A Large and Ravenous Lion’s Share

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself engaged in a rather lively discussion with an attorney who—with a passionate gleam in his eye—informed me that his “hobby” was representing students in lawsuits against the public schools that had ostensibly failed them. As one example, he cited the failure of some schools to respond adequately when students were frequently absent. From his point of view, the schools should send truant officers to the home and/or file complaints with the courts or social service agencies whenever a student has missed three days or more in a term. The fact that many schools (a) do not have truant officers or the funds to pay for such staff, (b) often lack sufficient time and personnel to pursue formal complaints on every frequent absentee, and (c) are increasingly expected to ensure the measurable success of every student regardless of outside impediments or circumstances was completely immaterial to this fellow. He firmly believed that the schools should bear the lion’s share of responsibility (and a large and ravenous lion at that), and he was not in the least swayed by my concerns and arguments to the contrary. He was as bull-headed as President Bush.

Schools cannot do it all. Nor should they. A child’s academic and social success is not determined solely by the efforts and practices of their schools. It takes more. There is much outside the school’s walls and control that directly and indirectly influences a child’s performance. It is unreasonable to demand that schools somehow correct or compensate for such factors and conditions, particularly when they are denied sufficient resources to do so. What about the family’s and the community’s responsibility?

Many years ago, while working in my very first human service job at the East Providence Community Center, my boss—a wise and kind woman by the name of Yvonne Cabral—was fond of saying that children do not flunk out of high school but of elementary school. She understood that an early lack of success in school tends to lead to a later lack of success and that a child’s learning must be nurtured from a very young age and steadily into adulthood. She also understood that learning begins at home and that households impacted by poverty, violence, divorce, substance abuse, mental illness, and the like tend to be less than conducive to learning. So what’s a school to do?

Perhaps, in their defense, they might point to articles such as the following from today’s New York Times:

In Gaps at School, Weighing Family Life

THE federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002 rates schools based on how students perform on state standardized tests, and if too many children score poorly, the school is judged as failing.

But how much is really the school’s fault?

A new study by the Educational Testing Service — which develops and administers more than 50 million standardized tests annually, including the SAT — concludes that an awful lot of those low scores can be explained by factors that have nothing to do with schools. The study, “The Family: America’s Smallest School,� suggests that a lot of the failure has to do with what takes place in the home, the level of poverty and government’s inadequate support for programs that could make a difference, like high-quality day care and paid maternity leave.

The E.T.S. researchers took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.

“Together, these four factors account for about two-thirds of the large differences among states,� the report said. In other words, the states that had the lowest test scores tended to be those that had the highest percentages of children from single-parent families, eighth graders watching lots of TV and eighth graders absent a lot, and the lowest percentages of young children being read to regularly, regardless of what was going on in their schools.

Which gets to the heart of the report: by the time these children start school at age 5, they are far behind, and tend to stay behind all through high school. There is no evidence that the gap is being closed.

“Kids start school from platforms of different heights and teachers don’t have a magic wand they can wave to get kids on the same platform,� said Richard J. Coley, director of E.T.S.’s policy information center and co-author of the report with Paul E. Barton, a senior researcher. “If we’re really interested in raising overall levels of achievement and in closing the achievement gap, we need to pay as much attention to the starting line as we do to the finish line.�

What’s interesting about the report — which combines E.T.S. studies with research on families from myriad sources, including the Census Bureau and Child Trends research center — is how much we know, how often government policy and parental behavior does not reflect that knowledge, and how stacked the odds are against so many children. (The study is at www.ets.org/familyreport.) [full text]

One thought on “A Large and Ravenous Lion’s Share

  1. one precious community resource is our local library. any day you can find students reading or doing homework on the computers and the library is home base for many programs that help children succeed in school. notice how every few years there is a threatened shutdown of library branches, in the poorest neighborhoods first. but one of the biggest barriers to success is lack of reading skills, and what better place than the library to help our children?

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