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.
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 remedly for social ills rather than a partial one.
I think you've summarized the issue very well here. Schools can do a lot, but I don't believe they can do near enough at 6 hours a day and 30 kids per class.
My sense is that the people who resist recognizing this believe that there is a corps of Mother Theresas out there waiting to teach in low income schools -- putting in the extra hours, accepting lower wages to facilitate lower class size, etc -- if only the evil education bureaucracy would let them. Maybe there are more than schools recruit now -- but I don't think there are near enough to staff every low income school in the country.
Just so you know, I responded to D-Ed's post stating that I didn't completely agree with what he wrote. Also know and I'm sure you've heard this, the first two years of teaching is tough for almost everybody. In fact, I don't think I've really hit my stride until this past year - going into my 7th year of teaching!
When we have constant teacher turn-over due to lack of support in our highest needs school, it is a tough environment to be in. At the end of the school year in my school, 4 of our 8 sixth grade teachers are leaving. Two have only been teaching for a couple of years, whereas the other two can no longer afford to teach in our district (both just recently had babies).
I think it is wrong to assume that if a teacher has ongoing problems in the classroom with a group of students that this is solely their fault. The reality is that we, as teachers, only have them for a short amount of time. When I see the same students continue to have problems for the three years they are at my school, I've got to figure that the only constant is the student. The student is exposed, at minimum, to 12 different teachers while they attend my middle school, whereas the teachers themselves are exposed to well over 150 students each school year.
Until we are able to have the same luxuries as private schools and charters school of holding students accountable for their actions, we may not be able to reach (or teach) some of our most difficult students.
Finally, while I have definitely implemented many of the strategies I learned from my DI trainings, I simply wasn't able to change the behaviors of all my students.
DeRosa says that behavioral problems weren't caused by poor home environments but, rather, by poor management and instructional strategies.
This is not quite my position.
My position is that these kids are different from middle-class kids. They need better instruction and a more structured and carefully managed classroom than middle-class kids. They need compensatory education and they aren't getting it.
I'll explain why in my next post.
Perhaps it's an artifact of attending Vanderbilt, where Steve Heyneman teaches, that leads you to cite the Heyneman-Loxley effect, but there's more recent data on the relative importance of family background and school in cross-national perspecttive. See David Baker, Brian Goesling, and Gerald LeTendre's (2002) article in Comparative Education Review. Still, I agree with your analysis.
Yeah, I've presented multiple times on the Baker, Goesling, and LeTendre's article. They made a valiant effort, but TIMSS just didn't have the depth of information they needed -- take a look at the R squareds in that article vs. the original Heyneman & Loxley article. Gameron & Long (2006) combined the two plus data from Long's dissertation and found that the trend holds up to about $16,000 per capita GDP.
Besides, the Baker, Goesling, and LeTendre piece found even more countries where home matters more than school.
"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."
I couldn't agree with you more. My personal example: I used to teach in the large San Diego City School district. I worked as a teacher, student teacher, or sub in several high schools and middle schools.
It was a great experiment in the effects of school resources vs. pupil characteristics for the following reason: Almost every school in the district had the same resources: teacher-pupil ratio, building age/quality, supplies, budget. However, huge gaps existed in performance between the wealthier schools and schools with low-income students and high immigrant populations.
I can attest that the SCHOOL factors were basically the same everywhere in the district - the difference was the kids and their families.
There was no question that the schools with the higher income, stable, English-speaking families had higher performing students than the other schools. Aside from the fact that teachers tended to stay longer at the higher-income schools, the only variable which explained this performance difference was the composition of the student population.
Anyone who thinks that all low-income students will do just as well as suburban kids once they attend "high quality" schools should take a look at San Diego City Schools. As you noted, for schools to succeed with at-risk students, the school must act as both school and family for the student, b/c they need so much more.
