The DIVERSITY in Ed eMAG senior editor Dr. Hozien has had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Berliner, author of numerous education policy books. Berliner is a past president of the American Educational Research Association and is co-author of the recent work 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten Our Schools. Berliner is insightful when it comes to the needs of the education profession and what teachers and educators alike need to be aware of in order to make systematic change. He spoke candidly to DIVERSITY in Ed Magazine.

In your book Myths and Lies, you address the most pressing issues facing America’s schools. In your opinion, what are the three most critical issues facing schools today?
The single most important issue facing schools today is support from middle and upper middle class parents. If they pull their children out of public schools they will destroy our democracy and promote an oligarchy, as is happening right now. They need to keep their kids in our schools and fight to have the taxes raised to pay for those schools, and participate with principals and others at the school in making sure these schools are both safe and working well for all the students in that attendance area. The other two issues are finding curriculum that interest our youth, and making school into a full service institution for our communities.


It is not reasonable to condemn a school, its teachers, or even its students for performing poorly on standardized tests when that school is charged with educating a massive concentration of very poor students (and dealing with all the problems that come along with poverty).

Out of school factors account for 60% of the variance we see in standardized achievement test scores. The child’s family and neighborhood have a huge influence on the test scores. In fact, kids are in school only about 10-12% of the time between birth and 18 years of age. So it ought to be obvious that schools cannot work miracles if they only have the child 10% -12% percent of the time. Further, the cohort the child goes to school with is a large influence on Standardized Achievement Test scores. Teachers account for roughly 10% of the variance in those scores. Thus standardized achievement tests are really poor reflections of what teachers accomplish. They change the course of some children’s lives — but they affect standardized test scores very little.

How are we the public failing our public schools?
We don’t pay the taxes needed to have good schools everywhere — we pay those costs in rich districts, not in poor districts. In addition, we parents don’t support the schools by showing up and observing, talking to teachers, coming to school functions and exerting ownership of our schools. We need more money and more parental involvement in the life of the schools.
Why is it unreasonable to expect that more testing will solve the problems of high poverty schools?

As explained earlier, the problem with high poverty schools is poverty — and that impedes what can be accomplished. Here is what plagues a high poverty school much more than low poverty schools — these are things the teacher and school, as presently conceived of, cannot easily fix, given how we think of schooling currently:

  • A higher percent of low birth-weight children in the neighborhood
  • Inadequate medical, dental and vision care in family and neighborhood
  • Food insecurity in family
  • Environmental pollutants in home and neighborhood
  • Family relations and family stress likely higher
  • Percent of mothers at the school site that are single and/or teens likely to be higher
  • Percent of mothers at the school site that do not possess a high school degree likely to be higher
  • Language spoken at home may not be English
  • Family income will be low
  • Neighborhood characteristics [including sense of collective efficacy] will be low
  • Rate of violence in the neighborhood might be high
  • Drug use in the neighborhood might be high
  • Mental health rates in the neighborhood may be much lower
  • Average income in neighborhood will be lower
  • Mobility rates of families in the neighborhood and the schools will be higher
  • Availability of positive role models in the community will be lessened
  • Availability of high quality early education may be lacking
  • Transportation to get to jobs will add times for adults to be away
According to international test results the best-performing schools in the world are in China. Politicians routinely hold up the challenge from China when demanding more testing in America. They seem to want America to become more like China. Why is this not a fair comparison?
China has 200,000,000 kids [200 million!] that live in rural areas that perform terribly, drop out of school early, and often are not even tested. In Shanghai alone [the high scoring city/state] as many of 500,000 kids were excluded from PISA testing because they were not in school.

But lets look elsewhere: middle class and urban kids in China go to schools so bad that those kids need to go to school an additional 5-6 hours per day to be drilled for their tests. This is an indictment of their lousy schools and supports a different version of childhood than we do. Our kids are playing sports, going to newspaper and yearbook clubs, and playing video games. They don’t do as well on tests at age 15, true, but how do they do as adults? The Global Entrepreneurship Index [GEDI] rates U.S. men and woman number one in the world. So our version of childhood may be different, looks at developing “soft” skills,  but it seems that it is highly successful in producing competent adults.

What needs to be tackled in order to fix American schools?
Greater parental involvement and money for more services in schools that serve the poor. This would include after school programs, early childhood education, and summer programs — NOT all academic, but fun stuff, like the maker movement projects, so kids like to come to school!  Schools serving poor kids, maybe all kids, should be a place of success not one of boring work and one with too much failure. Less testing and more projects are needed, for sure.
Dropout rates of 16 to 24 year-old students who come from low income families are seven times more likely to drop out than those from families with higher incomes. Have you observered any innovative programs to successfully combat the challenge of high school graduation rates?
Leave kids back less frequently, maybe never, so they are not 1 or 2 years behind as they hit the age for school leaving. That would cut the rate of dropout enormously. Make the curriculum more interesting so kids want to go to school. The maker projects sound like a way to do this.

Also, help families stay in the homes/apartments they have. The more they move, the more will drop out. Housing policy in so many ways is also educational policy. That hasn’t been recognized by enough people.

Recent data declares, for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families. According to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, this statistic has profound implications for the nation.
Education policy must be woven into employment policies, housing policies, health policies, food and nutrition policies, etc.

Each policy group acts like it is alone in trying to fix the lives of those with problems. It doesn’t work that way. More comprehensive and intertwined policies are needed. For example, you might build support for early childhood programs, but if you don’t train the teachers well, and don’t pay them a decent wage, and don’t help families stay in the neighborhood of the school, and if you don’t bring bring mental health services to that neighborhood, the effects of early childhood education — usually quite positive — will be lessened or not seen.

Why are these the most critical goals for teachers and school principals?

It was a monumental disaster that Sharon Nichols and I, in a 2007 book, “Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools,” pretty much predicted it all. We knew it could not work. It was designed by mean and ignorant people, more interested in making schools look bad then improving them. The real agenda was the privatization and chartering of the public school system.

What affect can teachers and school leaders have on educational policy?
A huge effect, if there are at least 3.5 million teachers, many million more administrators,  and many, many million more education related jobs and former teachers. If they would vote as block, they could have anything they want, but they don’t even vote at high rates. They are foolish. The unions have done a terrible job in getting educators and those in related areas — bus drivers, kitchen help, custodians, to vote for good public schools. It’s really tragic.
You have been in education for a long time and created a legacy. How do you want to be remembered?
My autobiography is now on line:

As my career ends, I hope I have fought well for public education in the full belief that if we lose our public schools we lose our democracy. I have studied and tried to write about the wonders of the profession of teaching (my work on teacher expertise, for example). Teaching is noble work and deserves more status than it has.  If I have helped to preserve public education and have helped at least some teacher realize that what they do, day in and day out, is nothing short of miraculous, then I will happily fade away, as we all must. Meanwhile, there is writing to do and foolish and mean spirited politicians and industrialists to attack, as we tried to do recently with our book, 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools.