"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A call for accuracy: A response to Time Magazine's "A call for action"

A call for accuracy: A response to "A call for action"
Sent to Time Magazine, September 11, 2010

"A call for action" (September 20) is based on two incorrect claims: American students are poor in reading, with 69% of 8th graders "below proficient", and the US "trails most other rich nations" in science and math.

The late Gerald Bracey published compelling data showing that the "proficient" level on our national reading test is set far too high: Bracey reported in 2007 that only 29% of American children scored at the proficient level or higher. According to Bracey's analysis, only 33% of Swedish children would have scored proficient or higher on our tests, and Sweden consistently ranks at or near the top of the world in reading. Setting the proficiency level unreasonably high is an excellent way of making our students look bad.

Our science and math test scores are unspectacular, but the problem is not science and math education. Studies show that American students from well-funded schools who come from high-income families outscore all or nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children in high poverty schools score below the international average. Our scores look low because the US has the highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (25%, compared to Denmark's 3%). Our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty.
"A call for action" is a call for tougher schools and longer school days, a painful and hopeless path. Instead, we should be focused on protecting children from the effects of poverty: Proper nutrition (no child left unfed), health care, and access to books. When this happens, all American children will have the advantages that middle class children have and our test scores will be among the best in the world.
Stephen Krashen


The proficient level

Test scores in math and science:
Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.

Impact of poverty
Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. http://epicpolicy.org/publication/poverty-and-potential
Bracey, G. 2009. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. Educational Research Service
Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership 55(4): 18-22.
Martin, M. 2004. A strange ignorance: The role of lead poisoning in “failing schools.” http://www.azsba.org/lead.htm.


  1. But don't you get it?! It's a hell-of-a-lot cheaper to address the achievement gap than poverty.

    Perpetuating the pedagogy of poverty to get poor coloured kids to score well on bad tests is an easier pill to swallow than having to address the opportunity gap.

    All jaded sarcasm aside, thank you for writing this. And thank you for the references.


  2. Joe, I think you mean that it's cheaper to PRETEND to address the achievement gap. Nothing that's come out of Washington in the years since "A Nation At Risk" has in fact truly been designed to do anything of the kind. What the focus has been on is figuring out how to make money while destroying public education for the poor, and then making vastly more money with private-sector scams once public schools are crushed in the inner cities and rural areas through under-funding and propagandizing (plus high-stakes tests and legislation that empowers know-nothing pols to take over schools when "test scores" show that teachers and schools are unfit to help solve the problems that poverty makes rampant.

    It's unbelievable sick and cynical. And it's going to be even harder to change things given that Obama, the first president with a legitimate chance to make a positive difference in recent memory, is clearly a tool of the same folks who controlled (or hamstrung) GWB, Clinton, GHWB, and Reagan.

    The figures about the percentage of kids in poverty in this country are a national disgrace, an albatross that will hang around the neck of every American president this century and for as long as this shameful situation is allowed to continue (or get worse, which seems to be the likely case).