I so agree with your blog post!! I am not a teacher but a parent who wants to see more focus on involving parents and kids into the educational process. Honestly, many parents from all different social economic backgrounds don't know what to do. I believe our educational leaders need to do a better job of preparing kids and parents for that first day of school. Where are the public service announcements that ask: Is your child able to identify the alphabet letters all mixed up? Do they know basic shapes and colors? Can they identify their numbers 0-10 mixed up? Can they identify penny, nickel and dime? We really need a program designed to empower parents and kids into the educational process along with teachers because if a parent isn’t involved at Kindergarten, they won’t be involved at Second, Third and beyond. It’s like the Seat Belt Law: teach a child to wear their seatbelt and they will re-teach big brother, grandma, dad and mom to wear it too. If you teach a child that each night they need to involve their parents into the process of reading with them for 10 minutes, playing a fun activity for 10 minutes and having conversations with lots of open ended questions, it might work. If you teach a child to ask their parents to go through their backpack with them each night and teach them to tell their parent about their day at school and teach them to want to be involved in school, many will pass that along to their parents. To me figuring out how to involve parents and kids into the process is the key!
Smiles - Stacey
I don't think I need to point out in this forum that correlation does not equal causation.
No one disputes the correlation between SES and student achievement. What is disputed (and which has not yet been established) is the notion that improving the SES of low-SES students will lead to an increase in their achievement.
The small scale controlled research is decidedly mixed and the large scale controlled research is non-existent.
In contrast, there is large scale controlled research at the elementary school level that shows that compensatory education can be provided to low-SES schools and raise their perfromance from the 20th percentile to about the 50th percentile.
Thus, at best, the current evidence says to put into effect the compensatory education that has ben research validated and to provide further research into controlled large-scale studies on improving SES effects and their effect on student achievement.
Wow -- a lot of comments. Before I get to any of the others, let me address the one that Ken just left.
Whether it's more effective to raise SES or improve schools is an entirely different (though related) subject. If I didn't believe it was possible to raise achievement by improving schools, then I wouldn't be studying ed policy.
Right now I'm talking about which influences current achievement levels more -- home or school.
Until we are able to have the same luxuries as private schools and charters school of holding students accountable for their actions, we may not be able to reach (or teach) some of our most difficult students.
That is perhaps the saddest sentence I have ever read about public schools. Far from being a luxury, "holding students repsonsible" is a requirement for a successful school. If a school can't or won't hold students responsible, it is pretty much guaranteeing that many of them--and their peers who have to put up with them--won't get much of an education.
Unfortunately, "holding students responsible" may mean removing them from regular classes. Most public schools refuse to consider alternative kinds of classes for these kids. Big mistake.
Can Ken and Corey agree on the following?
"[Poor] kids are different from middle-class kids. They need better instruction and a more structured and carefully managed classroom than middle-class kids. They need compensatory education and they aren't getting it."
By the time they get to middle school, they have had five or six years of inappropriate schooling. This has contributed to their developing a bad attitude toward school and learning, and is a major reason they don't have the skills to succeed in middle school.
What is disputed (and which has not yet been established) is the notion that improving the SES of low-SES students will lead to an increase in their achievement.
I think this overstates the position. There are a lot of things that correlate with low-SES (poor healthcare, low levels of parent education, scarity of informal educational opportunities outside of school and in the pre-school years). Some of these are almost certainly not only correlated with low achievement in school, but causally related to low achievement.
The question seems to me to be: can school effectively overcome the deficits that have a variety of causes. And -- even if the answer is "yes" -- are the other, more cost effective approaches that should be considered in addition to focusing on schooling.
My husband has been known to argue that the most effective way to raise student achievement would be to send all the parents to grad school -- joking, obviously. But I think it bears thinking about whether pre-school programs that actively promoted parental involvement might not be a more cost effective approach than insisting that schools figure out how to make up for the deficits some kids have by the time they start kindergarten.
Some of these are almost certainly not only correlated with low achievement in school, but causally related to low achievement.
The research suggests otherwise. We have quite a few adopted twin studies in which a low-SES twin was adopted by a high-SES family. By adolescence student achievement and IQ were not been raised to what the high-ses predicted. Instead, they were at the adoptee's biological parents' SES level and IQ.
There was some small temporary improvement in academic achievement while the children were young, but the adopted kids did not rise to the level of the biological children in the adopted family as the ses correlation would have predicted.
