Ignoring Facts about Schools and Society (Richard Rothstein)

This is the text of the commencement speech that Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, gave  at the Loyola University Chicago School of Education.  Rothstein is also the author of several books on education issues, and is senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law. This appeared May 13, 2012   in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet.”

Congratulations to the graduates.

Good luck as you embark on new responsibilities in one of the most important enterprises with which our society can entrust you — the preparation of the next generation.

Yet you leave here in a national climate of mistrust for all government, including public education. You are entering a highly politicized field where facts are too easily ignored.

In medicine, and in all fields, we know you can’t design proper treatment if your diagnosis is factually flawed.

Yet in education, conventional and widely shared diagnoses are based on fantasy, with little relation to facts.

Understanding these fantasies requires you not only to be good educators, but sophisticated citizens, capable of questioning data and penetrating the relationships between schools and the society that they reflect.

Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children. Past efforts at improvement, and vast increases in spending, have accomplished little or nothing, they say. Achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle class students have narrowed little, so as the proportion of white children declines, this failure of our schools weakens our nation, rendering it unable to compete internationally.

In truth, this conventional view relies upon imaginary facts.

You may be surprised to learn that African-American elementary school student achievement, in Illinois and nationwide, has been improving so spectacularly that in math, the average black student now performs better than about 90% of all black students performed less than a generation ago.

What’s more, black elementary school math performance is now better than white performance was in the previous generation.

Let me repeat: black elementary school students today have better math skills than white students did only twenty years ago.

These data come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal sample that is the only reliable source on student achievement over time in this country.

The gains have been almost as great for middle-schoolers in math, and for elementary school students in reading,

Most gains were posted in the 1990s, before the test-obsessed accountability system called “No Child Left Behind,” a law whose flawed premise was that it was necessary to force educators to pay attention to minority students.

For Hispanic students, there are no data that can distinguish between very recent immigrants and children who have attended American schools throughout childhood. But my guess is that if we had data, we would conclude that Hispanic gains have been equally dramatic.

Policymakers, pundits, and politicians ignore these gains; they conclude that you, educators, have been incompetent because the test score gap hasn’t much narrowed.

But the reason it hasn’t narrowed is that your profession has done too good a job — you’ve improved white children’s performance as well, so the score gap persists, but at a higher level for all.

Policymakers, with a preconception that schools must be failing because the public sector and its employees must be corrupt, are not interested in these facts. As a result, we’ve wasted 15 years avoiding incremental improvement, and instead trying to upend a reasonably successful school system.

Of course, not all teachers are competent; some have unacceptably low expectations, some should improve, and others shouldn’t be in the classroom at all. But the data show this is not the most serious problem we face.

Instead of searching for systemic failure where it does not exist, we should have been trying to figure out what we have been doing right, so we can do more of it. That will be one of your challenges, and you will have to do it with little support from elite opinion.

The biggest challenge now facing public education is our fiscal crisis. But it is hard to imagine how you, as educators, can urge the public to provide more money to schools if you fail to challenge, as vociferously as you can, the false charge that schools are failing. Why should the public increase support for a failing institution? If you believe public education deserves greater support, as I do, you will have to boast about your accomplishments, because voters are more likely to aid a successful institution than a collapsing one.

Because education has become so politicized, with policy made by those with preconceptions of failure and little understanding of the educational process, you are entering a field that has become obsessed with evaluating only results that are easy to measure, rather than those that are most important. But as Albert Einstein once said, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.

Of course, teaching basic reading and math skills is important, but when policy holds you accountable only for student scores in these skills, it ignores what generations of Americans have known are less-easy-to-measure, but equally important educational goals — citizenship, character, appreciation of the arts and music, physical fitness and health, and knowledge of history, the sciences, and literature.

It should not have to be your responsibility to remind the public about the goals of education, but in this environment, it is another task you will have to take on.

I said earlier that you will also have to become sophisticated about relationships between schools and society, because here, too, you will have little help from leaders who should know better.

As you are aware, our national unemployment rate remains over 8 percent. In Illinois, it is higher, about 10 percent.

For blacks, about 19 percent.

For Hispanics, about 13 percent.

If we include those unemployed so long that they’ve given up looking for work, and those part-timers who are still looking for full-time work, the unemployment rate for each of these groups is half again higher.

