Failing Families, Failing Schools

Two studies on education and poverty are getting press this week.

In the first, the Educational Testing Service reports that a state’s performance on federal 8th grade reading tests can be accurately predicted by only four factors, none of which can be controlled by schools: The percentage of children living in single parent homes; the percentage of eighth graders who miss at least three days of school a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger read to by their parents every day; and the percentage of eighth graders reporting that they watch at least five hours of TV a day.

Reporting on the study, Michael Winerup of the NYT advises caution. The child watching hours of TV, for example, may have parents who have too little time at home because they are working two jobs. The study notes significant gaps in the quality of day care available to poor and privileged children. In other developed countries, the NYT article reminds us, mothers have paid leave after their babies are born.

It’s curious, then, that the title of study (The Family: America’s Smallest School”) and the NYT article’s headline, (“In Gaps in School, Weighing Family Life”), make no mention of these policy factors, as if this were all simply a matter of parenting style.

Meanwhile, the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment reports that students’ socio-economic background affects achievement more profoundly in the United States than in other high- achieving countries. Education Week ‘s (you may need to register ) Sean Cavanagh reports:

The exam’s results are not surprising, given research showing that the U.S. system tends to provide underprivileged students with less demanding curricula, poorer-quality teachers, and fewer educational resources than their peers in wealthier U.S. communities, said Ross Wiener, the vice president of program and policy for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.

“We give students less of everything that makes a difference in school,” Mr.Wiener said. If the public is inclined to believe “we’re doing as well as we can for these students,” he added, the international data “demonstrates we’re simply not.”

Both studies challenge NCLB’s assertions that we can close achievement gaps primarily within classrooms decontextualized from their communities.

Both negate NCLB’s promise that the best that we can offer children left behind by regressive social policies are underpaid teachers, toiling away in poorly-funded schools.

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