In any event, this was an extreme intevention whose effects cannot be replicated by a governmental program like those suggested by Broader Bolder.
And -- even if the answer is "yes" -- are the other, more cost effective approaches that should be considered in addition to focusing on schooling.
Are there? I believe the research is lacking for this proposition. You should be calling for more research not for imposing yet another untested welfare-esque social program with unknown efficacy.
But I think it bears thinking about whether pre-school programs that actively promoted parental involvement might not be a more cost effective approach than insisting that schools figure out how to make up for the deficits some kids have by the time they start kindergarten.
This ignores a few practical problems. Teaching young pre-school children in groups is very difficult, more difficult than teaching them in K. Promoting parental involvment for parentals who are eitherunwilling or incapable of providing it isn't going to help much.
Roger: I would more or less agree with Ken's statement that you quoted.
Ken: Can you send along some of these twin studies? I haven't read them.
This comes from Deborah Meier:
I think where we may disagree is the assumption that sneaks through in your stories of "blame". The children of the rich have an equal
share, if not more, careless parents who don't spend a lot of energy on their kids real needs, or have a thoughtful relationship with them. But it has less of an impact on school success. In part they have the advantage of passed on advantages that parents can pay for or which come along with wealth. In part they have the HUGE advantage of taking it for granted that they are entitled, that what they do and think matters, that their wishes could become realities--based on
repeated experience. Finally, their families have networks, etc. But then schools also compound these advantages in many ways, including their failure to take advantage of the strengths that poor kids come
with, and the assumptions we approach their "weaknesses"
with--including their different vocabularies, experiences. styles,
interests. All these also make parents of the poor more leery of
schooling, builds walls between honest and respectful conversation
between home and school, etc - so that kids feel more estranged from
the school's culture. etc etc
We can, in short, do better. It may or may not show up on getting the right answer on multiple-choice tests. It might show up on more well-designed assessment tools. But it cannot (statistically)overcome all the other odds. Having an advantage is an advantage. Why else do we want advantages?
I think that both Corey and Ken have valid points, although I'm inclined to agree more with Corey since I've had similar teaching experiences to his experiences in the Bronx.
Corey's point is that families and communities have huge impacts on student performance, outside the impact of the school itself. I think this point is basically unassailable: Does anyone believe that parental support, family resources, and commuity values do NOT impact academic performance?
On the other hand, Ken's point is that the right school environment, teaching strategies, and other school characteristics CAN help low-income students increase their academic performance. I find no fault with this assumption, either.
However, Ken's theory does not negate the fact that families have a huge impact on their children's school performance. And it does not negate the fact that schools must work twice as hard to achieve gains for at-risk students, often taking on the role of parent as well as educator.
As some other posters noted, even the best schools and teachers cannot always overcome the problems that students bring with them to school - and they shouldn't be blamed by society when they don't.
To compare teaching to other professions... Employers aren't blamed by society when a worker quits; Doctors aren't blamed by society when not all of their patients are cured; and Generals are not blamed by society when every soldier does not survive an armed conflict.
Teachers, likewise, should not be blamed by society when less than 100% of their students achieve top academic success. Schools must work with the students they are given, and many of the students come with emotional baggage and other problems.
All we can ask of schools is that they try their best, with the resources they are given.
Corey are are some links:
The Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study
The Minnesota Twin Family Study and Brouchard's Reanalysis
The Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project and Willerman's various papers.
Unfortunately, teaching is not a profession. There is no professional responsibility for bad teaching. Teachers cannot be sued for educational malpractice like other professionals.
The result is that the "teacher's best" does not have to reach the established norms of teaching. In fact, the lack of professional responsibility permits teachers to ignore all the research they don't like, so norms haven't even developed yet. The educational equivalent of bleeding and leaching is still permitted in education.
We have quite a few adopted twin studies in which a low-SES twin was adopted by a high-SES family. By adolescence student achievement and IQ were not been raised to what the high-ses predicted. Instead, they were at the adoptee's biological parents' SES level and IQ.
So you're arguing that schools should be able to erase achievement deficits of low SES kids, even though adoptive families aren't able to???
