Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Can Social Policy Close the Achievement Gap?

We all know that large gaps exist in achievement and attainment between blacks and whites, poor and rich, upper-class and lower-class, etc. On Tuesday, I wrote that we have tried four main strategies to address this:

1.) Equalize School Resources
2.) Integrate Schools
3.) Enhance Impoverished Schools
4.) "No Excuses"

On Thursday, I commented on Nicholas Kristof's latest op-ed. Kristof essentially argues that non-school factors create an IQ gap in this country and that we should close this gap by improving schools.

Something is missing. As I have said before, if there is anything upon which education researchers agree it is that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming.

That is to say, non-school factors do more to create the achievement gap but we seem to spend most of our time trying to address the in-school factors.

I will be the last to argue that these in-school factors should not be addressed. Never in a million years would I want my child, or any child for that matter, to attend the school where I formerly taught. And we should not rest until this is no longer true.

But I wonder if we are barking up the wrong tree. A myriad of problems in schools (inexperienced teachers, lack of discipline, negative climates, etc.) cause enormous problems and, therefore, merit our attention. But the root of most of these problems starts in the homes and neighborhoods of the children in these schools. Disorder reigns in many of their homes and neighborhoods as well as in their schools.

And I wonder if spending the bulk of our time and energy trying to alleviate these problems through social policy (e.g. housing, health care, etc.) might work better. And, yes, I am wondering -- not advocating. While we know that most of these problems start at home, I think it safe to say that many are easier to address at school. Helping a student who is a year or two behind in reading seems a lot more manageable than curtailing teenage pregnancy, ending gang violence, or solving any one of a thousand seemingly intractable family and neighborhood problems.

We know that changes in non-academic areas can make a difference in school performance. Improving nutrition, distributing eyeglasses, and providing vision therapy, among other things, have led to positive changes in achievement. And we know that various factors in homes and in neighborhoods negatively impact achievement. But we have little evidence that changes in social policy can positively impact academic performance. Studies on three different housing policy changes indicate that students probably do a bit better when they move to better housing in better neighborhoods, but we hardly have a smoking gun.

That we are unsure about the exact relationship between social policy and educational success means that we should not put all of our eggs in that basket just yet. But it also means that we need to spend more time examining the relationship. Which means thinking through how social policies might affect schools before implementing them -- though there must be at least one out there, I am unaware of a single social policy that was implemented with the explicit goal of improving school performance.

While we cannot be sure that changing social policy is a better way to change schools, it is something we should investigate further.


Unknown said...

Poverty, poverty, poverty. It is the problem. Always has been, always will be.

Anonymous said...

I agree - the research on non-school factors are overwhelming. since your post here, there has been an avalanche of media coverage that might start the tipping point towards addressing these non school factors. my post addresses some of those things and similarly ponders this topic.