I previously asserted that the largest reason for the failures at my school was not anything in the school but, rather, what took place at home.
Ken DeRosa, over at D-Ed Reckoning, took the time to thoughtfully respond to a lot of what I had to say (he disagrees with me) and I'd like to respond to some of his comments.
*The first point he makes is that my assignment of causality to home factors over school factors is suspect. He has a point. I can't be 100% sure about that. I didn't rigorously evaluate student attitudes toward school, survey parents, observe home environments, run regressions, etc. I did not use rigorous research methodology to determine what caused what and, as such, I won't be publishing it in an academic journal anytime soon. But what I did do is spend all day in the school for two years straight. I taught about 70 different kids in my two classes, and probably at least a thousand others while covering other classes. I held conferences with parents. I got to know students. I talked to teachers. I observed other classrooms. In short, I knew the school inside and out. I can't empirically prove that home factors matter more than school ones, but I have plenty of good reasons to believe it. There's certainly no way to disprove my theory either.
His second point that he makes surrounding validity is that the students' behavior was confounded by previous academic experience. All the kids should have attended school for at least 5 years prior to coming to our school (NYC doesn't mandate kindergarten), and I know very little about those experiences or how they affected learning and behavior. This is true. If I were publishing this in a journal, it would be a major weakness if not a fatal flaw. Again, I can't be 100% sure -- but given my in-depth knowledge of the situation, I'm fairly confident in my position.
*DeRosa says that behavioral problems weren't caused by poor home environments but, rather, by poor management and instructional strategies. Given that DeRosa has never, to my knowledge, stepped foot in my school it's hard for him to know exactly what was happening and why. That said, I agree to some extent. My classroom management skills were lacking, as were most of the other new teachers'. My training was not enough, and I (and other teachers) certainly could have used better techniques. But he'll have to trust me when I say that I've managed plenty of kids in plenty of situations in my lifetime and that the kids in this school were different. They were angrier. They were more defiant. They had less self-control. Of course the adults in the building failed to do enough to create a positive and structured environment, but doing so was much, much harder than it should have been because of the social norms to which the kids were exposed outside of school.
In summary of what went wrong at my school, let me be clear: myself and the other adults in the school failed the kids in many, many ways. The school was poorly run. I lacked adequate training. We could have done any number of things better (especially around discipline) and it would have helped the situation. But I stand by my assertion that the largest cause of problems at the school was the home life of the children. And I apologize for the obscene length of this post, but I'm going to explain why.
1.) When I started teaching I was convinced that the reason why schools such as mine were failing was because they were underfunded and that the teachers didn't work hard enough. I was at least 100% confident that I could turn around the life of every student I encountered. I believed I could overcome every problem they've faced simply by being inspiring, demanding, and generally awesome. But I slowly came to realize that this was not the case.
I saw many problems in my school, including: incompetent administrators (not all of them, mind you), high teacher turnover (and, therefore, inexperienced teachers), few resources and supplies, a dilapidated building, etc. I wanted to believe that with the right policies that we could be as good as any other school, but here's what I realized (and feel free to disagree on this point). If you were to lift a school from, say, Scarsdale and plop it down where our school was and then plop our school down where theirs was, you would have an interesting experiment. Our school, with the lack of resources, inexperienced teachers, etc. would now be populated by wealthy suburban kids. The Scarsdale school, with much higher expenditures, more experienced teachers, nicer facilities, smaller classes, etc. would be populated by our kids. Which school would be better?
Before I started teaching, I would've thought that the former Scarsdale school would be better. No longer. In my mind, our school would instantly become superior once it was populated by kids who were well-fed, well-adjusted, well-behaved, and had involved parents. In other words, all the of the structural factors matter less than the population of the school.
2.) My final summer in the Bronx, I taught at a private school that ran a special summer program for public school kids who had fallen behind. I taught Math, which I'd never taught before. The students came from the same neighborhoods (there was an income cap to get into the program). Despite this, the program was an unmitigated success. Students came to school on-time and ready to learn. Students smiled. Students listened when I talked. Students completed homework. Students learned. I had fun.
