New Data Shows School ‘Reformers’ Are Getting it Wrong

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Michelle Rhee, right, talks to third grader Kmone Feeling during a visit at J.O. Wilson Elementary School on Aug. 23, 2010 in Washington. D.C. Rhee was D.C.'s public schools chancellor at the time. Mayor Adrian Fenty, back second left, and school principal Sheryl Warley, left, stand at the back. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Michelle Rhee, right, talks to third grader Kmone Feeling during a visit at J.O. Wilson Elementary School on Aug. 23, 2010 in Washington. D.C. Rhee was D.C.'s public schools chancellor at the time. Mayor Adrian Fenty, back second left, and school principal Sheryl Warley, left, stand at the back. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In the great American debate over education, the education and technology corporations, bankrolled politicians and activist-profiteers who collectively comprise the so-called “reform” movement base their arguments on one central premise: that America should expect public schools to produce world-class academic achievement regardless of the negative forces bearing down on a school’s particular students. In recent days, though, the faults in that premise are being exposed by unavoidable reality.

Before getting to the big news, let’s review the dominant fairy tale: As embodied by New York City’s major education announcement this weekend, the “reform” fantasy pretends that a lack of teacher “accountability” is the major education problem and somehow wholly writes family economics out of the story (amazingly, this fantasy persists even in a place like the Big Apple where economic inequality is particularly crushing). That key — and deliberate — omission serves myriad political interests.

For education, technology and charter school companies and the Wall Streeters who back them, it lets them cite troubled public schools to argue that the current public education system is flawed, and to then argue that education can be improved if taxpayer money is funneled away from the public school system’s priorities (hiring teachers, training teachers, reducing class size, etc.) and into the private sector (replacing teachers with computers, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, etc.). Likewise, for conservative politicians and activistprofiteers disproportionately bankrolled by these and other monied interests, the “reform” argument gives them a way to both talk about fixing education and to bash organized labor, all without having to mention an economic status quo that monied interests benefit from and thus do not want changed.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens during a forum on education at American University in Washington, Friday, March 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens during a forum on education at American University in Washington, Friday, March 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Meanwhile, despite the fact that many “reformers’” policies have spectacularly failed, prompted massive scandals and/or offered no actual proof of success, an elite media that typically amplifies — rather than challenges — power and money loyally casts “reformers’” systematic pillaging of public education as laudable courage (the most recent example of this is Time magazine’s cover cheering on wildly unpopular Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he cited budget austerity to justify the largest mass school closing in American history — all while he is also proposing to spend $100 million of taxpayer dollars on a new private sports stadium).

In other words, elite media organizations (which, in many cases, have their own vested financial interest in education “reform”) go out of their way to portray the anti-public-education movement as heroic rather than what it really is: just another get-rich-quick scheme shrouded in the veneer of altruism.

That gets to the news that exposes “reformers’” schemes — and all the illusions that surround them. According to a new U.S. Department of Education study, “about one in five public schools was considered high poverty in 2011… up from about one in eight in 2000.” This followed an earlier study from the department finding that “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding… leav(ing) students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.”

Those data sets powerfully raise the question that “reformers” are so desperate to avoid: Are we really expected to believe that it’s just a coincidence that the public education and poverty crises are happening at the same time? Put another way: Are we really expected to believe that everything other than poverty is what’s causing problems in failing public schools?

Because of who comprises it and how it is financed, the education “reform” movement has a clear self-interest in continuing to say yes, we should believe such fact-free pabulum. And you can bet that movement will keep saying “yes” — and that the corporate media will continue to cheer them as heroes for saying “yes” — as long as public education money keeps being diverted into corporate coffers.

But we’ve now reached the point where the economics-omitting “reform” propaganda has jumped the shark, going from deceptively alluring to embarrassingly transparent. That’s because the latest Department of Education study isn’t being released in a vacuum; it caps off an overwhelming wave of evidence showing that our education crisis has far less to do with public schools or bad teachers than it does with the taboo subject of crushing poverty.

In 2011, for instance, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon released a comprehensive study documenting the new “income achievement gap.” The report proved that family income is now, by far, the biggest determining and predictive factor in a student’s educational achievement.

A few months later, Joanne Barkan published a groundbreaking magazine report surveying decades worth of social science research. Her conclusions, again, came back to non-school factors like family economics and poverty:

Out-of-school factors — family characteristics such as income and parents’ education, neighborhood environment, health care, housing stability, and so on — count for twice as much as all in-school factors. In 1966, a groundbreaking government study — the “Coleman Report” — first identified a “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement. Since then researchers have endlessly tried to refine or refute the findings. Education scholar Richard Rothstein described their results: “No analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students.”

Then, just a few months ago, Reardon chimed in again to contextualize all of this. In a follow-up New York Times article, he noted that it is no coincidence that these out-of-school factors — and in particular economic conditions — have created the “income achievement gap” at the very moment economic inequality and poverty have exploded in America.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, right, listens as Washington public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 17, 2008, before the House Education and Labor Committee hearing on mayor and superintendent partnerships in education. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, right, listens as Washington public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2008, before the House Education and Labor Committee hearing on mayor and superintendent partnerships in education. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Taken together with the new Department of Education numbers, we see that for all the elite media’s slobbering profiles of public school bashers like Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg, for all of the media’s hagiographic worship of scandal-plagued activist-profiteers like Michelle Rhee, and for all the “reform” movement’s claims that the traditional public school system and teachers unions are to blame for America’s education problems, poverty and economic inequality are the root of the problem.

One way to appreciate this reality in stark relief is to just remember that, as Barkan shows, for all the claims that the traditional public school system is flawed, America’s wealthiest traditional public schools happen to be among the world’s highest-achieving schools. Most of those high-performing wealthy public schools also happen to be unionized. If, as “reformers” suggest, the public school system or the presence of organized labor was really the key factor in harming American education, then those wealthy schools would be in serious crisis — and wouldn’t be at the top of the international charts. Instead, the fact that they aren’t in crisis and are so high-achieving suggests neither the system itself nor unions are the big factor causing high-poverty schools to lag behind. It suggests that the “high poverty” part is the problem.

