by Corey Bunje Bower
In-School vs. Non-School Factors
If there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. But, for some reason, saying this merits serious criticism in some circles.
On July 4, 1966 the government released what came to be known as "The Coleman Report," a comprehensive study that was commissioned in order to prove that more funding would improve the plight of African-American students. Instead, Coleman found that non-school factors were far more important than in-school factors -- which is why they attempted to minimize publicity by releasing it on a national holiday.
Seymour Martin Lipset, a fellow at the Hoover Institute, was overheard summarizing the results to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan thusly: "Guess what Coleman’s found? Schools make no difference; families make the difference."
Indeed, the liberals in Congress were devastated at the results -- they had expected to find that achievement gaps could be solved through more school funding. Meanwhile, conservatives beamed -- the report proved that a strong family was the root of a strong society and that government could not spend its way out of the problem.
Today's Version of the Dispute
At some point between 1966 and 2009 the sides seem to have flipped. The more conservative position now holds that schools can close achievement gaps if people work hard and don't make excuses, while the more liberal position is that we need to fix the underlying causes of the achievement gap (which mostly lie outside of school) before we can truly solve the problem. This is, of course, an oversimplification -- but what's struck me is the reaction of those who argue the latter.
In the original press release announcing the release of David Whitman's book (the new version has been toned down) the Fordham Institute included a passage that lumped together "defeatists" like Charles Murray and Richard Rothstein. I must say that it had never struck me to lump together one of the authors of The Bell Curve, (a conservative who essentially argues that many kids just can't hack it and we should train them for careers instead), with Rothstein (a liberal who argues that we need to address inequality in society as well as in schools if we want to close the achievement gap). I later found out that Fordham wasn't the first to characterize these two as "defeatists -- Jay Greene beat them to the punch.
This classification of people as "defeatists" seems to be a running theme in rhetoric surrounding education policy. Increasingly, many are describing ed policy people as belonging to one of two camps; those who believe that everybody can achieve if we work hard enough and those who make excuses.
In a December op-ed, David Brooks, characterized the battle as one between reformers and defenders of the status quo and pleaded with Obama not to hire Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education so that the world might not come to an end. He's far from the only one to characterize the split this way -- David Whitman penned an op-ed in the Huffington Post a few days prior using much of the same terminology, and referring to the latter position as "the defeatist view of school improvement." The inflammatory rhetoric has led others to retort that the rift is really one between deformers and realists.
But, back to my original contention: if there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. If you know an education researcher who would disagree with this statement, I'd like to meet them -- because I don't know any. Over the 42 1/2 years that have elapsed since the Coleman Report those findings have been replicated countless times. That non-school factors are, on average, much more important than in-school factors is simply not up for debate.
Why? We know that a large achievement gap between races and classes exists before students start kindergarten. We know that this gap widens during the summer and stays pretty stable during the school year. We know that attainment and achievement are much more strongly associated with SES level, race, parental occupation, etc. than any in-school factor. We know that when we control for so-called background variables that there simply isn't much variance across schools. We know that students spend only about 22% of their waking hours in school. In other words, we can come a lot closer to guessing how well a student will do on a standardized test if we're given their background information than if we're given information on what type of school they attend.
And this makes logical sense. If the student bodies of a wealthy, Suburban school and poor, inner-city school switched places we'd expect the inner-city school -- with the same staff and resources it previously had -- to out-achieve the Suburban school.
Somehow, in their determination to improve schools, some people seem to have gotten lost. I know when I started teaching I believed very firmly that I could turn around the life of just about every student with whom I came in contact -- regardless of what else was happening in their life. I believed very firmly that improving schools would fix a lot of society's problems. And when I started hearing research findings indicating how difficult it is for schools to dramatically affect students, I balked. But, eventually, I came to understand why this is.
Every student responds differently to every aspect of a school -- who their teacher is, what sports are offered, what color the wall is painted, etc. The worst teachers still help a few students grow exponentially while the best have some students that don't progress. So attending a school that is "bad" or "good" won't magically affect every student in the same way; students succeed at the worst schools and fail at the best. And it became painfully obvious the more I taught that what was happening at home (or at least outside of school) influenced the lives of most of my students more than I ever could.
In NYC, a very strong correlation (r = .8) exists between the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch and the percentage of students passing state English tests. Why? The obvious answer is because the students in these schools come from families and neighborhoods that are often in disarray -- they don't have shelves full of books to read; their parents don't have time to read to them every night or take them to the library; they're exposed to far fewer words and different grammatical norms; they have no quiet place to do homework; they miss days of school to look after younger siblings; they have more health problems; and so on.
But, according to some, this isn't what causes low achievement -- it's poor-quality schools and teachers that make excuses rather than teach. In order to make a serious case for the latter, you'd have to believe that the worst, least-dedicated teachers and administrators systematically distribute themselves so that there are more of them in schools with more kids from poor families; that teachers in the South Bronx routinely put forth less effort than teachers in Chelsea, and that their level of effort and competency correlates almost perfectly with the number of kids from impoverished families at the school. This is simply not plausible.
Reality vs. Rhetoric
Now, where it gets interesting is how people react when others say such things. One of the reasons that I reject the notion that there's truly a firm divide between two camps of education policy is because people on different "sides" often believe similar things -- they just use different rhetoric. To be sure, different people believe different things: some believe that charter schools are the way to the promised land, while others claim that choice solves nothing; some believe that unions cripple schools while others believe that unions create a less abusive environment -- and so on. But I reject as false the current dichotomy that many pushing as an accurate description of world of education policy world; the largest split is rhetorical. People on both sides agree that:
Schools are important, but are not omnipotent. All students can succeed, but not all will (depending, of course, on the metric being used). Hard work and dedication can improve schools, but effort and success will not correlate perfectly. We should do everything possible to prevent students from being left behind, but me must also realize that there is no silver bullet.
I value the insights of many people across the spectrum, and I truly believe that the jury is still out on most of the reforms that are pushed by various groups. But it's clear that one side is winning the rhetorical war despite the fact that when you take their rhetoric to the logical end that it simply doesn't stand up to reality.
Regardless of your preferred school reform, let's tone down the rhetoric: When somebody argues that we should improve students' lives outside of school to improve their performance, they're not making excuses or being a defeatist. Likewise, when somebody says that schools can make a big difference, they're not being wholly unrealistic. Rather than calling each other names we should be working to improve schools. And everybody needs to remember that although a school is not usually the largest influence on the life of a child that it doesn't mean that a school cannot do an awful lot of good.
What too few people are willing to admit is that we can start with the fact that non-school factors are more important and build on it in multiple ways -- none of which involve simply giving up. The fact that non-school factors are currently more important could be used as an impetus to radically enlarge the role of schools in the lives of many children. A number of the most successful inner-city schools dramatically extend the school day and year -- the SEED Foundation has even created boarding schools in Baltimore and D.C. In other words, one way to address the situation is to increase the influence of schools on students' lives. Another direction we can go with this is to attempt to improve the lives of children outside of school, whether through the construction of health clinics, the improvement of housing conditions, the creation of tutoring programs and such, or in other ways. Both are fundamentally trying to do the same thing: provide students with a different life experience, expose them to different societal norms, and subsequently improve outcomes.
People who advocate either of these positions have a ton of evidence to support them; they are both eminently reasonable positions. But for some reason, people who support the latter are under rhetorical attack. And this attack is both unproductive and illogical. The reality of the situation is that the problems facing low-income children are huge and small solutions are not enough; this is reality, no matter how badly anybody wants it not to be. And it's possible to both face this reality and help children.
Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty, urban schools including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.
Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]edpolicythoughts.com.