Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Families, Schools, and Student Achievement

There is an excellent article in the N.Y. Times today by Diana Jean Schemo titled It Takes More than Schools to Close the Achievement Gap. It says that schools matter, but as the title indicates, we can't do it alone.

WHEN the federal Education Department recently reported that children in private schools generally did no better than comparable students at public schools on national tests of math and reading, the findings were embraced by teachers’ unions and liberals, and dismissed by supporters of school voucher programs.

But for many educators and policy makers, the findings raised a haunting question: What if the impediments to learning run so deep that they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms? What if schools are not the answer?

The question has come up before. In 1966, Prof. James S. Coleman published a Congressionally mandated study on why schoolchildren in minority neighborhoods performed at far lower levels than children in white areas.

To the surprise of many, his landmark study concluded that although the quality of schools in minority neighborhoods mattered, the main cause of the achievement gap was in the backgrounds and resources of families.

For years, education researchers have argued over his findings. Conservatives used them to say that the quality of schools did not matter, so why bother offering more than the bare necessities? Others, including some educators, used them essentially to write off children who were harder to educate.

The article says that under No Child Left Behind schools alone are held responsible for a child's progress, but factors outside the school often choke off the progress they are able to make.

At Johns Hopkins University, two sociologists, Doris Entwisle and Karl Alexander, collected a trove of data on Baltimore schoolchildren who began first grade in 1982. They found that contrary to expectations, children in poverty did largely make a year of progress for each year in school.

But poor children started out behind their peers, and the problems compounded when school ended for the summer. Then, middle-class children would read books, attend camp and return to school in September more advanced than when they left. But poorer children tended to stagnate. “The long summer break is especially hard for disadvantaged children,” Professor Alexander said. “Some school is good, and more is better.”

“Family really is important, and it’s very hard for schools to offset or compensate fully for family disadvantage,” he said.

The article also tells us that a court order in Chicago to disperse people from inner-city housing projects to the suburbs resulted in an increase in school achievement.

No one is arguing here that schools can't improve. We should constantly be looking for ways to get better, and nothing should excuse us from that. But right now, we have a national educational reform program that operates under the assumption that education is completely the responsibility of the schools, and nothing else--parents, poverty, the culture of the area and our society--matters. That assumption defies common sense as well as research, and you have to wonder what the motives are of people who take that position.

Ms. Schemo's article is excellent, and it's well worth being read in its entirety.


Blogger Mr. R said...

It didn't take me very long to notice the fact that most of the students that were doing well in my classes were the same ones whos parents wanted to know how they were doing and seemed involved in their children's education. The ones who were not doing well were the ones whos parents told me that I shouldn't bother them at home and anything their child does at school is my problem.

It isn't true 100% of the time, of course, but it is easy to see that teachers have a lot more to overcome with students who do not have an educationally-supportive situation outside of school. It is good to see studies and reports on all of this stuff, but I don't need them to see what is going on in my classroom.

8/09/2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mr. R., since you're a teacher, I'm sure you don't need to see these studies and reports, but Margaret Spellings and the people who think No Child Left Behind is just fine the way it is sure do.

8/09/2006 9:56 AM  
Blogger Mr. R said...

True, and I didn't mean to imply that the studies weren't worthwhile.

I think that we just need to get some of these politicians into the classroom for a while.

8/09/2006 11:56 AM  

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