That, of course, shouldn’t be a controversial notion; it is so painfully obvious it’s amazing anyone would even try to deny it. But that gets back to motive: The “reform” movement (and its loyal media outlets) cast a discussion of poverty as taboo because poverty and inequality are byproducts of the same economic policies that serve that movement’s funders.

To understand this pernicious bait and switch that writes economics out of the education story, simply think through the motives.

Think first about how the dominant policy paradigms in America — tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and budget cuts to social services — exacerbate inequality and poverty, but also benefit the major corporations that fund the “reform” movement. Then think about how it isn’t a coincidence that the “reform” movement’s goal is to divert the education policy conversation away from anything having to do with poverty and economic inequality.

You can tell that’s not a coincidence because unlike other issues, the topics of poverty and economic inequality will inevitably prompt a conversation about changing the underlying economic policies (regressive taxes, deregulation, etc.) that create crushing poverty and inequality. For corporations served by the existing economic paradigm and for the politicians and activists those corporations underwrite, such a conversation is simply unacceptable because changing the policies that create poverty and inequality potentially threatens their existing financial power and privilege. Thus, those corporations, politicians and activists in the “reform” movement do whatever they can — bash teachers, scream strong-but-meaningless words like “accountability,” criticize public school structures, etc. — to shift the education conversation away from poverty and inequality.

Reality, though, is finally catching up with the “reform” movement’s propaganda. With poverty and inequality intensifying, a conversation about the real problem is finally starting to happen. And the more education “reformers” try to distract from it, the more they will expose the fact that they aren’t driven by concern for kids but by the ugliest kind of greed — the kind that feigns concerns for kids in order to pad the corporate bottom line.

David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising and Back to Our Future. Email him at ds [at] davidsirota [dot] com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at
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  • Nancy

    Again a “Duh” moment. How can any thinking person not recognize the role that poverty plays in a child’s educational development. Kids without adequate health care, poor diet, lack of parental involvement because the parents are too busy working 2-3 jobs to support the family, face almost insurmountable obstacles in getting an education. School does not rank high among priorities when a family is struggling to survive. It is amazing that some of these children can function at all. To hold the teachers responsible for reprecussions resulting from these conditions is beyond ridiculous. Time to admit what the real culprit is…poverty.

  • Anonymous

    duh…really? So the Emperor really is not wearing any clothes??

  • Anonymous

    To hold the teachers responsible for reprecussions resulting from these
    conditions is beyond ridiculous. Time to admit what the real culprit
    is…poverty.­ ­http://mybestfriendmakes65dollarsper&#46qr&#46net/kkEj

  • Alethea Eason

    I have only taught in poor schools. Even in the same district, the discrepancies can be huge.

  • efavorite

    This is how “thinking persons” can deny reality —

    they see themselves as heroes – so superior to those actually doing the job
    of educating our children that they think they can do it better simply by
    virtue of their unrelated, but highly touted accomplishments so far.

    They’ve been encouraged from a young age to see themselves as superior and now they think they are saviors of American education.

    Sure they know poverty matters, but they are convinced that “they” can overcome it – either by their direct efforts in the classroom (Teach for America) or by getting into leadership positions (e.g. Michelle Rhee) and “transforming” the system by browbeating current teachers and principals into “producing” or getting them to leave (in disgust or by being fired).

    None of this has worked, but still they persist.

  • Linda L

    Thank you, thank you Mr. Moyers, for reposting this excellent article. I hope you write one of your own and/or do a documentary on this subject.

    It’s time for respected journalists to come out on the right side of history. Your colleague John Merrow is doing it: and and I think many more would with the example of someone as highly respected as you are.

  • Wayne Clark

    OK –cheap bread & circuses in the land of underachievement

    Hoodwinked and swindled by tax dodging captains of industry,
    Land and water fracked beyond repair by capitalist wildcatters,
    Government incapacitated by conservative notions,
    Rejected seniors deprived of needed services,
    Neglected children bullied at school and molested by media,
    Homeless and hungry begging in the shadows of the not for profit mega churches,
    Babble quoting lobby-slators justifying persecuting minorities,
    Browns rejected at the borders,
    Yellows restricted to ghetto-ed quarters,
    Reds run off their inherited mineral-rich land,
    Blacks beaten down and their prospects rapped up,
    Queers bashed by thugs inspired by politicians and pastors of hate,
    Muslims next in line for the full wrath of the religious righteous,
    Over fed dust bowlers waddle through thriving palaces of bad math and invest in state lotteries while test scores are 30th in the world,
    Packing heat, armed and dangerous,
    too many mentally unfit to make deadly force decisions,
    ………Guess we can give up settling differences with a game of Scrabble.
    I know, blame the teachers….yes that’s it….throw the bums out !

  • TheAdvocateWarrior

    Lets cut to the chase. Great article, but aside from the teachers teaching in poor communities…WE ARE EDUCATION ADVOCATES NEW TO BALTIMORE CITY, AND…News flash in two separate charter partenersd BCPS schools CHILDREN ARE BEING DELIBERATELY MISEDUCATED DENIED GRADE LEVEL CURRICULUM, GRADES SHAVED BY SOMEONE IN AUTHORITY SHOWING A FORMULA ON HOW TO LOWER THE GRADES OF HIGH ACHIEVING URBAN CHILDREN!!! Caught red handed. Poverty only contributes to the rotten thieving criminals not getting caught! Lets not pretend we’ve forgotten that no one was as disadvantaged as POST SLAVE ERA SLAVES!! They had NO CLUE, NO NOTHING…YET…many went on to teach themselves, travel the world, open higher learning institutions. What is happening in Public/Charter education is deliberate, calculated, and diabolical!! Baltimore City, is exposed. How sick to forget this is a nation where people needed THE NATIONAL GUARD TO WALK CHILDREN TO SCHOOL because families dared to request/demand equal schools…instead of making them equal…they said lets let them in and see how inferior they are…but they were wrong the kids were brilliant and people now had them close enough to study and prepare to break down the confidence. Then in the 80’s more people of color from poor areas or families ended up in college studying engineering, and GRADUATING!! They had to now pull funding, remove critical programs. Send in lazy teachers who didn’t have to work so hard because no one would notice. Give amazing teachers over crowded wild arse kids! We visit schools, and we see exactly what goes one. Grade tampering giving the illusion of failing children. Bullying NEVER being addressed causing distractions and low student achievement. $95,000. Is CHARTER SCHOOL IN POOR AREA MOTIVATION…NOT CARING FOR THE “impoverished wild animals” they have to tolerate!