What was different? Certainly the program was well-run. Classes were capped at 15. I had two or three high school mentors as assistants in each class. The facilities were shiny (they even washed the board for me at night!). The teachers were good. All these things made a difference, but the largest difference was the home environment from which these kids came. The students had parents who went out of their way to apply to a selective program, come in for face-to-face interviews, make sure their kids attended so that they would be allowed to remain, and attended parent day even though they had to take a day off work.
To be fair, the program was selective and had no qualms about removing students who didn't show up or didn't cooperate. As a result, we were left with kids that came from stable families but that lived in poor neighborhoods.
Again, I have no empirical evidence -- but my experiences have convinced me that the home lives of these students contributed more to the success of the program than did the competency of the adults involved. I'm not arguing that the other stuff didn't matter, just that it mattered less than what happened at home.
3.) DeRosa argues that "The problems Corey sees may start at home, but there is no reason to believe that they cannot be solved and compensated for by schools." I disagree. I see no reason why they can't be assuaged, but schools with current levels of resources will never fully overcome what happens at home.
I'm sure just about everybody reading this could point out a school or ten that have overcome this. First of all, an exception doesn't disprove a rule. Secondly, many of the schools that have overcome home disadvantages go far beyond what we normally expect schools to do. Take KIPP schools for example, students not only self-select but are asked to leave (or simply told they will be held back if they stay) when they don't cooperate. The schools run, I believe, about 9-10 hours per day. Millions of dollars in grants are brought in to provide all sorts of extra opportunities. I think this is great. I would encourage many of the kids that I taught to go to a KIPP school if they could, but it doesn't accurately reflect what we'd normally expect schools to do.
Take, as another example, the SEED school in D.C. By all accounts, it has been tremendously successful. But it's a boarding school. If that's what it takes to overcome disadvantages stemming from students' home lives, then I'm all for it -- but we can't reasonably expect all inner-city schools to become boarding schools.
As a final example, let me provide one more anecdote. The leader of YES! Prep in Houston was on campus to speak in the fall. He opened with a question that read something to the effect of "can a school educate poor students as well as wealthy ones when they have the same resources?" And their answer was "YES!" As far as I could tell, the school did a phenomenal job. They had a dedicated staff that went the extra mile to make sure students succeeded. But they didn't provide the same resources as a suburban school, they provided the same resources as both a suburban school and a suburban family. They had extended school hours and all sorts of social activities. They raised money to provide their kids with college scholarships. They raised money to take their kids on college visits and on weekend trips to museums, plays, etc.
In short, I'm not arguing that it's not possible for a school to overcome a great deal of what happens at home, but rather that it's not possible given our current level of school resources. If somebody can figure out a way to fund a doubling of school hours, cultural trips, college visits, etc. then I'll be more open to considering schools as a full remedy for social ills rather than a partial one. Let's not forget that once a student is old enough to attend school they only spend about 22% of their waking hours inside a school building. The other 78% of the time, not to mention the first 5 or 6 years of their lives, have an awful lot of influence ((180*7/365*16) = .22).
4.) Last point, I promise. Let me get away from personal anecdotes and move on to some research. The Coleman Report was commissioned in the 1960's to prove that poor kids (especially African-Americans in segregated schools) were failing because their schools didn't have enough resources. Instead, it found that home life mattered more than what happened in school. It's now been about 42 years since the study was released, and countless follow-up studies have confirmed this finding. If there's any certainty in education policy research, it's that homes influence academic achievement more than schools.
The only exception of which I'm aware is what's known as the "Heyneman-Loxley Effect" based on a paper written by Stephen Heyneman and William Loxley in 1983. The pair studied 29 countries and examined the influence of home vs. school. They found a strong correlation (-.72) between the GNP of a country and the percentage influence of home vs. that of school. In other words, schools mattered more in poor countries and homes mattered more in rich countries.
In Conclusion: I stand by my assertion that the largest problem affecting my school was the home lives of our students. This does not mean that I made excuses rather than working hard. If anything, this motivated me to work harder. This does not mean that schools can't make a world of difference. I wouldn't be studying education if I didn't think it could make a difference in students' lives. What this means is that problems exist both inside and outside of schools -- and that schools can't fix everything.