The Problem With Public Schools Isn’t Low Test Scores. It’s Strategic Disinvestment


Imagine you’re settling in to enjoy an article on-line or in your favorite print newspaper and you come across this headline:


U.S. Schools Ranked Low Internationally!




Out of X Countries, U.S. Places Far From the Top in Math!


You feel embarrassed.


Soon that embarrassment turns to anger.


Sweat starts to break out on your brow.


And then you start to grasp for a solution to the problem – something major, something to disrupt the current system and bring us back to our proper place in the lead.




That was me blowing a gym teacher’s whistle. I’ll do it again:




Hold it right there, consumer of corporate media. You’ve just been had by one of the oldest tricks in the book.


It’s the old manipulate-the-data-to-make-it-look-like-there’s-a-crisis-that-can-only-be-solved-by-drastic-measures-that-you-would-never-approve-of-normally.


We also call it disaster capitalism or the shock doctrine.


It’s been used to get people to agree to terrible solutions like preemptive wars of choice, warrantless wiretapping of civilians, torturing prisoners, defunding public health programs and scientific research – just about everything the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, the Broads, Gateses and other billionaire hegemonists have on their fire sale wish list.


In the case of the American educational system, it’s the impetus behind high stakes standardized testing, Common Core, Teach for America, and charter and voucher schools.


And they’re all justified by misinformation about student test scores.


The argument goes like this: Our Kids Are Failing!? Quick! Standardize and Privatize Their Schools!


First, education isn’t a race.


There is no best education system followed by a second best, etc. There are only countries that meet their students needs better than others.


And if you really wanted to determine if our country was meeting student needs, you wouldn’t appeal to test scores. You’d look at specific needs and assess them individually.


But you rarely see that. You rarely see an article with the headline:


U.S. Schools More Segregated Than Any In The Industrialized World!




Out of X Countries, U.S. Spends Most on Rich Students and Least on Poor Ones!


Second, we need to ask ourselves if standardized test scores are really the best way to assess (1) student learning and (2) the education system as a whole.


Multiple choice tests are written by large corporations that profit more off of student failure than success. That’s not exactly an objective measure.

Students are considered passing or failing based on an arbitrary cut score that changes every year. That’s not exactly unbiased.


Moreover, standardized tests are always graded on a curve. That means no matter how well students do, some will always be considered failing. We cannot have No Child Left Behind when our assessments are designed to do just the opposite – it’s logically impossible.


But whenever the media turns to these international rankings, they ignore these facts.


They pretend it’s a horse race and we’re losing.


I kind of expect this from the corporate media. But when so-called progressive writers fall into this trap, I have to wonder if they’re just lazy or ignorant.


At best, these test scores are a second hand indication of structural inequalities in our public education system. It’s no accident that student from wealthy families generally score higher than those from poor ones. Nor is it pure misadventure that minority children also tend to score lower than their white counterparts.


These tests are economically, racially and culturally biased. They are completely unhelpful in determining root causes.


Thankfully, they’re unnecessary. It doesn’t take a standardized test to determine which students are receiving the least funding. Nor does it take a corporate intermediary to show us which schools have the largest class sizes and lowest resources.


The sad fact is that there are an awful lot of poor children attending public school. The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world. And despite spending a lot on our middle class and wealthy students, we’re doing next to nothing to actually help our neediest children.


A large portion of U.S. public schools have been left to their own devices for decades. What’s worse, when they struggle to meet students’ needs, we don’t swoop in with help. We level blame. We fire teachers, close buildings and privatize.


There’s absolutely zero proof that changing a public school to a charter school will help, but we do it anyway. There’s not a scrap of evidence that sending poor kids to a low end private school with a tax-funded voucher will help, but we do it anyway.


Think about it: why would getting rid of duly-elected school boards help kids learn? Why would allowing schools to spend money behind close doors with zero public accountability boost children’s ability to learn?


Yet our policymakers continue to push for these measures because they have no intention of helping poor and minority public school students. They just want to enrich their friends in the school privatization industry. They just want to divert public money to testing corporations and book publishers.


THAT is the problem with America’s education system.


Not test scores.


It’s time our nation’s journalists give up this old canard.


We must be honest about why our public schools struggle. That’s the only way to find real solutions.


We must acknowledge the increasing segregation – both racially and economically. We must acknowledge the blatant funding disparities. And we must acknowledge how the majority of education policy at the federal, state and local level has done little to help alleviate these problems – in fact it has exacerbated them.


We need to stop testing and start investing in our schools. We need to stop privatizing and start participating in our neighborhood schools.


And most of all, we need to stop the lies and disinformation.

