Berliner, David Charles 1938-
Experimental psychologist, educational researcher, psy-chometrician, teacher educator, policy wonk, activist, administrator—David Berliner realized a full life during seven decades during the 20th century and into the 21st, and as of 2008 showed little sign of slowing his pursuit of enhancing the quality of U.S. public schools and of searching out, understanding, and remedying inequities in the system. Seen by some as a troublemaker, he is viewed by many as a mover and shaker.
Born in 1938 in New York, Berliner moved west for academic work at University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles City College, and a 1968 doctorate at Stanford University. In 1977 he moved to Arizona, first to Tucson, and in 1997 to Arizona State University for several years as dean and subsequently as regents professor. In 1985 he was elected president of the American Educational Association; his awards and honors are numerous and come from various places around the world. This entry organizes Berliner's accomplishments by the four seminal topics that emerged over the decades: (1) academic learning time; (2) looking at classrooms; (3) classroom expertise; and (4) the public image of teachers and teaching.
Schools have a plentitude of learning time; in the United States, most students spend almost 12,000 hours in classrooms, surely enough time to learn. In the 1980 Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study (BTES), Berliner and his colleagues used ethnographic methods to document the details of classroom life (Fisher & Berliner, 1985). The result was a rich and textured account of how individual teachers moved the minds and motives of students toward mandated academic and social outcomes. They discovered that time was a critical but complex metric. In a mindless application of the time-on-task principle, administrators in the early 2000s mandated prescribed time to specified tasks. For example, they might specify that the teacher spend two hours daily on reading. Berliner showed time to be an essential ingredient, often lost through poor management practices. But he also found that how time was spent was an equally if not more important consideration.
BTES was unique as a large-scale ethnographic study, relying on qualitative methods to collect general-izable data. It was also an example of a mixed-methods strategy, where many claims relied on qualitative (statistical) techniques. The data included classroom observations, along with psychometrically designed student outcomes, teacher interviews, and focus-group techniques. At about this time, an acrimonious debate emerged between quantitative and qualitative camps. Berliner finessed this debate. Focused on understanding the contextual influences on classrooms, he relied on the mix of methods best suited to a particular problem.
Berliner's interest in expertise emerged from observations and interviews during the BTES study (Berliner, 1994). The new approaches of cognitive psychology revealed that expertise could illuminate the exploration of well-organized minds. His decade of work in this field brought out that pedagogical expertise was wonderful to behold, could be studied experimentally, and appeared across a broad spectrum of contexts.
Findings from the annual Gallup poll on the state of U.S. schools (Phi Delta Kappan) are remarkably consistent. In general, respondents say that U.S. schools are in a sorry state. Parents view their local schools as good, but schools in general as quite bad. The poll, a crude index, raises puzzling questions. For instance, how does a non-parent form opinions of schools? In a seminal work with Bruce Biddle (Manufactured Crisis, 1995) and with Sharon Nichols (Collateral Damage ) Berliner analyzed media portrayals of public school. Reporters spend little time in classrooms and rely on the opinions of opinion-makers. Bad news sells. Driven by anecdotes more than evidence, the policy environment of the early 2000s portrays schools as poorly managed, teachers as incompetent, and graduates as lacking basic skills. To ensure that “no child is left behind,” the corrective is the use of multiple-choice tests to pressure public schools to raise test scores by whatever means possible, threatening dire consequences for those who fail to attain ever-increasing levels. Berliner's work raises questions about every aspect of this policy environment—but most significantly, Berliner takes to task the media—especially those who persist in reporting so-called facts that are demonstrably false.
Berliner's influence comes about in several ways. He is a prolific writer. For example, he wrote the bestselling textbook, Educational Psychology, with mentor and colleague Nate Gage (Gage & Berliner, 1998) and co-edited the larger volume, The Handbook of Educational Psychology with Robert Calfee (1996). His numerous journal articles and readings, many with Ursula Casanova, have reached large audiences. He is at his best with a live audience, combining an avuncular style with passion and sensitivity. He has a remarkable ability to match style with audience—general public, researchers, practitioners, legislators. He does not lack for detractors, quite the contrary, but he persistently presses for equal and quality public education, through policies more than politics, through cumulative evidence more than quick fixes, through reasoned analysis more than one best answer.
A final anecdote illustrates Berliner employing evidence to cut to the core of a problem, simultaneously confounding all parties. Shortly after he became dean at Arizona State, the Arizona legislature asked him how to reduce the costs of public schooling. Berliner told the committee that they could reduce costs substantially by one simple act—eliminate retention in grade. The evidence is clear: Keeping a student behind has no positive effect on learning, but rather a variety of negative motivational and social consequences. The economic consequences are obvious: Retention adds another year of costs to the education. The legislators were confounded. The evidence was unassailable, but the recommendation was unacceptable. Berliner's delivery was calm but persistent: If the legislators really wanted to save money, then they would do away with retention and find more cost-effective ways to help students who were not doing well. The legislative committee thanked him for his words and moved on to other issues. But Berliner was not discouraged, for there was much for him to do.
Berliner, D. C. (1994). Expertise: The wonders of exemplary performance. In J. N. Mangieri and C. Collins Block (Eds.), Creating powerful thinking in teachers and students (pp. 141–186). Ft. Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America's public schools. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Berliner, D. C., & Calfee, R. C. (Eds.). (1996). The handbook of educational psychology. New York: Macmillan.
Fisher, C. W., & Berliner, D. C. (1985). (Eds.). Perspectives on instructional time. New York: Longman.
Gage, N. L., & Berliner, D. C. (1998). Educational psychology (6th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Nichols, S. N. & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral Damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America's schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
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