Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Serious Education Reform

John Bedell

Now that W has moved into the White House, "education reform" is, I hear, at the top of the national agenda.  I'm pleased that our chief suits are getting all concerned about education, and I'm sure there are things we could do to make many school systems work better, but I think most of what I read and hear about this question is beside the point.

Standardized tests play a big part in W's plans, and in many other plans I've seen. In Maryland we seem to be leaders in this sort of reform; our state government has created a test called the MSPAP, designed to evaluate the performance of our schools, and the state has recently been given a series of awards from education reform groups because of this effort.  But what exactly does a test like the MSPAP measure?  Within hours of the announcement, with great fanfare, of the first set of school rankings, a sociologist at the University of Maryland had released a computer analysis showing that 80% of the difference between school districts could be accounted for solely by the average family income in the district.  He didn't examine race, but I bet that accounts for much of the rest.  We are left with 10% or so of the difference between schools that can actually be attributed to differences in the quality of the teaching.  What are we going to do, fire principals because they happen to serve in poor districts?

In a gross statistical sense, all you need to know to predict the educational success of any group of American children is the income and educational attainment of their parents.  Nothing else-- school spending, educational theory (phonics vs. whole language), the rigor of the instruction-- is anywhere near as important.  It makes many people angry to hear this, but it is simply true.

We have schools in the US that do terribly because we have large groups of people who are alienated from the mainstream of our society.  They are not really part of the national economy, and they don't accept mainstream moral or educational values, either.  Some children fall into these categories because of problems in their own families, but most are part of whole excluded groups:  inner-city blacks, migrant workers, residents of poor rural areas.  The problem of serious educational reform in the US is really the problem of how to incorporate these groups into the the mainstream of our society.

I think this incorporation has to start with economics.  Certainly this has been our experience over the last century.  It was primarily factory work that transformed millions of poor Americans into members of the middle class.  Men could get factory jobs without a lot of education or training, but the jobs were stable enough and paid well enough (especially in the 1945 to 1973 period) to lift people's expectations about life and the future, which is the crucial ingredient in the middle-class mindset.

So if you ask me what we can do about "failing schools," I say try to create stable, well-paying jobs for the parents of these children.  Only when every person in American who is willing to work can get a job at a living wage (say, $35,000 a year) will we solve the problems with out schools.  Until then, every reform effort is just tinkering with that stray 10% of the problem.

February 17, 2001

From the 
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