Everyone knows that American education is in crisis. Education is one of the few fields where an obsession with failure can be good for a career. Education secretaries get applause when they talk about the great and immediate need to make radical changes.

It is unacceptable that our country performs like Latvia. Our schools are bad. Our teachers are bad. Our children are stupid.

And so we’ve enacted near-continuous reforms, and spent truckloads of money, trying to improve American achievement by fixing out schools. That’s probably wrong.

That’s according to recent research by Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara at the University of California-Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, who argue that the source of America’s low education achievement might not have anything to do with schools at all. According to a piece about them in Pacific Standard:

In spite the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network, and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.

But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions, got it all wrong in the first place? That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.

My first reaction on this piece was wait, this is a debatable point? We have the poorest children of any industrialized nation in the world. Of course we perform worse.

But looking at again it appears the researchers may have discovered something that challenges even standard progressive ways of thinking. Sure achievement is low, but it’s actually pretty much the same as it’s always been. We should have higher achievement, yes, but the only way to get that is to make serious changes in society itself.

But one of the points the researchers are making indicates that achievement is actually getting worse. Not nationally, of course—achievement levels on standardized tests seem mostly to rise, as do graduation rates and college attendance—but among the poor achievement seems to be declining relative to everyone else. The achievement gap between the rich and poor is growing, despite extensive changes in teaching, lessons, and school structure.

“There are, according to the article, “limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer