Release a report, make it appear like scholarly research (include footnotes, charts, graphs, and data), and suggest something provocative such as “teachers are overpaid”—the result? The media gives the claim and report a free and frequent ride.
Walt Gardner, on his blog, has lamented about this exact phenomenon concerning The Heritage Foundation report, “Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers” by Jason Richwine:
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother to comment about the study because none of it says anything that is really new. But because the media is giving it big play, I can’t let the facts cited slide by. . . .If an author wants to make headlines, the surest way is to be provocative. But just because charges appear valid at first glance doesn’t necessarily make them so. As I’ve written before: If teaching is such a plum job, then why don’t more people go into the field? I’m still waiting for an answer, but I’m not holding my breath.
What the media does and will cover ad nauseum, and that the media rarely takes the time to distinguish between fact and opinion, is possibly not as important, however, as what the media seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge: the power of poverty to cripple children’s lives and learning as well as political leadership’s failure to move beyond empty bromides such as “poverty is not destiny.”
Poverty Not Destiny?: Masking Corporate Agendas
Helen Ladd has prepared a nuanced and detailed report about both the overwhelming reality of the corrosive impact of poverty on student learning and school effectiveness as well as the entrenched political stance from both major parties against acknowledging those realities: Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence (working paper to be published in Journal of Policy Analysis and Management).
In the report, Ladd offers the complexity of the irrefutable correlation between the home and community conditions of any child’s life and educational outcomes:
Suffice it to say at this point that research documents a variety of symptoms of low SES that are relevant for children’s subsequent educational outcomes. These include, for example, poor health, limited access to home environments with rich language and experiences, low birth weight, limited access to high quality pre-school opportunities, less participation in many activities in the summer and after school that middle class families take for granted, and more movement in and out of schools because of the way the housing market operates for low income families. Differences in outcomes between high and low SES families may also reflect the preferences and behaviors of families and teachers. Compared to low SES families, for example, middle and upper class families are better positioned to work the education system to their advantage by assuring that their children attend the best schools and get the best teachers, and they are more likely to invest in out-of-school activities that improve school outcomes such as tutoring programs, camps and traveling. The preferences and behaviors of teachers are also a contributing factor in that many teachers with strong credentials tend to be reluctant to teach in schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students than in schools with more advantaged students (Jackson, 2009 and Clotfelter, Ladd and Vigdor, 2011).
The conclusion Ladd draws about what factors impact student outcomes presents the full picture of potential reform, reform that must address both out-of-school and in-school factors: “The functional relationship highlights that while education policy makers have direct control over school quality, they have less control over educational outcomes because of the role that context—and particularly the family background of the students—plays in shaping educational outcomes.”
Next, Ladd turns to policy and notes that policy makers could either address poverty, especially as it impacts directly the lives of children, or “[d]eny the power of the correlation and expect schools alone to offset any adverse effects of the educational context”—this second option being, she clarifies, the crux of NCLB and most political and public arguments about school reform.
A key element of Ladd’s discussion is what reasons lie behind the persistent denial of the impact of poverty on students’ learning and the nearly fanatical focus on school and teacher quality; she identifies four reasons:
• The historical and powerful faith that schools can and will change society. [See Traub for why this is misguided.]
• A fear that acknowledging the impact of poverty can and does lead to lower expectations for some children, but “[s]imply wanting something to be true does not make it so,” Ladd concludes.
• Simplistic and uninformed faith in miracle schools [see HERE for why miracle school claims are misleading]—if one school can do it (without really checking to see if that is true), then all schools should:
That some individual schools have raised achievement levels for children from disadvantaged families is undoubtedly a good thing, at least for the children who attend such schools. At the same time, believing that one can simply extrapolate from these few success stories to the system as a whole requires a willful denial of the basic empirical relationship between SES and educational achievement.
• Corporate interests:
A fourth potential rationale for denying the correlation is more nefarious. This rationale is the desire to discredit schools and generate pressure for greater privatization of the education system. . . .Both outcomes serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system itself is failing and needs to be changed in major ways. The importance of this rationale for denying the correlation and supporting NCLB in its current form is hard to gauge, but my guess it that it played some role, at least among some policy makers.
Ultimately, Ladd’s discussion and conclusions show that we both know what the hurdles to equitable student lives and education are as well as the complex solutions we need to address to reach our social and educational goals, but the message is complex and flies in the face of cultural myths and political agendas tied to corporate interests.
If Americans and our political leaders are serious about universal public education, equity, and democracy, then reports such as Ladd’s must begin to receive the repeated play that agenda-driven reports receive.
Let’s see what coverage this receives, but I’m not optimistic.