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Berliner connects test scores and social welfare

Berliner addressed criticisms of the American public education system in his talk on Thursday. Photo by Jeff Li.

David Berliner, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University, spoke in Harris Cinema on Thursday, March 5 about his recent bestseller, “50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools.” Berliner’s talk was sponsored by the Careers in Education Professions Program, and focused on both the contents of his book and his personal frustrations with various criticisms of America’s public education system.

Ashley Schaefer, the director of the Careers in Education Professions program, said that Berliner has been a longtime supporter and advocate of public education in America and stated that she felt it was important to get his perspective on those issues. “He’s pretty angry and frustrated, but he’s very interesting to listen to,” Schaefer said. “He argues that most of what’s said about [the American] education system is a flat lie.”

Schaefer added that Berliner was an ideal complement for Jonathan Kozol, another education researcher who spoke in fall 2014.

“Both Kozol and Berliner … are complete advocates and proponents for public K-12 education. However, Kozol is a journalist, so he goes by emotions and stories and Berliner is all about the data,” she said. “His work provides numbers and facts to back up public perceptions about education.”

Berliner began his talk by explaining how he worked with Gene Glass, a statistician who works primarily in education psychology to debunk different negative beliefs about America’s public education system. He described statements decrying the failure of public school teachers to properly educate America’s youth from prominent figures such as President Obama or Bill Gates as unreputable and based on junk science.

“You’re judging teachers by who’s in the class, not how good they are,” Berliner said, clarifying that teacher performances can vary wildly based on the frequently changing compositions of their class.

He pulled up presentation slides featuring data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed significant improvements in students’ test scores on standardized tests in multiple categories broken down by race, subject and student age. Berliner also criticized U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for statements made about how the lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students is crippling America.

“It’s pure nonsense,” Berliner stated. “I think Arne Duncan is dumb or evil.”

Berliner argued that contrary to common perceptions, American students with higher socioeconomic standings perform just as well as students in the oft-praised education system of Finland or Shanghai, and that poverty as a result of failed social programs are the primary cause of score discrepancies, not the quality of American public school teachers.

“It’s how we live, not how we teach that makes the difference in how we perform on these tests,” Berliner said. “What we need is not a new curriculum … It is poverty that harms school learning.”

He claimed that both the socioeconomic status of a child’s family and the socioeconomic status of the school had an important influence on the quantifiable outcomes that students demonstrated. Moreover, Berliner pointed out that teachers in the United States are the most likely to work in high-poverty schools in contrast to teachers in Finland, whom he argues are teaching in a country that has increased social equality and therefore produces students who are better at taking tests.

“Who you go to school with and what your family income is determines your chances of success,” Berliner said.

Berliner addressed criticisms of the American public education system in his talk on Thursday. Photo by Jeff Li.
Berliner addressed criticisms of the American public education system in his talk on Thursday.
Photo by Jeff Li.

However, Berliner took time to caution that standardized test scores and other metrics of both student and teacher performance fail to account for how public education systems perform.

“We’re a country that seems lately pathologically wedded to metrics. We need numbers, we need grades,” he said. “We’re wedded to this notion that you can rank and rate and metricize everything. It’s void of meaning, it’s just a number.

Attendee Jazmine Bjelland ’15 liked Berliner’s talk for covering many of the interesting topics in his book, but wished that he had gone more in-depth on other subjects.

“I liked his talk a lot more than his book. It was … a lot more humor, a lot more accessible,” Bjelland said. “I do wish that he would have talked a bit more about school funding, teacher salaries and teacher pay, however.”

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