Yes, that's exactly what I'm arguing. Here's the math for low SES kids.
poor family + bad school = lower achievement
rich family + bad school = slightly less low achievement
poor family + good school = higher achievement
rich family + good school = slightly higher achievement
Under NCLB eliminating the achievement gap doesn't mean that all children will perform equally. I can explain that too if you want me to.
Here's the math for low SES kids.
Can you point us toward data that backs up this math?
I've provided the links above to the adoption studies in which low-ses infants were placed with high-SES families; student achievement did not improve like the ses/achievement correlation supposedly predicts.
Then there's project follow through and 25 years of confirmatory subsequent research showing that by improving the instruction and classroom management in low-SES schools, student achievement can be improved to middle-class levels.
Ken: Regarding the adoption studies... If low-SES children were placed with high-SES families by age 7, wouldn't we presume that the low-SES children therefore went on to attend "good" schools? If low-SES children who attended good schools did not improve their achievement levels, I don't understand your argument that poor kids attending good schools will create good academic outcomes.
Is your theory that the low-SES kids who were adopted by high-SES families then "became" high-SES by virtue of adoption?
My understanding of the adoption studies is that they show that genetics, early childhood, or pre-natal factors had a large effect on children ... so large that it couldn't be overcome by adoption into middle class families. Alternatively, because the adopted children were black or multi-racial, perhaps the study seems to show that the effect of societal prejudice against the adopted children based on their race was a deleterious force in their academic achievement.
How do you interpret the adoption studies?
No, I would not presume that schools serving primarily high-SES populations schools are any more effective with low-SES kids than low-SES schools. The data doesn't really support such a conclusion. See here and follow the links.
Is your theory that the low-SES kids who were adopted by high-SES families then "became" high-SES by virtue of adoption?
The adoption served as a massive environmental intervention. The adopted children grew up in a high-SES environment, sometimes from birth (as in the Colorado Adoption Project). No, the adopted children did not become high-SES (because SES has a genetic component), but their environment was changed to high-SES (to a much greater extent than anything that can be accomplished via a governemental intervention, such as Broader Bolder).
My understanding of the adoption studies is that they show that genetics, early childhood, or pre-natal factors had a large effect on children ... so large that it couldn't be overcome by adoption into middle class families.
The studies all has similar outcomes. Some of the studies had adoptions from birth or very shortly thereafter. The level of pre-natal care among the low-SES parents in the US does not cause depressed IQ.
Alternatively, because the adopted children were black or multi-racial, perhaps the study seems to show that the effect of societal prejudice against the adopted children based on their race was a deleterious force in their academic achievement.
Not all the adopted children were black, some were white, and they showed the same biological parent similarities.
Ken: Thanks for your response to my questions. Interesting issues at play...
One more comment: Your point seems to be that low SES kids have problems that need to be addressed by specific educational strategies geared to low SES kids. That is, the the schools with primarily high SES kids are not necessarily going to be places where low SES kids thrive ("No, I would not presume that schools serving primarily high-SES populations schools are any more effective with low-SES kids than low-SES schools.').
Comes back to the points both you and Corey make: Educational interventions are possible with low SES kids, but the path to success is harder and more complex than with the high SES students.
You make some good points above.
However, I also think that this can be helpful to you:
Go to: http://www.panix.com/~pro-ed/
If you get this book and video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems, [they are in many libraries, so you don't have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and the video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you.
[I also teach an online course on these issues that may be helpful to you at:
If you cannot get the book or video, email me and I will try to help.
Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
City Univ. of New York
I agree with the former argument that a healthy home environment is condusive to a meaningful learning experience at school. While I also do not have empirical data, I have served as a classroom teacher for years and I also serviced students as a truancy social worker. One major issue is that what goes on in school with respect to direct and explicit instruction is not facilliated in the homes. This is ostensible because most parents are not educators. When a student does not study effectively, they do not progress academically. Further, although we as educators profess that schools can handle the social issues that are reflective of the community, we are misguiding ourselves. Society really does not care about an individuals social situation. What matters most to the bureaucracy of education is high-stakes testing. Students have to sink or swim and naturally that is the order of things in education. Overall there needs to be more student and parental initiative in trying to succeed academically.
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