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Education Reform -- Crashing on the Bell Curve

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Education reform is an unmitigated disaster. Years ago, before the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I observed that the rapidly spreading inclination toward standards and accountability in public education was like measuring Hansel and Gretel more often and expecting them to gain weight. Since then, American educational policy has wandered deeper and deeper into the forest.

The latest crumbs tossed at the problem come in the form of the so-called Race to the Top (as though learning is a race and everyone can stand together on the summit) which, like all sound bite reforms, is over-hyped and under-funded. The relatively meager funds don't even come close to compensating for the deterioration of state and local funding because of the ongoing recession. And the test-driven pedagogical practices demanded as conditions of this funding are nearly certain to further diminish the quality of the learning experience in American schools.

While it is disturbing and ironic that federal policy and funding are driving poor educational practice, there is a significantly larger elephant wandering through this thicket. If one takes a few steps back from the trees and looks at the forest, it is clear that the symptoms of educational decline in America have nothing to do with schools, teachers, pedagogy, standards or accountability. Decades of research indicate strongly that the decline in student achievement can be accounted for entirely by the dramatic increase in wealth disparity and the persistence of racism in America.

One such study, from the Institute for Research on Poverty, reported a nearly straight-line correlation between growth in the wealth "gap" and the increase in educational inequality. Countless other studies confirm this basic relationship. Whether in terms of college matriculation, test scores or drop out rates, the problems driving current misguided policies can be traced to an increasingly inequitable society.

But educational policy makers and social commentators, including the President and Education Secretary, blindly operate on the opposite cause and effect premise: that the increase in wealth disparity is somehow caused by the erosion of educational standards and if we only demand more of poor children, particularly children of color, social injustice will be cured. It is an educational version of the mean spirited "pull yourself up by your boot straps" attitudes that have inhibited social justice for many decades. As has always been the case, one can't pull up on boot straps when owning no shoes.

The best predictor of academic success has always been financial and social capital. This is true in looking at school success by district or SAT score by individual. Everyone knows this but no one wants to talk about it. People and communities with more resources enjoy advantages such as more home stability, more books and oral language at home, more pre-school opportunities, better air quality, better educated parents, less stress and perhaps most powerfully, more cause for optimism and a higher sense of self-worth.

Particularly in the wake of Herrnstein and Murray's offensive (and bad science) book The Bell Curve, the debilitating effects of race and class on "intelligence" and learning have been broadly acknowledged. Herrnstein and Murray were guilty of an intellectual version of the faulty cause and effect premise that fuels current educational policy. They observed racial differences in IQ scores of roughly 15 percent. While their theory (and the general field of psychometry) is complex, the most wrong-headed notion emerging from their work was that this IQ disparity explained social inequity.

While this debate has not been entirely settled, research showing the opposite cause and effect relationship has soundly rebutted their work. Historically disadvantaged groups perform less well on intelligence tests because of their diminished status. Over many decades lower castes in India and Japan have shown similar deficits in IQ testing, but it was not being less intelligent that relegated them to the lowest class -- it was being relegated to the lowest class that suppressed performance on intelligence measures.

One fascinating study tracked members of a low Japanese caste with many members who moved to California. Their supposed intelligence deficit of 15 percent disappeared when they moved from social oppression to a more equitable society. This has been similarly confirmed in studies of European Jews, who had tested significantly below average in the World War I era and then radically changed in a mere generation after emigrating to the United States.

All the hot rhetoric over educational achievement is nonsense. The problem in America is a dangerous class divide, not a crisis in teaching and learning. Until we address deepening poverty, demoralizing unemployment and insidious racism, too many American children will fulfill the sad prophesy they inherit.

A previous iteration of this piece appeared in the Valley News