  • NotARedneck

    The biggest cause of failure is the belief – from all political points of view – that there is a way to make all students succeed. This is rubbish.

    What is most important is to save those students who want to learn by isolating them from those who are bullies, criminals and otherwise disruptive. High standards can be achieved for many if every school becomes an oasis of learning rather than a warehouse for youth.

    Unfortunately, most right wingers want to keep the reprobates out of the malls and streets during the business day and then use the resulting lack of success as a tool to promote their profiteering ideas.

  • Anonymous

    Another piece of evidence: internationally, the countries with the best school systems uniformly have public schools. See

  • Melinda Oslie

    Sir; your article is spot on and I applaud you. I hope and pray those in power read this an have a “come-to-Jesus” moment. Anyone who has worked in a low-income school and tried to teach children who were too hungry to hear a word said, too tired, too drugged or too sick knows without a doubt what the cause is for lack of learning or retention of lessons. I was just a lowly T.A. 25 years ago, but it used to break my heart.

  • Wayne Clark

    Grew up there, taught there, left there. Oklahoma is like there (only 50 years behind there).

  • Linda Johnson

    Thank you, Mr. Moyers, for posting this excellent article. As you and other great journalists start asking questions about the current “reform” movement, you will see that it is really a movement to privatize the schools in order to siphon school tax money into private pockets. This is all being done without the knowledge and consent of most American citizens. Think Wall Street and just follow the money. Also, just a cursory investigation will prove that very few, if any, children are being helped. All the “miraculous” test scores are just smoke and mirrors. All the “miracle” schools have borrowed the “secret” of most unusually successful schools: select your student population.
    History tells us that in times of economic hardship, clever opportunists come out of the woodwork to take advantage of new pots of gold. In the recent recession the targets were our public schools. Please do all you can to prevent further destruction to one of our greatest institutions. Thank you.


    We need to get the student/teacher ratio down in our public schools. 15:1 or bust!

  • mo barton

    There is also a rising hatred of educators. I taught for many years and although I never made much money I was at least respected by parents and most children. Now the public seems to think I’m nothing but a bum. I’ve worked in poor schools with few resources and did my best to teach everyone who walked in the door. Now that I have finally retired on my small pension, which I earned while being paid small wages because I wanted to TEACH, some people act like I have taken something away from them . Teachers are not the enemy. Remember us, we are the ones you handed your children to every morning for years. We are NOT the bad guys. The bad guys are the corporations whose greed is destroying this country. I believe they deserve a fair profit for their hard work – NO BODY deserves an 8 or 20 million dollar salary. It is obscene. Pay that CEO 2 million and do something worthwhile for the society with the other 6 million.

  • Rita Kanell

    I am thankful that Mr. Moyers has shared Mr. Sirota’s article because it clearly points to the issues that undermine the success of our underprivileged students…corporate greed is evident. Teachers are being held accountable not only about educating all children, but they are held up to standards no other profession is required to do. I am all for accountability, but I would like and need to have equity…let others such as politicians, Wall Street bankers and financial brokers, insurance agents, and everyone else be also held accountable and responsible for their performance, or lack thereof!

  • Candace

    I taught at a bottom five percent achieving elementary school in Tennessee, which has since been taken over by the state. I can say from personal experience, the problem is far more complex than blaming everything on poverty. Poverty, the teachers unions, principals, charter schools, reformers, right and left wing politicians, parents, students and the government, all play their role.

    I find it interesting that everyone failed to mention Bill and Melinda Gates, who I would not refer to exactly as profiteers. However, they seem to have drunk the reformer
    Kool-Aid, which makes you believe that holding teachers’ and administrators’ feet
    to the fire long enough will either make them quit or become miraculously competent.

  • Adriana Saavedra

    And now I understand why my ideas don’t appeal leaders: they demand egalitarian principles for everyone.

    A. Incorporate trades and love for artisanship years k-12,
    to modify our current consumption pace that is depleting the planet of
    resources and accelerating climate change. To this end, if every student becomes
    aware of the value of labor at an early age, they will
    become effective administrators preventing waste later in life as leaders -we
    are spoiled by being 5% of the world population but consuming 20% of the oil.

    B. Design organic farms to guarantee care for elders through
    youth labor hence retirement funds don’t end up in the hands of greedy and
    unconscionable politicians and CEO’s that use them to produce economy bubbles
    and wars because they disregard its intrinsic present and future value.

    C. A sustainable natural breastfeeding option for working
    mothers through spaces in day care centers that would improve population’s diet
    and health while providing a safe haven for those in emotionally abusive

    Our education reform needs to be holistic. This is why Finland’s system is successful.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! Let’s hope you are right that the conversation is shifting toward rational, real solutions to difficult and complex problems. I have taught in one of the most privileged school districts in my region and one of the most economically depressed and I have see the devastating impact of the exaggerated emphasis on standardized testing, “accountability,” conformity in curriculum design, and top-down management models in both systems. My hope is that as these tools impact affluent communities, those parents will begin to see the failures of these policies and will lobby for change and authentic reform.