These are the parents of children you’re expected to teach.

Policymakers, pundits, and politicians say this shouldn’t matter. Don’t concern yourself with such problems. Stick to your knitting: If you have high expectations, your students can succeed regardless of parents’ economic circumstances.

That is nonsense.

You know better than anyone how our economic crisis affects children.

Families suffering unemployment experience great stress. Parents tend to be less patient with children; discipline becomes more arbitrary. Children come to school reflecting stress from home, pay less attention, act out more.

Families suffering unemployment may lose health insurance; children are less likely to get routine and preventive care that middle class children take for granted. Even in good times, low-income children have 30% more school absence from untreated asthma, toothaches, earaches, and other minor illness, than middle class children.

No matter how high your expectations, how accountable you are for results, if children are absent from your classrooms because of illness, they can’t benefit from whatever schools have to offer. If they can’t see because they don’t get glasses to correct vision difficulties, high expectations can’t teach them to read.

When parents suffer from underemployment or wage stagnation, families may fall behind in rent, have homes foreclosed; they may have to move frequently, doubling-up with relatives. Mobile children will pass through your classrooms, their individual strengths and weaknesses obscure to you because you haven’t had the chance to know them and to apply the sophisticated pedagogies you learned here. Even stable students will suffer, because you must repeat lessons for newcomers. Your classrooms will have to be reconstituted, as the mobility of homeless or transient students makes your student load too big or too small.

Again, no matter how high your expectations, how accountable you are for results, if children are moving in and out of your classrooms, they cannot benefit from what schools have to offer.

In short, underemployment of parents is not only an economic crisis — it is an educational crisis. You cannot ignore it and be good educators.

To be good educators, you must step up your activity not only in the classroom, but as citizens. You must speak up in the public arena, challenging those policymakers who will accuse you only of making excuses when you speak the truth that children who are hungry, mobile, and stressed, cannot learn as easily as those who are comfortable.

As educators, you must insist that children need good health care, high quality early childhood preparation, and high quality after school and summer programs if they are to come to you ready to learn.

As educators, you simply cannot remain uninformed and silent about the social and economic context of your work.

Nobody knows better than you what the consequences of economic hardship are for children’s ability and opportunity to learn.

Parents will count on you to do everything in your power to increase their children’s chances of success, not only by better classroom practice but by insisting, as citizens, on the broader attacks on inequality that are necessary to make classroom success possible.

We, too, are counting on you to fulfill these parents’ expectations.

Thank you, and good luck.


Filed under school reform policies

11 responses to “Ignoring Facts about Schools and Society (Richard Rothstein)

  1. Bob Calder

    I liked it, but will Rothstein’s sentiment create echoes across our culture?

    • Jeffrey Bowen

      From my perspective as a NYS school superintendent, Rothstein is almost frighteningly on target. You know, our children might do even better on the NAEP if state required assessments had not become such an overriding preoccupation. Testing malaise sets in, and with state tests now becoming a major factor in teachers’ performance evaluations, surely the NAEP gets shorter shrift. I really like the positive message that we need to focus on what we do well as educators. We need to build on that. In N.Y. our student performance gap closing for minorities and the disadvantaged has been close to spectacular over the last decade, yet our Governor Cuomo relentlessly focuses on the alleged imbalance between what we spend on schools and the comparatively poor results we get. Even though recent national surveys have shown startling improvement in N.Y’s high school graduation rate, the Governor seems to think our below average state rank confirms our children are being poorly educated. He ignores the fact that our N.Y. is one of the most college-degreed states in the country. Few would deny that there’s ample room for improvement, but it seems to be an act of political admiration to accuse the public schools of system failure. Thanks to Mr. Rothstein for urging us to look at the bigger picture, and to get involved in developing early-intervention and enrichmant programs that address the daunting socio-economic baggage our kids bring to school. We need tor realize that slamming the public schools won’t solve our problems. We need teamwork and sensible investment in learning opportunities that will level the educational playing field for our children.

      Jeff Bowen

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Jeff, for taking the time to comment. Rothstein makes clear what so few wish to hide or ignore–schools are embedded in society. Leveling the playing field of schooling means doing a lot with children inside and outside the classroom.

