In the debates over the merits of school reform vs. social reform – or in discussions of how to weave the two together – many make claims about the time-order sequence of reform. Which must come first, social reform or school reform? Is it the case that schools cannot meet their goals until societal inequalities are eliminated, or is it the case that societal inequalities will be eliminated by improved schooling?I propose an alternative hypothesis: that social reform and school reform have varying degrees of utility depending upon the timeframe in which one wants to achieve success.
In the very near term, certainly in cases of less than a year, it seems likely that school reforms would tend to be more efficacious. One would think that extra tutoring in reading, for example, would have a larger effect on reading scores six months from now than would moving into a new house. In the slightly longer run, however, it may be the case that social reform has more potential to reduce inequality.
In three of the four major empirical studies linking a social policy (or experiment designed to simulate a social policy) and educational performance, the authors measured the change in effects over time and in all three outcomes were significantly more positive after three or four years than they were after one. If this trend is generalizable to social policy at large, it stands to reason that social reform may produce better results a few years down the road than will school reform.
In the long-run, however, it may be the case that the achievement gap cannot be eliminated without school reform. Even if societal conditions are improved, one would think that those attending worse schools would tend to perform worse than those attending better schools. In this sense, at some point schooling will have to be equalized in order for the odds of success to also be equalized. In other words, although high-quality schools may not be sufficient for disadvantaged children to match their more advantaged counterparts today, they are likely necessary in the long run.