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There’s no ‘silver bullet’ for solving problems of our low-performing schools

Lately, National Public Radio has been running a special program titled “School Money,” a nationwide initiative between NPR and local radio stations. The program explores state and local funding as it relates to the quality of the education that the most vulnerable populations receive around the country.

What this onerous but well-deserving NPR program indirectly touches upon is an issue that is at the root of most of our education policy challenges: systemic social inequality. Instead of looking for “silver bullets,” leaders in New York State, the new elected Buffalo School Board and its chief executive school officer, as well as society at large, would be wise to address structural inequities as the planning for a new academic year approaches.

There has been a long debate in education about what should be fixed first: school or society? There is no simple answer to this question, and there is no “best educational practice” that can be the sole solution to improve education and reduce low student performance.

Educational research has indicated that at the root of our poor-performing schools is poverty. Policymakers at all governance levels rarely assume the responsibility of discussing underlying inequities to the extent necessary. The reasons they avoid such crucial discussion are not always evident.

On the one hand, “educational policy talk” recognizes inequity as one of the most pressing problems faced by societies around the world; one that cannot be underestimated when considering improving education quality. Yet educational leaders are accountable to their constituents and susceptible to their cries for a quick fix.

Indeed, as the collection of articles published by my colleagues Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Aaron Benavot in 2013 suggest, international testing has become a very important source of accountability with regard to national education systems, as well as a measure of nation-states’ conformity to global standards. Countries that perform well on these international tests have become “models of best practice” and exemplars of how other systems should organize their own schools.

Although it is well understood that successful models cannot be simply replicated, there remains interest in borrowing “best practices” that are seen to be closely linked to high academic achievement. Purported best practices include improving teacher training and teacher evaluation, using information communications technologies, standardizing the curriculum and the like.

One problematic outcome of this borrowing and lending process has been the assumption that performance on international tests, and on tests in general, is the product of the school system alone, and that schooling can be modified to produce the desired results while leaving out much-needed structural changes – for instance, changes in governance structures and approaches to societal inequities.

As such, society sees the implementation of limited reform efforts as the most effective remedy for poorly performing schools. One example of this is the increasing investment in the most recent technologies or converting public schools into charter schools.

On the other hand, educational leaders are trapped in this international testing race and are held accountable – both internationally and locally. Running counter to those global reform efforts makes them, and the nations they represent, less legitimate in the eyes of the world. Thus, participation in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and other international tests has increased substantially over the last few decades. Increased participation in these tests may, as well, serve a more local purpose. Test results may be used to justify a reform package that has already received political support from key political players at all levels of government.

Thus, instead of addressing pressing inequality concerns, such as seriously discussing poverty and changing the way schooling is funded, the public is left to deliberate privatization of public schooling, teacher certification, lengthening the school day, and pay for performance, among other accountability-driven reform efforts.

There is no conclusive data regarding these reforms as to whether or not they improve education and/or student achievement. There is such data with respect to reducing income inequality.

While some positive change could be happening, if political leaders continue to focus on “silver bullets” rather than on the societal causes of substandard education, low-performing schools will never catch up with their more affluent counterparts.

M. Fernanda Astiz, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Education and Human Services at Canisius College.