Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: "Poverty and Potential," Berliner (2009)

Berliner, David C. (2009). Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 8 September 2009 from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/poverty-and-potential

[This is an excerpted DRAFT of a chapter I am writing on parental choice. This material is for reading only; DO NOT REFERENCE OR USE THIS MATERIAL IN ANY WAY. When the book is published, I will acknowledge where you may access this material in a final form. plt 8 September 2009]

“U.S. students spend about 1,150 waking hours a year in school versus about 4,700 more waking hours per year in their families and neighborhoods,” Berliner (2009) notes in the opening of his comprehensive study about the impact of out-of-school-factors (OSFs) on student achievement. His study details seven OSFs, with the first six having negative consequences and the last being positive. Overall, and particularly when we make international comparisons and persistently criticize schools as failures, Berliner emphasizes that schools do have positive impacts on social inequities, but “despite [school’s] best efforts at reducing inequalities, inequalities do not easily go away, with the result that America’s schools generally work less well for impoverished youth and much better for those more fortunate.”

Berliner (2009) recognizes that in the educational debate we focus on outputs as if inputs do not matter. Children of affluence enter schools with advantages over children from poverty, but we expect schools to produce children at the end who are the same; yet, “we can never reduce the achievement gap between poor and non-poor children, between African American and white children, or between Hispanic and Anglo children, unless OSFs that positively or negatively affect achievement are more equitably distributed.” While we lament the achievement gap and criticize our schools as failures, we fail to acknowledge that stratified schools are the norm of our educational system, where affluent children tend to go to school with the affluent and the poor, with the poor (and theses socioeconomic factors correlate strongly with race, of course).

Low birth weight (LBW) and non-genetic prenatal influences are the first OSF identified by Beliner (2009): “This fact is relevant to the achievement gap because LBW babies are not distributed randomly among racial or income groups.” Berliner shows that these aspects of infancy disproportionately impact African American children negatively when compared to whites, correlating highly with the achievement gap we often identify for student achievement. His discussion enumerates a number of factors impacting infancy that likely are reflected in school achievement data leading many to falsely assume the schools cause these inequities instead of merely mirrors them.

“The number of children under 18 years of age without insurance was 8.1 million, or 11% of all children,” notes Berliner (2009), concerning OSF 2—medical care access for children and its impact on school achievement. Like school populations, access to medical care impacts negatively and disproportionately the same populations of students who fare poorly in school. Poor children are at greater risk of not having access to basic medical care, and they tend to dominate the population of schools serving high-poverty communities—distorting their own achievement and placing a huge burden on schools to address issues other than teaching and learning. Berliner notes that within the medical access issue is access to proper vision care that also directly impacts learning for children. He also warns that the economic downturn of 2008-2009 will surely increase the impact of health care access across the classes as middle- and upper-class families lose work, the primary source for health care in the U.S.

The third OSF, food insecurity, also is reflected in student achievement numbers, according to Berliner (2009): “A broad spectrum of professionals such as psychologists, nutritionists, and physicians agree that there is strong evidence that nutrition is linked with school behavior and achievement.” Childhood nutrition is shown to be directly related to relative affluence or poverty and then to academic success. That nutrition between birth and the first years of school is significant in cognitive gains (children who experience early insufficient nutrition but having better nutrition later do not score as well as children with adequate nutrition throughout) must be acknowledged since that reality precludes the impact schools can have even if we address the nutritional aspects of school breakfasts and lunches. Research clearly reveals a significant impact of nutrition on academic success and that impact being beyond the scope of schools to correct, Berliner exaplains:

"The conclusion is that proper nutrition early in life gives rise to greater intellectual functioning and higher levels of education later in life. . . . These data make clear that whatever the cognitive and behavioral problems associated with hunger, they will be felt disproportionately in the schools that serve low-income, racially and ethnically segregated Americans."

