School & District Management Opinion

Stephen Krashen Pulls the Rug Out From Under the Standards Movement

By Anthony Cody — April 03, 2012 4 min read
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Some Comments on Paul Farhi’s “Flunking the Test”

Guest post by Stephen Krashen.

In “Flunking the Test,” Paul Farhi concludes that the media has seriously under-reported the successes of American education and have taken the pronouncements of self-proclaimed “reformers” at face-value. Farhi backs up his argument with real data: American students’ performance on international tests is much better than critics say it is, and college attendance has increased enormously.

Farhi cites Pedro Noguera, who in turn mentions a Dan Rather program that “explored the link between school performance and poverty, a subject often ignored or noted only in passing in many stories about academic achievement.” As Farhi notes, research shows that poverty is “the single greatest variable in educational achievement.”

Poverty is, in fact, the issue. While American students’ scores on international tests are not as bad as critics say they are, they are even better when we control for the effects of poverty: Middle-class students in well-funded schools, in fact, score at or near the top of world. Our average scores are respectable but unspectacular because, as Farhi notes, we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty, the highest of all industrialized countries. Only four percent of children in high-scoring Finland, for example, live in poverty. Our rate of poverty is over 21%.

The implications of this fact are enormous: It means that the “problem” of American education is not ineffective teaching, not teachers’ unions, not lack of national standards and tests, and not schools of education: It is poverty.

This conclusion is supported by additional evidence: High poverty means, among other things, lack of food and lack of quality food, lack of health care, and lack of access to books. There is massive evidence documenting the pernicious effect of hunger, illness and limited reading material have on school performance. The best teaching in the world has limited effects when children are hungry, sick and have little to read.

This analysis pulls the rug out from under the current standards movement, a movement that includes not only detailed and “rigorous” standards, but also an astonishing amount of testing, far more than currently required under No Child Left Behind. The standards/national tests movement is based on the unsupported assumptions that our schools are doing poorly (not true), that ineffective teaching is the major problem, and that standards and tests are necessary to insure a more rigorous curriculum, as well as frequent and precise evaluations of student progress and teacher effectiveness.

Ironically, the cure proposed for the non-existent crisis will prevent schools from improving: The money we are spending on national standards and starting to spend on national tests, could be used to provide better nutrition, improved health care, and libraries for children of poverty. In other words, we can protect children of poverty from at least some of the effects of poverty. This will not only raise overall test scores, it will lead to a better life for millions of American children.

What do you think? Are we wasting billions on tests that would be better spent elsewhere? Is poverty the real problem here?

References and sources:

Farhi, P. 2012. Flunking the Test. American Journalism Review.

American students in well-funded schools ...

Berliner, D. The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism,
Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., & Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. In press.

Bracey, G. 2009. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. Educational Research Service
Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics
achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.

Poverty and hunger, health and access to books:

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.
Coles, G. 2008/2009. Hunger, academic success, and the hard bigotry of indifference. Rethinking Schools 23 (2);
Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership 55(4): 18-22.
Krashen, S. 2011. Protecting students against the effects of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association Journal 46 (2): 17-21.
Rothstein, R. 2010. How to fix our schools.Economic Policy Institute, Issue Brief #286.

Dr. Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He has written numerous books on his research into literacy and language acquisition. In recent years he has emerged as a persistent voice pointing towards the basic steps we should take to build literacy and strong academic skills for our students.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.