  • Walt Heinecke

    The article leaves out a couple of key co-conspirators, the policymakers at the federal, state, and district level who promote the commercialization of the “manufactured educational crisis.”

    In addision there is a class of educational researchers who are plugged into the policy channels to support “evidence-based” or “scientifically-based” research findings and program solutions that are then sold to schools and purchased by School superintendents who want a symbolic program to show the public they are “doing something” to combat the falsely defined problem. They often make deals with producers of commercial school reform packages. Fads or flavor of the month as teachers refer to them.

    See Berliner and Biddle, The Manufacured Crisis.

    See Mary Lee smith et al: The Political Spectacle and the Fate of the American Schools.

    See: National Center for Education Policy, Commercialism in Education Research Unit,
    The only thing that wil stop this cycle are parents and their advocates demanding that local school boards stop falsely definign the problem and stop purchasing faddish off the shelf reform programs from corporate and educational hucksters.

  • rain,adustbowlstory

    The whole “it’s the teachers’ fault” meme has become so pervasive that it’s a delight to see a story like this. We need to speak truth to the “common wisdom” (which is wrong) whenever we can.

    As a teacher as well as a writer, I also want to add that to start my summer school class this week I am showing Bill Moyers’ old “Creativity” interview with Maya Angelou. My students love, love, love it. I’d recommend it to other teachers.

  • Outofthehood

    Okay. I worked for the past eight years in the lowest achieving school in our district. Yes, poverty is a major issue, but so is the fact of generational poverty which has translated into school only being a sitter for the kids. It doesn’t matter the age of the parent or whether they are male or female. Most of thier parents don’t work. It doesn’t matter whether they have food, but more about whether they have expensive shoes and famous labeled outfits. THE KIDS DON’T CARE BECAUSE THEIR PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS DON’T CARE ABOUT THIER EDUCATION!! Our district took the highest multigenerational poverty-stricken students and consolidated them all into one school. Discipline and a huge lack of respect for teachers, schools and themselves make it nearly impossible for really good and caring teachers to teach. Add that to the lack of ” normal, everyday, family experiences” that poverty makes impossible to provide, and you have a community, and generational fatality.

  • Renate Hochheimer

    Great article, but it is not POVERTY and inequality

    After WWII, when Germany lay in debris and ashes,
    and there was no money, just good teachers, supporting parents and creativity to
    make it work, the country performed highest on the international

    Now, with all the luxury, lax parenting, and far
    too liberal upbringing, it swims in the middle.

    But 2 states in Germany still perform very high in
    the Pisa study: Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, where strong families are intact
    and the respect for teachers is high.

    Another fallacy of American education is that
    ATHLETICS ranks higher than ACADEMICS, and that much money is directed away
    from the essentials.

    CONSUMER GOOD that people think they can buy their way into it.



    Renate Hochheimer

  • Stephen Krashen

    Dr. King Was Right

    The US Dept of Education claims that they are concerned about poverty, but think that the solution is to improve teaching: With better teaching, we will have more learning (that is, higher test scores), and this will improve the economy. Graduates will step into high paying technical jobs and start new companies.

    But more education will only lead to a job if jobs are available. Studies show that the STEM crisis is really a surplus of STEM-trained workers, not a shortage.

    Poverty means inadquate diet and health care and little access to books, among other things. All of these have a powerful negative impact on school performance.

    .We are always interested in improving teaching, but the best teaching in the world will have little effect when students are hungry, are in poor health, and have low literacy development because of a lack of access to books.

    Studies have failed to find a correlation between improved test scores and subsequent economic progress and have also shown that job loss results in depressed school performance. In one study, job losses affecting 3.4% of state’s population predict a decline of 10 points on standardized math tests.. Their results also indicated that “downturns affect all students, not just students who experience parental job loss.”

    This data strongly suggests that reducing poverty helps raise educational levels, not the other way around. It means that Martin Luther King was right:

    “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.” (Martin Luther King, 1967, Final Words of Advice).

    Footnote: There is, in addition, no evidence that the “rigorous” standards/nonstop testing formula has ever improved student achievement.

  • Anonymous

    What a difference a ‘Culture’ makes…Read the new book” The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement:Failure of America’s Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations..” The book can be previewed and purchased on either, or

  • Anonymous

    I’m amazed that the average American has yet to figure out the greatest heist of taxpayer money has been going on for the past 30 years. Big business, despite screaming about the size of government, has made sure that government money is going to them while the rest of us are kept from rioting via food stamps, welfare, unemployment compensation, and disability payments. If you do the math, I bet us poor and old get peanuts compared to what the corporations receive.

  • Former Public School Teacher

    I am ready for this phrase, “jumped the shark” (p.9, s.1) to begin to……jump the shark. Haha!

  • Jahn Xavier

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Read the new book”The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement:Failure of America’s Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations..”

  • Barry Heisler

    All Americans need to read this.

  • Peg Babcock

    Bless you for saying it, Dr. Krashen. As a retired school librarian, it rings very true to my own experience.

  • M Bandler

    As a public school teacher at an inner city school, I can attest that this is true. I am not saying that there aren’t bad teachers or union issues-but I have seen schools with effective teaching that still fail due to the economic and environmental circumstances of the students. These kids are capable of achieving, but more resources need to go to schools and to teacher training across the board to help these schools succeed. The whole high stakes testing business, vouchers for private schools, etc. simply take away from the real issues of poverty.

