Saturday, December 08, 2007

Education Begins At Home

We've been saying here at NYC Educator for a long time now that we think that quality schools and quality teachers matter in education.

But we have also been saying that there are other factors that affect how well students do in school and one of the most important is what takes place in the home.

The Educational Testing Service - the fine folks who develop and administer 50 million standardized tests a year, including the SAT - have just concluded an education study that finds the same thing:

The study, “The Family: America’s Smallest School,” suggests that a lot of the failure has to do with what takes place in the home, the level of poverty and government’s inadequate support for programs that could make a difference, like high-quality day care and paid maternity leave.

The E.T.S. researchers took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.

“Together, these four factors account for about two-thirds of the large differences among states,” the report said. In other words, the states that had the lowest test scores tended to be those that had the highest percentages of children from single-parent families, eighth graders watching lots of TV and eighth graders absent a lot, and the lowest percentages of young children being read to regularly, regardless of what was going on in their schools.

Which gets to the heart of the report: by the time these children start school at age 5, they are far behind, and tend to stay behind all through high school. There is no evidence that the gap is being closed.

Richard J. Coley, director of E.T.S.’s policy information center and a co-author of the report, concludes the following:

“Kids start school from platforms of different heights and teachers don’t have a magic wand they can wave to get kids on the same platform. If we’re really interested in raising overall levels of achievement and in closing the achievement gap, we need to pay as much attention to the starting line as we do to the finish line.”


The reason why this study is important is because it emphasizes something educators already know - our classrooms and our schools do not exist in vacuums. Our students come to us with lives and backgrounds that are far more influential upon their academic potentials and performances than whatever I do for 45 minutes a day, 183 days a year.

This means that if we really want to address the achievement gap in education, we have to look outside the school system for some of the solutions to the education problem.

We have to look to health care so that students come to school ready and able to learn.

We have to look to day care so that students begin the education process long before they start school.

We have to look to a living wage so that single parents don't have to work three jobs in order to make ends meet and give their kids the short shrift out of necessity.

We have to look to vacation time and dinner time so that families can begin to spend time with each other instead of simply seeing each other coming and going at the door.

What we hear from the billionaire businessmen, computer company execs and hedge fund managers masquerading as education reformers is that students do not perform well in school because the school day is not long enough, the school year is not long enough and the teachers are not good enough. So if we just increase the school day and school year and add more standardized testing/accountability mechanisms for both teachers and students, we can fix the problems with education.

But as the ETS study found, these solutions are false.

At the high school I attended years ago, a Jesuit school on the West Side of Manhattan, school officials have a rule that all after-school activities must be over by 5 PM and all students must be out of the building by then.

You see, these school officials think it's important that families spend quality time together at the dinner table if at all possible and they know that if kids are still at school after 5 PM, it's difficult for families to do that.

Now many families may not be able to spend time together at the dinner table out of economic necessity, but nonetheless these school officials see families eating dinner together as part of the education process (albeit the home part of it.)

What a novel idea - an hour spent talking with mom and dad about what happened during the school day is worth more than an extra hour spend with Mr. ____ or Ms. ____ at some after school activity.

What we need to do is rebuild an American society where families that have the time and the money to be able to do this can exist.

Currently, we're heading the other way.

Many Americans have to work longer and harder to make less than their parents did.

It takes two incomes now to do what it used to take just one to do 30-40 years ago.

Increased debt has replaced wage gains for many Americans.

Until we have a conversation in America that starts with "Hey, how come only the top 5% have made an economic gains in the last 20 years...", none of this is going to change.

But the one thing we can do is fight the billionaire media moguls, the computer company execs, and the hedge fund managers who favor re-feudalization of society and want to socialize kids to it as soon as possible with their education reforms of working longer and harder to make less.
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