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There’s More to Learning Than School

I find it really difficult to take seriously some of the discussions about education reform that go on under the umbrella of No Child Left Behind and similar one-size-fits-all plans.

It’s particularly hard when our “leaders” and “experts” offer “solutions” that assume nothing affects student learning except what goes on in the school building between the hours of 8 and 3, 180 days of the year.

Teachers, all by themselves, are the only factor that determines whether a child succeeds (re: passes the standardized test) or doesn’t.

Does anyone believe the life kids have outside that sphere of influence might have something to do with it?

A new study by the Educational Testing Service – which develops and administers more than 50 million standardized tests annually, including the SAT – concludes that an awful lot of those low scores can be explained by factors that have nothing to do with schools. 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.

And the ETS researchers aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed a connection.

Not only did many industrialized countries outperform the United States in science on a recent international exam, but American students’ academic achievement was also more likely to be affected by their wealth or poverty and family background than was their peers’ in higher-scoring nations.

That was one of several sobering findings for the United States included in the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released this week. The program showed U.S. students lagging behind a majority of participating developed nations in both science and mathematics.

Of course, if anyone actually working in education says anything about student learning having a connection to other factors like the child’s socioeconomic background, politicians and other “experts” claim we are making excuses for poor teaching.

There are certainly bad teachers and bad schools in this country. And we need to do everything possible to improve or eliminate them.

However, placing total responsibility for education on any teacher or school ignores the fact that the majority of a child’s time between the ages of 5 and 18 is spent in the real world.

One which too often looks very different from the idealistic family sitcom floating in the heads of the folks writing our school reform plans.

education, reform, nclb, poverty


  1. Dave

    Great post. I struggle with this a lot: I have a desire to improve the world, which seems to cyclically pass down good and bad traits from parent to child. I love working in education because it seems to be the best way to affect the cycle and encourage good traits over bad (and thus change the world over time). But I’m tempted to try to address these bigger issues. (At the risk of being cheesy) There’s a line in Jesus Christ Superstar: “Surely you’re not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot. There will be poor always…” Do I stick with education and hope to help affect the cycle? Do I change focuses and try to affect core issues like poverty and improving domestic situations for kids? Is it sensible to try to affect the cycle of poverty, or should I think of it as trying to provide amazingly great opportunities for anyone who wants to take advantage of them?

  2. Darren Draper

    You know, it was Mark Twain that said:

    “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

    Too bad so many students today are forced to do the same.

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