  • Teacher no more

    I as well spent 7 years in the lowest/roughest school in a metro area with 6 million people and while you make a point with it being multi-generational… it’s still poverty… and did you also notice in your experience that the level of respect and consequences for their poor attitudes and behavior only increased as NCLB and Race to the Top became more and more important to administrators?? The point of this article is that we are doing the wrong things which is compacting the problem… but I’m not sure what your point is…

  • Teacher no more

    All students can be successful if you find something that they have a talent for and/or an interest in. Many vocational education programs were very successful but costly so they were the first to be phased out… We just have to broaden our concept of “success”

  • Powder Monkey

    In the 1970s, there were several teaching excellence programs, including one from UCLA’s Dr. Madeline Hunter. All of the steps for successful teaching were identified. Teachers were enthusiastic, mainly. Making the program work required teachers to attend workshops and accept coaching in their own classrooms. The momentum of the programs put it all in the hands of the teachers and trainers, much as is practiced in the highly successful model presently used in Finland. The program sent a message to principals and other administrators that their roles would be diminished, and also the role of school boards. That is why the programs failed. Status has been identified as possibly the most powerful of human emotions. When those are the top are determined to resist having their status diminished, there is little hope for systemic change.

  • Virginia

    So what do we, the general public, do? … stating a problem, which I know exists, is one thing … but give suggestions on how to change this!!! Positive action steps are needed for the this to change.

  • Ellie in Idaho

    Thank you for your years of teaching. Everything you said is true!

  • Ellie in Idaho

    Yelling is not necessary.

  • Juliet Dervin

    Thoughtful piece, David. Thank you for stating the hypocrisy so clearly! To the query “what do we, the general public, do?” I think the answer is whatever it takes to speak up and not let corporate idealogues run roughshod over public schools.

  • Sue Davenport

    Dusting off the Coleman Report to blame the victim once again! Disgusting. It’s not the family, contrary to Rich Rothstein’s assertions. Ron Edmunds, Larry Lezotte and other documented, in their Effective Schools research of the 70’s and 80’s, urban, suburban and rural schools that successfully educated low income students from under resourced neighborhoods/districts. It does matter what principals and teachers believe about their students and the policies they put in place to educate ALL students. All students can learn – high expectations, rich curricula and strong social supports are 3 key elements. A collegial professional culture that values leadership, collaboration and peer learning, and parents integrated into the social, cultural and political life of the school – those are elements #4 and #5.

    These are called the 5 Essential Supports, or other similar names. CPS adopted them in the 1990’s pre-Paul Vallas and the Consortium on Chicago School Reform used them as their research framework. Designs for Change consistently advocated for this framework and documented the effective CPS elementary schools that had improved math and reading significantly from 1989 to 2012, with evidence of
    those supports in place. Research based effective education reform lost a powerful voice when DFC’s director, Don Moore, a leader for all kids, passed away in 2012.

    And today, the CTU, and its allies, continues to fight those fundamental supports for education for all students.

  • Jen Adams

    I have taught for 25 years in Austin, the last 8 years in 2 charter schools. These schools were started by groups of parents who were frustrated by the standardization found in large school districts. There was no corporate backing and no profit made as these schools had to rent building spaces. These small schools offer innovation and better reflect the values of the families they serve. I object to the notion that all charter schools are corporate pawns, although I agree that element exists. Overall, I agree with the points made in this article, but I worry that we will unwittingly throw the baby out with the bath water if we do away with a charter system that provides alternatives where they are needed. Charter schools are public schools, too.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately charter schools that are called Public Charters only means they get public funding but they can still be run privately and as a teacher and taxpayer I have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with charters that work, but with charters that are using taxpayer dollars to make profits.
    If a charter is going to take public money, then they should also be regulated. But they are not. We have seen too many charters cherry pick their students and for those not making the grade or becoming discipline problems, thrown back to the public schools. Nor should those same tax dollars go to offering charter students more innovations than public schools. It’s just unfair.
    I too have a problem with the standardization (if you mean teaching to the test) of public schools. But this is out of the control of the teachers. However, I wish the parents had fought harder for change at their pubic school by joining opting out programs before starting a charter.

  • Luis Gabriel Aguilera
  • Cheryl

    Amen! 30 years as a public school teacher and I would love to see these education reformers eat their words in my lifetime!

  • Betsy Bloom

    Kudos to you for putting this reality check out there. Just this morning in my small town Upstate NY newspaper it was reported that only 39 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch graduated from our local high school last year. It’s a certainty that corporate ‘reformers’ are exploiting Americans’ discomfort with talking about class. To the person below who wonders how to fight back
    , we all need to start speaking up by writing letters to the editor, forming coalitions of educators and parents, holding public info meetings, etc. In general, people don’t know what’s going on. They are outraged when they find out. Start by sharing this excellent article!

  • NotARedneck

    The “concept of success” has been broadening for over 50 years. Now days, “students” can get HS diplomas with a total lack of basic skills. This is not success in my view. Basically, you are correct in that success can be defined in such a way that all can find it, but what value is that?

    What is needed instead is an approach that creates oases of learning in as many schools as possible, where kids, no matter what their socioeconomic background, can find a safe place to learn and achieve most of their potential. Such schools would remove the disruptive influences that make many most middle and upper class schools somewhat unsafe and places where impressing one ‘s peers trumps learning. For lower class schools, they would eliminate the hell holes that torture anyone wanting to achieve.

    The problem with your thesis is that for most North Americans, a basic quality education has never been that valuable. Prior to the mid 1970s, it was not needed to succeed in the booming post war economy. By the 1980s, it was of little value in differentiating oneself from millions of other under employed. Since employers could not reliably identify who was well educated and who was not, they tended to hire those who sold themselves well, usually because of their looks.

    Given the low standards of our schools, only about 5% of workers can get a highly demanding, technical or Ivy League type education that nearly always guarantees a good job. For the rest, education has unfortunately become a bad investment and many know this. As a result, they are disruptive influences (bullies, drug dealers, chronic truants, etc.) who work hard to degrade the educational system.

  • Duped and Disgusted

    The well-intended, who DO care about children and education, have been swayed by the anti-public education movement unveiled in this article. I was one swayed and, after reading this article, feel betrayed and ashamed that I eagerly joined the education “reform” efforts…for the benefit of our country and it’s children.

