Opinion: Misrepresentation of U.S. education is hurting our kids

Opinion: Misrepresentation of U.S. education is hurting our kids
January 04, 2018
Meghan Krein

Earlier this month at a well-attended event, David Berliner, Regents Professor Emeritus at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, spoke about the responsibility of scholars in education to speak out against misunderstandings and lies.

Berliner was passionate and armed with statistics to support his stance: Income inequality causes problems in education.

Speaking truth to power

“It’s a phrase I’ve always admired,” Berliner says of speaking the phrase, “truth to power.” The phrase, coined by the Quakers in the 1950s, has come to mean speaking out to those in authority.

On the screen, Berliner references a slide of a two-month-old presidential memo entitled, “Increasing access to high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” The memo suggests too many of our nation’s K–12 and postsecondary students lack access to high-quality STEM education and are therefore at risk of being shut out of some of the most attractive job opportunities in the growing U.S. economy.

“The president, I think, is wrong,” Berliner says. “My data from the American Institute of Physics suggests otherwise.” He goes on to lay out the following statistics regarding student access to physics courses:

  • 98 percent of students whose parents are in the top third of the income distribution have access each year

  • 95 percent of students whose parents are from middle income have access each year

  • 90 percent of students whose parents are in the lowest third have access each year

With a smirk, Berliner asks the crowd, “Could the president and his staff possibly be wrong?” His remark is met with laughter.

Berliner tells us there are 277,000 STEM profession vacancies per year in the U.S. He says this is good news, not a crisis, as we’ve been told. And these vacancies can be easily filled by the yearly:

  • 252,000 STEM BA degree recipients

  • 80,000 STEM MA degree recipients

  • 20,000 STEM PhD recipients

  • 40,000 STEM AA degree recipients

  • 50,000 H-1B visa holders from overseas

“Can our government add?” Berlinger wonders. He notes that currently there are 11.4 million STEM degree holders working outside of STEM; a total of 442,000 new STEM graduates a year, for 277,000 jobs, leaving a surplus of 165,000 STEM grads a year. Clearly, we are not in a crisis to fill STEM jobs, Berliner emphasizes.

Dumbing down

Berliner quoted from President Trump’s book, “The America We Deserve”: “According to school-testing experts’ rule of thumb, the average child’s achievement score declines about 1 percent for each year they’re in school. That gives the expression ‘dumbing down’ a whole new meaning. Schools may be hazardous to your child’s intellectual health.”

Berliner offers some context for the quote, “It’s fair to say that the person uttering this is full of bologna … or something else. After 50 years in education and hanging around the measurement people, I certainly have never heard of this phenomenon: schools harming children’s intellect. And, again, there are no facts to support the president’s statement.”

On that same note, Berliner says, “Our president also said our schools aren’t centers of learning, they’re centers of crime. Our schools aren’t safe. They don’t teach.” Berliner gestures to a graph that denotes the number of guns in schools over the past 25 years. The graph shows a line going downward. “In a culture where it’s easy to obtain a gun, guns in schools have been going down steadily.” Berliner is sure to note, “Even one gun is horrible, but the number is declining.” He also points out that along with guns, total victimization, theft, violent victimization and serious violent victimization are also all declining.

Driving home his point, Berliner says, “If you’re scared about your welfare in your community, the safest place would be the nearest school. Private schools are not much different than our good-old public schools.”

Along with guns in schools plummeting, Berliner says the overall dropout rate is remarkably low by historical standards. “I don’t know what else to say to the president, except this: The national graduation rate is at an all-time high — 2.8 million more students have graduated from high school since 2001. This greatly benefits young people, the economy and the nation."

As far as teachers not teaching, Berliner says that’s the president’s opinion. “We have evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card: From 1971 to 2012, math and reading for white, black and Hispanic students has gone up. Scores for black and Hispanics are going up much more, which is what we set out to do.”

