Education expert David Berliner lauds Alberta while dispelling American myths
It was from reflecting on his heart surgery that David Berliner came to an important realization about how the American education system treats its teachers.
As an individual patient, the educational psychologist and author was extremely satisfied with the work of his doctor, but he knew that the work of his doctor in his case would have done little to alter life expectancy or mortality rates in the larger population.
“My physician saved my life,” Berliner told a group of educational leaders in Edmonton last month. “But, he hardly affected the metric we use to judge efficacy in the medical field. I’m very happy, but the metric hasn’t moved.”
He extrapolated this experience to the world of teaching.
“Teachers truly do touch eternity, but it turns out that they only affect standardized test scores a little. That’s why judging teachers with standardized test scores is so unbelievably stupid.”
Berliner said that factors outside the school are three times more powerful in affecting student achievement than inside-of-school factors, and they are six times more powerful than the influence of teachers on achievement results. All in all, Berliner noted that teacher inputs account for only about 10 per cent of student achievement.
Berliner was in Alberta on a four-city tour talking to education and community leaders as part of a speaker series put on by the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Council for School Leadership. The regents’ professor emeritus of education from Arizona State University was promoting his most recent book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools.
In the book and his talks, Berliner takes on a number of common misconceptions and ideas that are pushed by education reformers. He says there’s a vast and influential group of people, organizations and companies that are trying to convince Americans that their public education system is broken. He said he is distressed by “the notion that education is a market open for plundering, not a public good that should be outside the free market, like police, firefighting and many hospitals and urban transit.”
According to Berliner, Fox Entertainment mogul Rupert Murdoch brought together a group of business people about 10 years ago to try to figure out how they can access the half trillion dollars in funding annually that goes to public education in the United States. He says that Murdoch has called the American public education system a $600 billion sector that is “waiting desperately to be transformed.”
Berliner challenges myths related to the global standing of America’s public education system, the apparent high achievement of American charter schools and the use of market models to represent education.
He spent most of his time during his Edmonton talk on three myths that keep popping up here in Alberta: class size doesn’t matter; you get better teaching if you pay better teachers more; and the value of competition in schools.
Berliner says a debate continues on the merits of small classes but that there is no reason for it. His co-editor on 50 Myths, Gene Glass, did a meta-analysis of literature on the subject that shows clearly the benefits of smaller classes. Berliner says the defence of large class sizes must be politically motivated: “taxes must be paid and some do not want to do that.”
He said it is disheartening that wealthier families opt for private and charter schools that promote small class sizes while less-advantaged young people are told there is nothing wrong with large classes.
Berliner said that you don’t see merit pay being used in medicine because you wouldn’t have the best doctors or best hospitals taking on the toughest cases. Merit pay schemes, he says, promote corruption and competition while impeding collaboration.
To demonstrate his point, he alluded to sports. In sports, you don’t see coaches sharing their good strategies with each other — rather they go to great lengths to keep them hidden. Furthermore, coaches only want to have the best, most supported players and so, in competitive education environments, you see schools that recruit only the best students. Simple-minded merit pay schemes, he said, are what the politically powerful impose on the politically weak.
Competition, says Berliner, “is appropriate in some areas, but in education it is a repugnant motivator that will alienate teachers from one another and decrease the chances of all students succeeding.”
“Competition is about winners and losers among teachers and their students. It is a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest applied to education, and it cannot be healthy for an educational system in a democracy.”
Berliner had a simple message for educators in Alberta.
“Your schools here in Alberta look remarkably healthy to me, and if you want to keep them that way, I urge you to question people who want you to reform your schools,” he said. “They may be school destroyers in school reformers’ clothing.”
“Please stay sane, Alberta, so that we in Arizona and in the U.S.A. have a model of a successful system. Even with all your warts you really look quite beautiful from afar.”
Berliner spoke to educational and community leaders in Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Calgary and Lethbridge on subsequent nights between Oct. 21 and 24. ❚