  • Kenny

    It’s a nice attack article, but the author doesn’t provide any solutions at all. He bashes the evil reformers while essentially championing the status quo. Well if the reformers have gotten it wrong, then what does that say of the status quo which has led to the need for reform in the first place? You absolutely cannot discount the effect of parenting on kids’ education. But you also cannot do much about it. No, it’s not a major surprise that reform has not turned education results around. But major reform gives students the best chance at academic success. Conversely, the answer according to the department of education and our current president is to just force kids into school younger and for longer hours each day. That also won’t overcome the negative impact of negligent parenting, but it will decrease the chances of success for everyone else. Doing more of something that doesn’t work will never magically make it start working.

  • Randy

    I liked the article but the nature of education and class is addressed as well as it could be. Part of the testing -reformer group is a vested interest in evaluating educators and educational programs without ever having to step into a classroom. The retention of the Teach for America program at 21% after several years shows an elitist concern for resume building and if you have to bring personal resources –mostly financial–to over whelm your less affluent teaching peers, you create a dog-pony show rather than true educational reform. Finally, the community college’s could be a game-changer if allowed to function in a truly vocational way. Why allow universities to offer degrees in say hotel management when an affordable two year degree can give the same education at less cost? Why have so many culinary schools when institutional programs at the community college work as well? Students are motivated to educational goals that are achievable, which is one reason that economically disadvantaged students may give up early. The false choice of being a neurologist or a felon is a myth that over networked elitists seem to love, for the rest of us its a fairy tale that is used to destroy struggling schools.

  • Susie Smith Dial

    I would take this opinion piece more seriously if my own experiences with our public school system did not support the argument for teacher accountability. My children have had math teacher incapable of simple calculations, English teachers that send letters/assignments home that are riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, a Spanish teacher that cussed the class whenever students asked questions, teachers teaching subjects simply because some warm body was needed, and a plethora of other situations. My son was even ridiculed in class by the honors mathematics teacher after have stage IV skin cancer removed from his face. This teacher was not only protected by the local, state, and national teacher’s unions but rewarded that year with teacher of the year.

    I teach my children at home then send them to public school because our local school board threatens home schooling parents.

  • charlie

    Ok so you’re one of the 20% that has been successful as measured (not really) by your personal experience. That is not the point. We have vilified our entire public school system on the basis of failures of those that were terribly handicapped. And in the process we have defunded the poorest funded schools. We need to stop doing that which has not worked for 80% based on the anecdotal evidence and the erroneous assignment of failure entirely on teachers. How many students were in your public school classrooms?
    ” After have stage IV ..”. ? do I detect a grammatical error of just spelling?

    Our public schools are worth our efforts to improve. The property tax funding system is broken. More, not less, funding must flow to schools which are most at risk, not to the richest schools.

    My personal prayers for your son and you. May he recover to live a full and caring life.



  • Bill

    But Renate, Germany had been an aristocratic society with well educated people to start off. What little they had, their education and experience would help them rebuild. Blacks in America did not have the same situation. They came from a society of slavery, 5 or 6 generation of the worst possible poverty and humiliation. When they were finally free, they found themselves shut out from society and rarely could take advantage of social programs that helped build the middle class we had post WWII. We still see the effects today in our high poverty/racially segregated areas. Where all the so called “failing” schools are. Funny, someone show me a “failing” school in a middle+ class area. I sure can’t find one.

  • SKW

    Great article. Another problem is that, without increasing overall education funding (i.e. raising taxes), funneling dollars from the high performing (wealthy neighborhood) schools to the low performing, disadvantaged schools will only serve to destroy the high performing schools (while, perhaps, improving the low performing schools). In Florida, the school funding is determined by a complicated formula that is supposed to equalize school funding, but because taxes and education spending have been cut, combined with the housing downturn, it mostly serves (IMHO) to underfund all schools “equally”.

  • Anonymous

    Wake up America, solutions to problems can be right in front of us!! ” There are many roads which lead to Rome and it is not always desirable to take the royal road” (The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement: Failure of America’s Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations)..”

  • Sharon M. Mullins

    like William explained I am amazed that a mom can make $4006 in a few weeks on the computer. did you read this site link w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • Sylvia Brown

    My children too have had inferior teachers. They are everywhere. But, it is the fault of the administration for not dealing with those teachers. Union reps inform administration that there are problems, but the administration ignores the problems. Are the teachers bad, probably. But blame the school administration, not all teachers.

  • Anonymous

    Class size is a major factor in a teacher’s ability to strengthen students. When class numbers rise, the likelihood of chaos rises also, and the time allotted to teachers to actually teach, falls. A teacher working to meet student needs requires so much more energy. Teachers quickly tire and burn-out.

  • cloverndaff

    Are any of you aware of the fact that one of the key people behind the No Child Left Behind initiative has written a book APOLOGIZING for her part in creating that mess? And she’s not the only one apologizing either.

  • calas500

    Outstanding article. Thank you for explaining what’s really going on. Look deeper, people, and follow the money! Please.

    “The question that “reformers” are so desperate to avoid: Are we really expected to believe that it’s just a coincidence that the public education and poverty crises are happening at the same time? Put another way: Are we really expected to believe that everything other than poverty is what’s causing problems in failing public schools?”

  • calas500

    Maybe they were Teach for America teachers, who only receive a 6-week training course?

  • Vikingstaff

    Outstanding article. Spectacular! This article needs to be diseminated widely in Michigan where these very interests, under Republican majorities in both House and Senate, with a GOP governor are destorying our public school system via these “reform” politices.

  • Been there/done that

    Well said and probably one of the authentic responses!

  • 1BATMom

    Dear Mr. Moyers,

    Thank you for sharing this incisive piece by David Sirota. You have restored my faith that someone with journalistic integrity is not only paying attention to the sad realities of public education in America, but is also willing to name it.

