of her private schools. She probably never realized that they were then sent to public schools, where all students are accepted.

The fact is that students who come from backgrounds of poverty don’t achieve as well as students from wealthier backgrounds. And we, in the U.S. are (nearly) Number One in child poverty.


Putting PISA Results to the Test

According to a 2015 report by UNICEF, the U.S. has the second-highest child poverty rate (23.1%) among industrialized nations from the European Union and OECD; only Romania’s is higher (25.5%).

…the majority of children attending U.S. public schools – 51% – are growing up in low-income households, the highest percentage since the federal government began tracking the figure.

Poverty matters when it comes to achievement. Students who live in poverty in the United States come to school with issues that don’t affect wealthier students. Stress, for example...

Children growing up in poverty often experience chronic stress…chronic stress can affect the developing learning centers of the brain, with impact on attention, concentration, working memory and self-regulation.

In other words, the simple fact of growing up in poverty affects a child’s ability to learn. In addition, there are factors outside of school which contribute to low achievement.

David C. Berliner examined the impact of out-of-school factors on achievement. In Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, Berliner wrote,

OSFs are related to a host of poverty-induced physical, sociological, and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior.

These factors include conditions having an impact on developing fetuses, such as the medical care given to the mother, the mother’s general health, and any toxins ingested by the mother either through drug or alcohol abuse, or through environmental toxins in the environment. After the child is born things like low birth weight, inadequate medical care, food insecurity, environmental pollutants like lead poisoning, family stress, and other characteristics of high-poverty neighborhoods all have an impact on a child’s ability to learn.

To place all the blame for low achievement on public schools serving large numbers of students living in poverty is unfair to the schools, teachers, and students.


Mrs. DeVos probably doesn’t know that low test scores correlate exactly with high poverty (see here and here). Children from American schools where less than 25% of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, score high on the PISA test. In fact, they would rank first in reading and science and third in math among OECD nations.

On the other hand, American students from schools where more than 75% of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, score much lower. Because the U.S. has a much higher percentage of students in poverty than nearly all the other OECD nations, the overall U.S. average score is below the median.

We can show these results using graphs from PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid’.

The first graph shows where schools with various percentages of students in poverty would fall if only those schools were compared to other countries in the OECD.

This graph compares schools with various percentages of students in poverty to countries in OECD with similar poverty levels. The first side, for example, shows how students from schools with a poverty rate of less than ten percent compare to nations with a poverty rate of less than ten percent.

These two charts from PISA: It’s Still ‘Poverty Not Stupid’ clearly show the impact that poverty has on American students’ test scores. In every case, students who attend schools with a given percentage of children in poverty 1) score higher than students who attend schools with lower percentages of children in poverty and 2) score higher than countries with similar rates of poverty.

At the very least we can say that the child poverty rate, over which schools have no control, has an impact on student learning. In his blog post, Why Invest in Libraries, Stephen Krashen, USC Professor Emeritus, wrote,

Poverty means, among other things, inadequate diet, lack of health care, and lack of access to books. Each of these has a powerful impact on achievement (Berliner, 2009; Krashen, 1997). The best teaching in the world has little effect when children are hungry, undernourished, ill, and have little or nothing to read (emphasis added).


Can schools do nothing to overcome the impact of poverty on student lives? Not alone. However, with the help of legislators, taxpayers, and parents, support for students struggling to succeed can help.

Here are some suggestions – most of which cost money – to help raise student achievement. These ideas come from various sources, including The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids, Identifying and Implementing Educational Practices Supported by Rigorous Evidence, and The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.

Legislators should help by fully funding public education in order to

  • Develop age-appropriate Pre-K programs
  • Reduce class sizes
  • Provide a well rounded, age-appropriate curriculum
  • Include the arts, recess, and physical education in the curriculum
  • Eliminate unnecessary testing (this one saves money)
  • Recruit experienced and diverse staff including classroom teachers and specialists
  • Include non-teaching staff when needed, such as nurses, counselors, and social workers
  • Maintain high quality facilities
  • Introduce parental support programs


When she looks at the U.S. international test scores, Secretary DeVos, and other policy makers see “failing schools.” This is wrong. The low average scores, and the even lower scores aggregated for low income students, indicate that economic inequity is overwhelming the infrastructure of our public school systems. Instead of blaming public schools, politicians and policy makers must take responsibility for ending the shameful rate of child poverty and inequity in America.

In his Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, on August 16, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said,

…we are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Special thanks to Meg Bloom, Phyllis Bush, and Donna Roof, all members of the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, for their help in preparing the presentation from which this blog post was adapted.

Posted in Darling-Hammond, Finland, PISA, Teaching Career

Time to Teach and Learn


High achieving nations around the world have shown that less is more…less teaching time with students and more learning time for teachers results in higher learning for students.

10 Ways to Fix Education: #1 – Increase Planning Time

One thing that [high achieving nations of China and Finland] did have in common – as do most of the top schools in the PISA – is that they provide ample time for teachers to plan and prepare. And they’re compensated for it.

The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education released a report in August 2010 comparing how little time the United States has dedicated to teacher planning and preparation (3-5 hours per week) to how international educators average 15-25 hours per week to plan. In fact, the United States is put at a major disadvantage because more than 80% of our teacher time is spend educating and interacting with students, not on planning or development of curriculum.