84 thoughts on “The Problem With Public Schools Isn’t Low Test Scores. It’s Strategic Disinvestment

  1. It’s not going to be easy to stop the flood of lies and disinformation. Look who our president and his cabinet are. Look at the dominant political party of the moment, the Republicans. Both are champion liars and experts at disinformation. Elected Democrats lie too but they are nothing compared to the GOP. The Republican Party and Trump are breaking every record and they are being rewarded by far-right extremist, nut-case billionaires to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, it will not be easy but the public is starting to wake-up to the chicanery of the people in power. People power will win out if we can get organized and push back en-mass. Someday public ed. will have a grand alliance similar to that of the advocates for the US Postal Service. We can not give up. Keep on pushing.


      • Agree – we can not give up. What is it that John Paul Jones said?

        John Paul Jones in Battle, 1779. “I have not yet begun to fight!” This was the immortal retort of Captain John Paul Jones to a request to surrender as he and his crew engaged in a desperate battle with a British frigate off the northern coast of England during the American Revolution.


    • Trump has not been in office six full months. Obama had eight years. You gonna blame this on Trump? You can’t blame the current administration for something that has been going on for a long time. In five years, assuming Trump is out of office, you can maybe see what has failed or succeeded in his administration. America has been trying (and failing) to solve the education problem for generations. It isn’t something that started in January (or even January of last year).


      • Diane,

        I am not just blaming Trump on this. I am not just blaming Republicans. The destruction of public education has been a bipartisan effort for decades if not maybe even from the start. However, you don’t have to wait one more day to condemn Trump for his part in this. He nominated Betsy DeVos as his Education Secretary. She has a history of pushing for all the terrible things I’ve mentioned here. Moreover, Trump has explicitly mentioned all of these idiotic and regressive policies as his policy priorities. Trump is definitely to blame. But so is Obama and the Clintons. So are the Bushes and Reagan.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “America has been trying (and failing) to solve the education problem for generations.”

        The fact that you said the above quote indicates that you have fallen for the manufactured crises in public education that never existed.

        The alleged attempt to try and solve the education problem was created by those who are trying to solve the education problem. You can’t fix something that was never broken. There never was a crisis. What started this crisis was when Reagan released “A Nation at Risk” report that was proved wrong a few years later by the Sandia report.

        Finland sent educators to the U.S. in the 20th century to learn what was working and then took what they learned from our public schools back to Finland and implemented it. The entire world knows the results of what Finland learned before the billionaires went after our public schools to destroy them.

        China did the same thing. After Mao, China started to rebuild that country’s system and they sent teams to learn from U.S. public schools. The entire world, except for ignorant fools like you, knows the results of what China learned before the billionaires went after our public schools to destroy them with endless lies and false accusations.

        “Many Chinese parents want to send their children to America to go to school there. In preparation for that, most kids take English as an extracurricular class. This is in addition to the English classes they take in school three times a week starting from third grade.”

        Then there is the fact that the U.S. is ranked annually as one of the top five most educated countries in the world.

        In addition, the U.S. has the largest, most profitable publishing industry in the world. If the schools were so horrible why are so many Americans that were educated in U.S. public schools buying and reading so many books, and magazines?

        In fact, a report out of Stanford proved that the U.S. ranked much higher on the PISA than was reported.

        Poor ranking on international test misleading about U.S. student performance, Stanford researcher finds.

        “As a result of the new information, the U.S. rankings on the 2009 PISA test in reading and math would rise, respectively, to sixth from 14th and to 13th from 25th after controlling for social class differences and a sampling error by PISA and after eliminating between-country differences that are statistically too small to meaningfully affect a country’s ranking.”

        In addition, the U.S. was doing something right when the rest of the world wasn’t.

        “The report also found:

        “There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.

        “Achievement of U.S. disadvantaged students has been rising rapidly over time, while achievement of disadvantaged students in countries to which the United States is frequently unfavorably compared – Canada, Finland and Korea, for example – has been falling rapidly.”


  2. Spot on message! Our social justice book talk chose to read the book, “50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools” by David C. Berliner, Gene V. Glass and Associates. This book is a must read for people interested in the disinformation that has been used to attack our public schools so successfully. Berliner came to Portland, OR on his own dime to give a presentation on the myths and lies, last year. I am still hoping to do a mythbusting series on the lies/myths most relevant to Oregon’s public schools. Keep on Pushing! Pat Eck, Lead Contact for Angry Grandparents Against High Stakes Testing (aka–AGAHST).


  3. One thing that gets consistently overlooked when “comparing” the international stats: who are we measuring? If you look for “China” on PISA, you’ll never find it; only Singapore and Hong Kong are there.
    No other country tries to educate and then measures ALL students, regardless of class, income, or disabilities. Only three universities in all of China (Economist, 7/13/13) admit blind students. Other developed countries track out their less academically talented students as early as 14. If we used only our stats from Weston, MA or Westchester County, we’d come up on top of the international sweepstakes.