    Mr. Sirota addressed all the pertinent points – poverty, corporate interests, privatization, unions, none of which is the sole culprit behind so-called Education Reform. Taken together, these points make up the Destroyer bearing down on our children and teachers to create a disaster in the making. The biggest weapon in their arsenal is high stakes standardized testing.

    I hope fervently that Mr. Sirota will now take some more time to look at how the culture of the current and most recent administrations are destroying public education by enacting policies, such as standardized testing, merit pay, NCLB, RTTT Common Core State Standards, social policies, and the hot-button for all parents – data-mining.

    In the immediate future, generations of children have begun to pay the highest price by being victims of a substandard education. Ultimately, we are being shortsighted, if not entirely blind, if we refuse to see that our society as a whole will pay most dearly for an poorly educated populace. What then?

  • memaku

    This is a great article. Something that does need to be addressed (as one of the other posters commented) is that administrators are also key to a school’s success. They set the climate, much as a coach gets a team ready for a game. If they are unwilling to do their jobs by getting to know the population they serve, as well as working together with the teachers, the school flounders. That’s why poor teachers often stay in the classrooms – not due to unions. There are good and bad in every profession, but it takes an administrator who is involved to deal with the problem. I’ve yet to see the teachers union be able to “protect” a teacher if that teacher is in the wrong. The teachers union is not the same kind of union as in the north. It is simply a figurehead that does help with contract negotiations and trivial day to day issues. However, I’ve seen administrators turn their backs to problems, accuse the people with solutions as being negative, etc. Under those conditions, poor teachers flourish (usually because they’re the ones who keep their mouths closed) while good teachers become targets or leave due to disillusionment. Currently I’m working in a high poverty school that was an A – we had a very involved, connected principal. They replaced him with a social climber, who had a personal agenda, didn’t understand the population, and brought in a different curriculum that teachers were forced to use, or risk losing their jobs (not the curriculum adopted by the county), and now the school is an F. The admin will be moving on, but the rest of the school is left to dig out of the hole.

  • memaku

    More and more inexperienced teachers are going into the classroom without support, as well as inexperienced administrators. It used to be that an administrator was a well seasoned veteran. Now they may only have had a couple years teaching in the classroom, and don’t have to have taught multiple grade levels or abilities.

  • Tracey Smith

    Excellent article…of course those who disagree will just call it leftist like they do to anything that does not further their elitist agenda.

  • Anonymous

    Something is evidently wrong if a public education system, that works so well in other developed countries, does not work here and that charter schools will save the day. The economic factor as a cause would seem to support, once again, the contention that America’s wealth disparity is the root of many evils.

  • djse


  • diego

    I will also add that maybe if teacher unions focused on teachers rather than on unions and labor issues or abortion or same sex marriage or the myriad of other countries issues that they throw union money at that has nothing to do with teaching or schools, we e may actually see some progess.

  • TEACHER4what’sright

    So we should fire a dentist when your child gets a cavity! OR we should drastically lower the pay of an oncologist when Aunt Betty dies of cancer! THERE ARE OTHER FACTORS!!!!!!!!!!!!! I could go on and on and on and give examples from EVERY profession. Bad teachers linger because bad administrators don’t do their jobs. If you don’t like the teachers in your district I have 3 words for you…….SCHOOLS OF CHOICE! Do YOUR job as a parent!

  • laurie

    I am a teacher and my children were brought up through our public school system. Sure, they had a couple of mediocre teachers, but the majority were caring, intelligent and highly capable. The mediocre teachers should not define our profession. There are more excellent teachers than inferior ones. Administrators need to be more vigilant about who they hire and who they keep.

    This article is spot on. Teachers have become scapegoats for the socioeconomic inequities in our country. I fear for the future of our educational system. Many of the people involved in educational reform were never educators. Would we want decisions about our health to be made by people who never took a biology class?

    I have been teaching for 24 years and am appalled at what is happening to public education. I used to think I would teach for the rest of my life. Now I am counting the days until I can retire with my full pension. I will still give my heart and soul to my students, but I want to teach on my terms…I don’t want to teach an unrealistic, scripted curriculum so that my students perform well on standardized tests. That is where we are headed.

  • Arthur H. Camins

    I argue here that the real supporters of the status quo are the so-called reformers and that there are well-known high-leverage strategies far more likely to produce real change… but only when done in concert:

  • retired teacher

    The solution is to take all the money that is being spent on developing Common Core and the associated tests which have to be taken online (imagine the cost of getting the technical infrastructure in place to do that!) and put it where it belongs: the students. Think of the amount of money that has been spent since NCLB and RTTT have been enacted with no real improvement as measured by the NAEP. The only way to improve education in the cities (wealthier districts’ student do fine when compared to international students) is to provide wraparound services and smaller class sizes. Children need to feel connected to their teachers and their classmates and that’s hard to do in classes of 25 or more in the cities. My suburban district has a program for at risk students where they meet for one period each day with a teacher and a small group (8 or less) of fellow students who learn to connect, trust, and learn to take responsibility for their actions. Their regular teachers fill out a slip for each class on how they did (homework, classwork, behavior) and the group holds them accountable for their actions. I’m not saying that the cities could afford classes of 8; I’m just pointing out that smaller class sizes help students and teachers connect.

  • JustCareAlot

    Bill, Thank you so much for sharing David Sirota’s insightful article. I sincerely hope that you are planning to do a show or two on this matter, just as you have enlightened so many Americans with your very informative, “The United States of ALEC.” This is inextricably related to the neo-liberal agenda promoted by ALEC, corporations and politicians on both sides of the aisle. More people really need to become aware of this, too, so they can take action and elect politicians committed to changing course and addressing poverty and inequity in this highly stratified society, before we become like Chile, as a result of Milton Friedman’s privatization of public education there.

  • Anonymous

    Outstanding. Thank-you for for sharing this thoughtful tome that exposes the corrupted propaganda behind school “reform”. Particularly pernicious is the latest edu-reform axiom promoted by NCTQ & US News & World Report that our public university education programs are failing and must be replaced by alternative certification programs or, in some states like AL, no certification requirements for teachers.