…In Finland, the best way to learn about the stark contrast between the stressed American teacher and the relaxed one there is to read a blog titled Taught By Finland, in which Tim Walker, an American teacher comments on what he’s learning while teaching in the Scandinavian country. His posts are both insightful and reflective of the lack of prep time in America. For example, one post notes how colleagues insist he take a coffee break for 15 minutes instead of grading papers. In another entry, he struggles over the fact that he’ll see his students in class just 600 hours per year (in comparison to America’s 1,080). Finnish teachers receive about 40% of their time to plan. I know what you’re thinking – unbelievable.

Believe it. In educational systems across the world, teachers have more time to plan than their American counterparts. Period.

Tim Walker, who now teaches in Finland, wrote the following about his teaching in the U.S. I don’t doubt that every American public school teacher will recognize the pattern…

Work-Life Balance in Finland: Americans on a Different Planet

At the time, Johanna’s friend and I shared several things in common. We were both first-year teachers at the first grade level and we were under 25 years old. But that’s really where our similarities ended.

My first graders’ 7-hour school day was nearly twice as long as her students’ school day. By the time she had left school, I hadn’t even completed my last class. And I had a mountain of planning waiting for me as soon as I waved goodbye to my kids.

In my first year of teaching, I would typically spend about two hours planning before school and three hours planning afterschool. I had virtually no boundaries, spending these additional hours of work either at the classroom desk or the kitchen table at home. And even when I had the chance to enjoy a break during a lunch block, I’d often work through this time, zigzagging across my classroom with a peeled banana in one hand, nibbling on-the-go.

All told, I was putting in 12-hour days of work. It’s no wonder why I was bothered by the hours of Johanna’s friend in Finland. My workday was twice as long.

Given her lighter workload, I was arrogantly convinced that she was an inferior teacher. I believed that teachers proved their strength by the number of hours they devoted to the teaching profession. By my estimation, she didn’t measure up.

By the end of my first year of teaching, I discovered that I was, by far, the weaker one. A dreadful lack of work-life balance had caught up to me. I was brimming over with stress and anxiety. And worst of all, the job of teaching was no longer joyful.

We spend so much more time with our students than in Finland, yet, on average, our achievement levels are lower. Why?

The short answer is that teachers who spend time in collaboration with colleagues, planning lessons, and increasing their own learning, are able to help students learn better. Teachers who work 11 hour days trying to keep up with planning, grading, and data collection, become overstressed, overworked, and less able to do what they were trained to do.

There are other factors, of course, including student SES, and cultural differences in the attitude towards education, but teacher quality is the most important in-school factor for learning. We don’t give our teachers time to improve their quality of teaching because they’re so busy trying to keep up with the huge class sizes and mountains of paperwork dumped on them.

Linda Darling-Hammond, in The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, wrote…

Whereas teachers in high achieving nations spend 40 to 60% of their time preparing and learning to teach well, most U.S. teachers have no time to work with colleagues during the school day. They typically receive only about 3 to 5 hours weekly in which to plan by themselves, and they get a few “hit-and-run” workshops after school, with little opportunity to share knowledge or improve their practice. A far greater percentage of U.S. teachers’ work time is spent teaching than in most countries — about 80%, as compared to 60% on average for secondary teachers in the 31 OECD countries. U.S. teachers have more net teaching time — nearly 1,100 hours per year — than any other OECD country, far greater than the OECD average of 800 hours per year for primary schools and 660 hours per year for upper secondary schools.

She reports on high achieving nations…

Ongoing professional learning, embedded in 15 to 25 hours a week of planning and collaboration time at school, plus an additional 2 to 4 weeks of professional learning time annually to attend institutes and seminars, visit other schools and classrooms, conduct action research and lesson study, and participate in school retreats.

The OECD comparison between Finland and the U.S. is clear. More time for teachers pays off…

Teachers in the U.S. spend so much time trying to keep up with the workload that they don’t have time to improve their skills, or share what they’ve learned with other teachers.


Winter 2014. Lots of snow all over the country. My local school district in northeast Indiana has cancelled school 12 times because of snow or bitterly cold temperatures.

What does this have to do with teaching and learning time?

Our teachers get about a half hour a week for colleague collaboration and about 5 hours a week for planning. Instead of adding more days to the school calendar, the school system will likely cancel collaboration time, and extend the school day reducing the amount of time for teachers to collaborate and reducing the amount of in-school planning time. Many teachers are in favor of this as an alternative to adding days to the calendar at the end of the year. The school systems are caught by the demand for student contact time…the requirement that, in order for a year to be “valid” students have to be in attendance for 180 days.

Other OECD nations, however have shown that to be unnecessary.

Obviously the Finnish system, or any other high achieving country’s school system, can’t easily be transplanted into the U.S. The Finns, for example, spent years improving teacher education and developing a national school system which was equitable. They provide broad safety nets for the few children who live in poverty (about 4% compared to the U.S. 23%). They don’t waste resources testing every student every year. Unlike the U.S. they have a culture which understands that education is “paying it forward” to improve the future.

Meanwhile we’re wasting our money on an obsessive reliance on tests and punishments, lowering standards for teachers, ignoring the massive number of students living in poverty, fighting each other over providing health care for our children, and privatizing the public school system which is one of the foundational institutions of our democracy.

Until the U.S. becomes serious about public education and the educational future of the nation, we’re stuck with overworked teachers — and students — and making up snow days by extending already long school days.


All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.

Stop the Testing Insanity!
Posted in AFT, PISA, Testing, Uncategorized

Our Nation is More Than a Test Score

Here’s an excellent video from the AFT discussing the recently released PISA scores. Our nation is more than just a test score!


All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.

Stop the Testing Insanity!