Doug Henwood on the United Stated educational system

In the United States, education is deeply stratified, leading to a very significant achievement gap between rich and poor students, as well as white students and students of color (although the latter gap is shrinking). Responding to this problem, a whole set of well-funded Education Reformers have put forward a platform that includes the widespread adoption of charter school models, privatization, voucher programs, high-stakes testing, and reduction in job security for teachers.

Doug Henwood recently posted his four-part series on educational inequality and the education reform movement more generally:

  1. The charter school scam
  2. Explaining test scores
  3. Schooling in capitalist America 2011
  4. We could do better than this

As always, Henwood provides deep and comprehensive analysis not often found elsewhere. I recommend reading the whole thing.

In the first article, Henwood argues against the increasingly widespread common wisdom that charter schools improve student performance. Student test scores are not necessarily reliable indicators of student performance, especially in light of widespread cheating scandals that have followed the recent adoption of high-stakes testing protocols. But even if we relied on such scores — as education reformers insist we must — two large studies comparing charter school performance to traditional public school performance have found that students at charter schools do no better than their traditional school counterparts. In fact, the Stanford CREDO Study found that in aggregate they actually do worse.

In the second article, Henwood compares the correlation of a set of variables to student test scores. The presence of poverty predicts student test scores better than any other variable, including unionization rates and policies that favor firing poor-performing teachers. Unionization rates actually correlate with test scores in the opposite direction than reformers suggest: states with teacher unionization had better scores than states without it. This suggests that the cause of educational inequality is primarily economic inequality, not bad teachers or any number of other causes reformers often blame.

In the third article, Henwood provides international comparisons on different facets of educational systems. The United States spends more on education than almost any other country in the OECD. The country ranks third in primary and secondary spending, and ranks first in tertiary (college) spending. At the same time, the United States ranks near the bottom of the OECD in teacher compensation. The massive spending on education in the United States has not actually been able to deliver more equality or a reduction in poverty. This supports the idea that poverty or other non-school factors are the most significant causes of educational disparity, making the entire thrust of the education reform movement off-base. As Henwood points out, despite the obviousness of poverty as the most significant factor in educational inequality, “all anyone in power wants to do is make already low-paid teachers miserable and give more tests.”

In the final part, Henwood tries to derive lessons from successful educational systems abroad. Among other things, Henwood argues that higher teacher compensation, more professional autonomy for teachers, and less testing has proven successful internationally. In addition to the oft-cited example of Finland, Henwood discusses the success Canada had in reforming its educational system away from a teacher-demonising, private-school-promoting, and extensive testing regime. A collegial and cooperative system based on teacher development replaced that system in Canada, and significant improvements followed.