The cost of schools has risen, Berliner admits, with one cause being increased commitment to educating special-needs students in our public schools. According to Berliner, we went from educating 3.6 million special education kids per year in the late ’70s to 6.5 million special education kids per year in the last few years. “It’s what we’re supposed to do with our money. Help others.” Berliner notes that testing costs also went up as the Bush and Obama years took hold.

The president is also under the misconception that the U.S. spends more on education than any other nation in the world per capita, Berliner says. He refutes this statement by telling us: “At $138,692, the United States spends less, per student, per year, on primary and secondary education than Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.” Berliner says. “Other nations are putting in a bigger commitment to primary and secondary educations. They’re willing to put it into education rather than subways or airports, or whatever else.”

Money does matter, Berliner says. It matters a lot. “A simple 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year, for all 12 years of school, results in 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”

Watch Berliner's full talk:

Shame on us

What about Arizona, specifically? “Well, here’s what it looks like for us: In 2008, Arizona put $5.15 billion into K–12. Per student, that comes out to $4,989. This year we are estimated at spending $5.07 billion and $4,528 per student. That’s without factoring in inflation. With inflation, our state has spent $3,911.”

When asked to compare private and public schools, many people favor private. “The admiration of private schools over public is nearly universal,” Berliner says, but adds there is little difference in achievement, after factoring in social class. “After making demographic adjustments, such as access to home computers, it seems these kids are not getting a better education, but are just better off economically.” Private schools have the means to recruit high-achieving students, which accounted for three-fourths of the difference of achievement between public and private schools, Berliner says.

The average number of students in Arizona who receive free and reduced lunch is just 35 percent, Berliner tells us. “And, according to U.S. News & World Report, some of the best high schools in the United States: BASIS Scottsdale, BASIS Tucson, Great Hearts Academy Chandler and Great Hearts Academy Veritas do not offer free or reduced lunch.”

Along those same lines, Berliner says, the average number of English language learners in Arizona schools is 7.5 percent, and again, those top four schools mentioned above, have 0 percent of those learners. Where these schools do top off, Berliner notes is the percentage of white and non-Hispanic students.The Arizona school average of white and non-Hispanic students is 42.9 percent. Whereas the average of those top schools is:

  • BASIS Scottsdale: 57.7 percent

  • BASIS Tucson: 53.1 percent

  • Great Hearts Academy Chandler: 67.4 percent

  • Great Hearts Academy Veritas: 72.8 percent

Berliner explains the disparity, “Looks like a lot of skimming and creaming going on to me. These schools simply will not take all who apply or they kick out those that they don’t want to educate or are unable to educate. These schools lose over 60 percent of their students over four years. It’s not hard to look good when you can dump a lot of kids.” Berliner says charter schools are given the right to dismiss, at will, the kids they’re not happy with, the kids they don’t want, the kids they don’t like or the kids who have parents who are hard to deal with.

So who takes these kids, in the middle of the year? Berliner tells us, “It’s almost always the nearest unfunded public school.” The problem deepens as, according to Berliner, these kids often act out and cause problems for the teacher because the returning child needs attention to catch up with his classmates. And the other students are often held back because the teacher must devote more time to the new student. “There is a lot of suffering to public schools due to charter and voucher schools dumping students with whom they do not have success.”

“I need to add that many of these charter chains are making millions of dollars and paying enormous salaries to themselves and their families, but not their teachers. The BASIS schools in Arizona are a perfect case of that,” Berliner says. He further points out that the money supplying the wealth is coming from public school budgets. “Shouldn’t our elected officials be looking into those issues? Some charters are fundamentalist or religious schools which means neither the president or secretary care about. Why is public money being used this way?” There is supposed to be a separation between church and state. A supreme court ruling is being violated, says Berliner.

Closing his talk, Berliner pleads, “Speak truth to power. Please. Standing together makes a difference. Don’t let me stand alone. We are obligated to speak out if we think things are the way they shouldn’t be.”