    • Many countries, like Japan, for instance, offers two high school tracks. As students enter high school, they make a choice between a vocational high school designed to prep for a job skill out of high school or an academic high school that is designed to prep students for college. Japan’s college graduation rate is 53.7 percent so it seems that more than 16-percent of the students that attended an academic high school didn’t finish college.

      From what I’ve read, about 70-percent select the academic track while 30-percent go to a vocational HS and all students that complete the required work graduate with a high school degree.

      The U.S. only offers an academic high school track designed to prep for college. Vocational classes might be offered in high school that might even lead to a certificate but those classes are often electives and not required courses.

      In addition, the Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China requires that, starting at age six, all children must complete nine years of compulsory elementary and junior high school. Students that continue on to high school must complete for seats. If you don’t get a high enough score on the high stakes test, then there might be an offer of vocational school but it isn’t mandatory.

      There are two types of schools at senior secondary level: regular high school and vocational high school. The length of study for each program is at least three years. The length of the regular program is three years; three to four years may be required for vocational programs. Each academic year starts in September and ends in June or July, and includes two semesters of 19 or 20 weeks.

      For 2015, Shanghai, China was listed on the PISA.

      PISA 2015 includes data from 72 countries and economies, including all 35 OECD members and 37 other countries and economies. In some cases, regions stand in for countries: Taiwan’s results are based on testing in Taipei, in Argentina only the city of Buenos Aires participates, and in mainland China, four provinces—Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong (B-S-J-G) participate.


  4. I don’t know how much leverage in relaying my opinion, but I have taught and coached in public schools for 34 years and attended public colleges, primary, and secondary schools for 17 years, so besides my first five years of life on the farm I have a close relationship with this thing in America called education. I have taught in affluent schools, kids of doctors and NASA astronauts. I have taught in rural schools, kids of farmers and working class parents. I have taught in poor urban schools, home of ( including in my classroom) MS13, crips, bloods, southwest gorillas, 44’s, Mexican mafia and after Katrina hit a plethora of NOLA gangs to add to the mix- oh yeah, at this time I was teaching all male biology classes, so I mixed the gangs into new directional gangs NW, NE, SW, SE. We scored the highest on the Texas biology EOC when compared to the entire 5 school district. As I begin my 5th school district I can confidently say, all kids are the same in schools. Yes their home situations are diverse, but the role of school as a virtual escape for these kids equals the differences at home.
    First, I have read about Finland and their tremendous success. As I grew up in my he 60’s and 70’s, we shared similar attributes. We can never be Finland though because their big boss decision makers care about true student success and growth. In America we are worried about making a buck, even if this means prostituting our own kids in the name of a “dolla” the free enterprise system at its sickest and most disgusting entity.
    If you study Dr. Edward Deming, and his story of leaving America after WWII, the exact phenomena is happening here. We, the parents, teachers, administrators, and sadly students themselves, blame students for the failing results. But just as Doc says in his components of TQM, it is never the fault of the worker (student), but ALWAYS the fault of the management. In Japan after the shame of the loss of the war, and the horror and destruction of two atomic bombs, they were ready for anything and Dr Deming happily left the USA because we felt our crap didn’t stink, and quality suffered. Enough with economic history– I am a 56 year old male with a short attention span and fat fingers. My viewpoint is skewed though because I am the son of a first gen alcoholic dad who was belittled by Polish kids because of my Ukrainian heritage and found solice with integration in 68 and my new black friends. I was once married to a Hispanic and now an Asian which again has been an enlightenment, but the kids are still the same kids. Enough, one day I’ll write a book about this, or my true concern and that is how schools are DESTROYING the male gender.
    Thanks for the rant space.
    Joe Berezoski
    Coach Bear


  5. […] And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others. […]


  6. […] Pristine Taj Mahal-like buildings for rich kids with broad curriculums and plenty of teachers to instruct privileged progeny one-on-one, and then across town on the other side of the tracks you’ll find dilapidated shacks for the poor forced to put up with narrow curriculums focused on standardized test prep and as many underprivileged children as they can fit in the room with one beleaguered teacher. […]


  7. […] Pristine Taj Mahal-like buildings for rich kids with broad curriculums and plenty of teachers to instruct privileged progeny one-on-one, and then across town on the other side of the tracks you’ll find dilapidated shacks for the poor forced to put up with narrow curriculums focused on standardized test prep and as many underprivileged children as they can fit in the room with one beleaguered teacher. […]


  8. […] Pristine Taj Mahal-like buildings for rich kids with broad curriculums and plenty of teachers to instruct privileged progeny one-on-one, and then across town on the other side of the tracks you’ll find dilapidated shacks for the poor forced to put up with narrow curriculums focused on standardized test prep and as many underprivileged children as they can fit in the room with one beleaguered teacher. […]


  9. […] They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools. […]


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