    Teach for America (TfA) that trains graduates of elite universities in a 5 week summer cram-course sends unprepared short-termers into inner city classrooms. As experienced teachers mostly of color, born into those communities are being fired, novice, predominantly white, privileged, TfA corp members replace them. Less education in educating is better, according to the reformers. Coupled with TfA’s arrogance regarding the superiority of their mere presence in black & brown schools, is their TfA conditioned condescension towards life-long teachers.

    As our education policies fire teachers committed to their communities, force closing more & more inner city schools, segregating poor and disabled students to schools outside their neighborhoods, and turn over educating our youth to the least-learned of the business class, we replicate the disenfranchising urban renewal projects that disguised racism as saving the poor from themselves.

    Ghandi called segregation the ‘negation of civilization’. By destroying public schools that represent the last stable institution in places like Camden Newark, Detroit, DC and many more, edu-preneurers are eliminating one more critical core of communities of color.

  • Seth in Philly

    Yes, it’s inextricably related via people like Michele Rhee, who hang out on Tuesdays and Thursdays with Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel, and on Mondays and Wednesdays with ALEC-leadership lawmakers in Tennessee and Michigan, helping them pass legislation that does the bidding of all of the above. That is to say, it’s not just an abstract set of connections. They’re rather concrete and public.

  • Bertis Downs

    To me, one of the most frustrating things about the “education reform” movement is sincerely motivated do-gooder types who genuinely want what is best for children working as second fiddlers to the ALEC inspired destroyers. And usually unwittingly I would add. But the damage is the same regardless of intention. But on the other hand, there’s this pushbacklash that is finally happening in every corner of the country:

    “Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.”

  • Monica Mayall

    Thank you for writing and publishing this article. It needs to be broadcast every time the words “student data” are used. These reform methods are not truly new, but have been tried and failed over the course of public educational history. I refer the the Harris Merit Pay Report which one can easily goggle and download the PDF file. I hope many more continue to reveal that the emperor has no new clothes.

  • sue

    I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that you need these 5 essential supports – the problem, of course, is to say that these elements stand alone and will overcome the other issues for all children. That is simply unrealistic. Referencing Chicago, the current graduation rate stands only at 68% – not exactly a shining point.

    I don’t think anyone is saying to blame the victim – because ultimately if children are not successful then we are all to blame and we will all feel the repercussions of an uneducated America. However, educators are dealing with many compounding issues (politically, emotionally, physically, as a society) and to say that the blame lies solely at the teacher’s feet is ridiculous. While you are pulling out data from the 70 – 80’s, why don’t we also refer back to Maslow’s theory – there are basics that are not being met in many of these children’s lives – to ignore them does not make them disappear, nor does deflecting the blame in one area when there are many contributing factors that need to be addressed solve the problem. So, when you talk about advocating for children everyone needs to take a step back and look at the whole picture.

  • Dee

    Comprehensive education would solve poverty. We have a factory system based out of the 1800’s and it needs to evolve to the 20th century…

  • lmoon

    In Philadelphia, public schools might not open this year because the district has no money to pay for support staff. Meanwhile, the charter schools are opening on time. Charters take money away from the public schools, and get millions of dollars from corporate reformers (see Mastery, Kipp To read more about Philadelphia Schools:

  • David Hovgaard

    I agree with everything you said. I would take it further, the current attempt at reform is just another in a long cycle of attempts to get rid of universal free public education. It is the universal and the free part that drives the right to fits of anger and despair. The very idea that a child born in to poverty can with some luck well a lot of luck make it out of the station into which he or she were born and get an advanced degree and compete with the worthless children of the rich for jobs is to them heresy. The poor are failed people not deserving of even the human dignity of a fair wage with which to support themselves or so the right wing believes. Wealth to them is proof of divinity never mind what Jesus said about it. The road to heaven for these odious people is paved with gold and the poor are undeserving of any help, especially not a decent education.

    But the question is not what the rich believe or the lies they tell about education and the workers that make their lives possible. The question is why so many people of lesser means vote for politicians whose policies take bread out their children’s mouths and limit their chances for a better future. Until this group of people begins to see through the lies the republicans will find a way to win and in winning do even more damage to the fading middle class and those stuck in the poverty’s unbreakable grip.

  • David Hovgaard

    No it wouldn’t. The problem isn’t how schools are run. The problem is a corporate structure that’s only goal is cheap labor so they can have higher profits. The skills gap is and always has been a myth. There are no jobs Americans can’t do but their are wages and working conditions they will not tolerate which is why many companies hire undocumented workers they are much easier to exploit.

  • MarquinhoGaucho

    As someone who worked for a charter school I can tell you it is all smoke and mirrors. The idea is to educate the kids for as cheap as possible and fudge the numbers to keep the money in. . To make themselves look better they “cook the books” in every possible way. Cherry picking the best students is the easiest. Imagine I get to draft football players from around the league and you just get a set of random players. Who will have more wins? There is cheating on standardized tests with administrators leaving at 11 pm after changing hundreds of answers. Teachers who are honest and give honest grades are terminated (for not being a team player) and the grades changed afterwards. Classes get dumbed down, . Disciplinary infractions like assaults and drugs are not reported. Students who some how got in and are “at risk” of doing poorly are dumped in public school for a minor infraction . Any ELL student or student “at risk” or special needs are discriminated against and not let in period. There is NO accountability because of political and corporate affiliations and the directors create their salaries to whatever they want. Mine received over $300,000 , 55 grand more than the superintendent of the district. It is sickening what has happened to education in this country. I left teaching because I saw no future for a teacher with integrity. I am now a fast food manager who makes 20K more than I did as teacher WITH LESS HOURS AND PAPERWORK TOO! . Just shows society’s values

  • Anonymous

    The politicians noted here are Democrats… please explain …
    “Likewise, for conservative politicians and activist-profiteer…”