A Critical Divide in the Education Policy World

This Friday, David Berliner, author of The Manufactured Crisis and winner of numerous awards in the education world, will be a guest speaker in my seminar class. In preparation for his visit, we were assigned to read his article in The Teacher Educator called "Eleven Ways I View Education Policy Differently." It's a sort of manifesto against high-stakes testing, the standardization and corporatization of education, and politicians meddling and experimenting in education. 

His final point, to me, is the most interesting. It's a direct critique of the way that most policymakers view education -- with a sense of urgency to get results and produce outcomes without addressing the root causes of poor academic performance in students' lives. This paragraph would elicit a standing ovation in a roomful of teachers because it demands context for whatever outcomes teachers or schools are able to produce. It's smart and thoughtful and has heart. I recommend reading the full excerpt:

"I worry that policy makers are too often outcome-oriented, while too often ignoring inputs, and forgetting that there is a strong relationship between the two. To be focused on high school graduation, college attendance, job readiness, test scores, and the like is not wrong, but each of these outputs of the education system is strongly related to inputs to the education system, for example the poverty rates of the families and the neighborhood the school serves. Each of the valued outputs is also empirically related to preschool attendance rates, food insecurity, medical coverage for families, neighborhood drug use, teacher experience, teacher turnover at the school, funding for counselors and librarians and nurses at the school, and so forth. The past 20 years have seen us move almost exclusively to policies related to the outputs of the schools (the achievement gap) and to ignore many of the inputs to the schools (pursuing equal education opportunities for children). Outcome-oriented policies make it easier to blame teachers and administrators for purported student failures, and they are often cheaper to fund than the input variables that affect schooling. But if the problems of many students and schools are related to inputs, then almost all the output-oriented remedies will be a failure, as appears to be the case with NCLB, Race to the Top, and school closings by mayors in large cities."

Berliner's argument speaks to me. It's compelling. When I worked for Rep. Margaret Doherty in the Oregon Legislature, she (as Chair of the House Education Committee) sponsored and passed two bills to reduce child hunger by providing food for kids in school (one bill eliminated the "reduced price" lunch option and gave all eligible students lunch at no cost, the other was called "Breakfast After the Bell," and made it easier for kids to eat breakfast when they got to school). The justification for passing these bills was intuitive to most people: we can't expect kids to learn if they don't have food in their bellies. The bills passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support. After three years working in the legislature, those are the bills I'm most proud of playing some small roll in. They did what Berliner argues we have to do before we expect better outcomes from kids: deal with the "inputs," all the overwhelming obstacles and traumas that students deal with outside (and sometimes inside) of school.

After I finished reading the Berliner piece, I thought for a minute. Where have I have seen this argument play out before? It reminded me of a video I watched several years ago with a man named Michael Johnston, who was then a state senator from Colorado, talking about his conception of the "two camps" in the education policy world. Here's the full quote from Mike Johnston:

“There are two camps, that we’re in right now, and I think it’s broader than 'reform' or 'not reform.' I think there is a belief of: are we waiting for the kids to change, or are we waiting for the adults to change? The kids are coming in poor, and they’re coming in unprepared, and they’re coming in without great work ethic, and they’re coming in with parents that don’t return my phone calls, and until those things change, we can’t deliver different results. And the waiting for the adults to change are: okay, we’re not getting good results, but you know what, if Apple’s not selling iPhones, they don’t wait for the consumers to change their behaviors to increase the practice. You design a different product that people start buying. So, what the adults to change group is simply saying is: 'we’ll attract better teachers and leaders, we’ll change the structures within which they work, we’ll use data to figure out what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well, and we’ll keep changing this over and over until it gives us a product that is meaningful.' And those are the two spots that we’re in. And the reason why this work is so important right now is because you have to be able to prove that the people who believe the adults can change are right. If we believe that we’re waiting to change poverty, then we can be patient for a long time before we expect outcomes, because that’s not going to change for a long time.”

That last line really hits me hard. "If we believe we're waiting to change poverty, then we can be patient for a long time." Poverty isn't going anywhere, at least not anytime soon, in America. Eradicating poverty is an urgent and meaningful public policy goal, but we also need to be realistic: LBJ declared war on poverty over 50 years ago, and here we are.

What I'm wrestling with now is this: how can I weave together my support for Berliner's desire to improve the "inputs" into the education system with Johnston's urgency for outcomes and insistence that we not let a student's background determine his or her future? Can these two positions be reconciled? I know that teachers do not teach in a vacuum, and that the socio-economic conditions of a kid's life matters a lot in terms of what that student can be expected to achieve. I also know that our education system has to do a better job for low-income, disadvantaged kids because our economic system is leaving them behind.

There will be no simple solutions and no clear winner in this debate. These questions are hard and complex -- but they also remind me why this work matters so much, and why education is such an honorable and selfless field to work in.