A wide range of environmental factors impact the fourth OSF, pollutants, continues Berliner (2009). Similar to the other OSFs, this impact is again disproportionately affecting poor children trapped in unsafe environments and exposed to lead, PCBs, mercury, pesticides, and poor air quality. Children in agricultural settings or in large cities are affected by pollutants that have been linked to cognitive disparities since exposure to pollutants tends to impact children more significantly than adults—similar to the effects of poor nutrition on the youngest children.

OSF 5, family violence and stress, results in poor student achievement, and, as Berliner (2009) warns, as poverty and rising economic unrest increase, evidence shows an increase in stress and violence as well; again, the current economic situation does not bode well for student achievement that reflects social realities. While we must be careful not to allow data to lead to stereotyping any particular race or class of people, the evidence on violence and its relationship to school achievement is chilling, Berliner shows:

"There are two factors to consider in these depressing data. One is that such families and children are overrepresented among the poor and in the African American community, increasing the difficulty of the instructional and counseling missions of schools that serve those populations. Secondly, the effects these troubled children exert on others in the classroom are strong.100 For example, within an elementary grade cohort, an increase in the number of children from families known to have a history of domestic violence shows a statistically significant correlation to a decrease in the math and reading test among those students’ peers, and to an increase in disciplinary infractions and suspensions among the peers as well. These negative effects were primarily driven by troubled boys acting out, but the effects were present across gender, racial lines and income levels. The researchers estimate that adding one more troubled boy peer to a classroom of 20 students reduces the overall test scores of boys by nearly two percentile points."

Berliner also warns that unstable families are disproportionately poor, and that part of the family dynamics include less verbal interaction, resulting in strong correlations between class and verbal skills—with three-year-old children from working class homes having a 50% higher vocabulary than children on welfare and with the vocabulary of three-year-olds from homes of professionals more than double that of children on welfare.
“Not surprisingly, then, one’s zip code has both direct and indirect, and both positive and negative, effects on student achievement,” Berliner (2009) states for OSF 6, neighborhood norms. The most disturbing aspect of OSF 6 is that Berliner shows a neighborhood can negatively impact the positive influence of a child’s home: “In neighborhoods in which it is difficult to raise children, too many parents have their decent family values undermined by neighborhood youth cultures that are oppositional, dysfunctional, or both.” This influence supports some claims that a child’s peer culture has a greater role in behaviors than the family itself. Berliner offers compelling evidence that a child’s neighborhood can severely restrict her/his verbal development because of a number of elements connected with the neighborhood’s impact on the mother, with violence, and “with public speech patterns [as] a form of social capital.”

Berliner (2009) offers a brief list of positive OSFs in his last factor, extended learning opportunities and achievement. He lists summer programs, preschool programs, and after-school programs as promising in combating some of the ill-effects of the other OSFs. However, Berliner acknowledges that those students most in need of these programs are least likely to participate; thus, the data on these programs may be skewed to suggest more potential than would occur if we were to expand them.

For our consideration of parental choice, Berliner (2009) provides a solid foundation for a key argument against the value of simply allowing parents more choice in education (setting aside the assumption that they do not already have choices): We may well need to address social inequities before schools can themselves see the results we wish. To this problem, Berliner offers a series of recommendations that must be addressed at a social level, but would likely create educational results we have bee seeking through direct school reform:

"• Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans,
• Reduce drug and alcohol abuse,
• Reduce pollutants in our cites and move people away from toxic sites,
• Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens,
• Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity,
• Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households,
• Improve mental health services among the poor,
• More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities,
• Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children,
• Provide high-quality preschools for all children, and
• Provide summer programs for the poor to reduce summer losses in their academic achievement."

These are lofty and complex social goals that are the primary influences of negative outcomes in our schools. It is surprising that our schools perform as well as they do in the context of these social forces in the lives of children—leading Berliner to end with this solid argument against the current accountability assumptions our schools labor under today:

"Inputs to schools matter. As wonderful as some teachers and schools are, most cannot eliminate inequalities that have their roots outside their doors and that influence events within them. The accountability system associated with NCLB is fatally flawed because it makes schools accountable for achievement without regard for factors over which schools have little control."