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.