    • larrycuban

      Rothstein and others rebut the “no excuses” reformers currently in political control of deciding school policies. Those voices have not been stilled.

  2. Pingback: Ignoring Facts about Schools and Society (Richard Rothstein) | Currents | Scoop.it

  3. David Whittier

    Cuban forwards one commencement address that resonates profoundly with not only my own understanding of educational politics, but also the way in which technology can be deployed by one perspective or another. The imaginary facts to which Rothstein refers are part of the same set used to promote technology that will “revolutionize” or “transform” education and then as a bludgeon for “bashing” educators because they may not pursue the newest technology, the latest and greatest as proclaimed by those who stand to profit from its adoption.

    On the other hand, the teacher as designer of instructional technology, or the approach that I have adopted (grounded in Cuban and others), is based on evidence showing this is an organizing principle through which teachers can use technology to help their particular students improve, inch by inch if necessary. This approach asks how can technology help the teacher do what you have already decided he or she must do, not, why aren’t you using Facebook, Edmodo, Smartboards, e-portfolios, video games, simulations, smartphones, augmented reality, Google, and on and on. It is not that those technologies cannot be helpful. They can. It is that they cannot be helpful unless they help teachers do what they have to do to help their students learn and that the effort to achieve authentic educational objectives grounded in curriculum should drive the use of technology – no matter how showy or plain. The key that unlocks the value is to integrate the technology, whatever it is, into the processes the teacher designs and delivers, which cannot be said without acknowledging the many constraints already in place on those processes.

    Rothstein’s call to make this an agenda for citizenship sparked my message.

  4. Larry, I like this as a commencement speech as it is motivating. My observation of many school districts (not all) is that they are not good at public relations that promote the future execution and funding of their multi-year strategic plans; essentially not good at marketing their company as a worth investing in.

    One component that is not included in this speech is that school districts can, at times, be glaringly inefficient resulting in wasteful spending of taxpayer $$$$. This fuels the “mistrust for all government, including public education” as much as anything. These new graduates should be prepared to tackle this issue head on as well.

    Lastly, my main question has always been: why do educators and teacher unions support overwhelmingly support one political party when it is abundantly clear that neither of party acts in their best interest or acknowledge the data mentioned in this speech? “Politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates who increasingly influence education policy, repeat incessantly that our schools are failing, especially for disadvantaged children.”

    I believe educators should take hold of the value of their vote and evade being so dedicated to one party; perhaps even spin off their own movement toward that is in alignment with what will truly fix public education.

    But, I’m not sure educators will like the fact that what they really want is much further toward less central power, more money to the school buildings, more autonomy in the classroom, teacher evaluation that goes past assessment data, no common core standards, etc. Guess what, that’s not the agenda AT ALL of those they support and vote for.

    Thanks for the post.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Carmen, for taking the time to comment on Richard Rothstein’s talk. Yes, the national teacher unions have allied themselves with the Democrats but every Republican administration has its own line-up of educational policymakers, administrators, and teachers who support their platforms. Much of what you suggest in the last paragraph is contained in Republican planks for public schools.

  5. Larry, I think we all know the voting base of educators is heavily slanted toward Democrats. Further, in working with schools, in central offices and at the building, I have heard way more comments than I ever hoped to about the dirty Republicans and terrible people in the party. It’s bad enough that if you vote Republican, for your career’s sake you better not let anyone know. I’ve never once heard that sentiment toward Democrats.

    So, I’m not at all defending Republicans, my point is very different: Democrats and Republicans are a mile apart in Rhetoric and an inch apart in action. Why can’t educators see that and wage a better war against politicians by leveraging the value of their vote? Their vote has no value because Republicans have already given up on earning it and Democrats take advantage of it. The current Romney rhetoric on education is not to earn educator votes, but earn soccer mom and business leader votes.

    Anyway, I always come across far more conservative than I really am, but seeing both sides of things often times labels you as a sympathizer and in some worlds that means “BLASPHEMY!!!” lol

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the clarification, Carmen. I referred to the policy elites in each political party while you were referring to the decided tilt in schools and district offices toward Democrats. That is probably true for urban districts but less so in middle- and upper-income suburban districts. As for rural, I do not know. Perhaps those data are out about political voting behavior of teachers, I just don’t know.

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