Family Crisis
Education and Family Crises

The Way to Get Ahead

The way the American Dream is supposed to work is like this:

A child is reared by responsible parents who insure the beginnings of an education by supporting the schools, seeing after their child's homework assignments, and removing any and all obstacles that hinder their child's progress through the grades.

Developmentally, the child soon begins to understand the importance of school and learning - becoming more independent of parents and more self-reliant regarding educational pursuits.

After additional post-secondary training (college) the child is ready to take a job with a future, then find a mate, marry, and begin a family.

This family grows along with the family income, which allows for more spacious living quarters, better transportation options, and guarantees for educational opportunities for the new family's children.

Today, everything in a child's future hinges on education, which hinges on support from the family, which hinges on parent's education, which hinged on support from their respective families.

What is there in the culture that can interrupt this seemingly natural flow of events?
What is there that can hinder educational attainment?

One of the major problems in the debate over education and how to manage it has to do with defining the problem. It just could be the case our public schools are failing. It could also be the case that nothing is wrong with the schools - it is the other "stuff" - a failing family model coupled with an increasing disparity between middle class and poor, that disregards the needs of children - which leads to all sorts of educational dysfunction (i.e., drug use, sexual promiscuity, teen pregnancy, mind-numbing bombardment of children's minds with unrelenting media).

We have to ask questions of our institutions?

  • Has the American Family done all it can to promote and insure education for its children?
  • Has the Government, at all levels, maintained education as a high priority?
  • What about the schools themselves, and teachers? Are these agents fully functional?
  • Is the Economy and all its functionaries oriented towards cooperation with Education?
Public education in the United States is failing, according to most of what we hear in the news and from folks with a political ax to grind.

Well, it appears there is some good news and bad news. First, the good news:

From the Rand Corporation: Student Performance and the Changing American Family

Critics of American education frequently blame lagging student performance on the deteriorating American family structure. Moreover, it is widely asserted that substantial spending on schools and social programs over the past two decades has failed to reverse the educational downtrend. However, a recent study conducted by RAND's Institute on Education and Training sharply challenges this view. First, the study points out that prior research--contrary to public perception--has reported gains in student performance between 1970 and 1990, as measured by nationally representative test score data. The largest gains were made by minority students, although a substantial gap still remains. Second, the study finds that demographic trends affecting the family over this time period contributed to rising test scores. Third, the minority gains cannot be fully explained by changing family characteristics, suggesting that we need to look to other factors for explanations. The most likely explanations are rising public investment in schools and families and equal educational opportunity policies.

Student performance and family environment: what's the connection?

The issue of how families affect student performance is vital to public policy. With public resources stretched thin, how can government best increase learning: by improving schools or the family environment? In Student Achievement and the Changing American Family, RAND researchers David W. Grissmer, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, Mark Berends, and Stephanie Williamson took a first step toward answering this complex question. They constructed comprehensive, quantitative models for determining how family characteristics affected test scores among junior- and senior-high students. Specifically, the research addressed three questions:
  • What is the relationship between family characteristics and student performance?
  • Given the changes in family characteristics between the early 1970s and 1990, could the changes in student test scores be predicted? How would these predictions compare to actual test score changes?
  • How did these trends differ for various racial/ethnic populations?
Which family characteristics matter most? The study drew demographic information on student families from two large databases: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY, 1980), from which it selected students aged 15 to 18, and the National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS, 1988), which sampled eighth-graders.

The study estimated how specific family features affect student performance, as measured by mathematics and verbal/reading scores.[1] It examined parents' level of education, family income, mother's employment status, the number of siblings, age of mother at birth of child, and single-parent families (see Figure 1). The study found that

  • The most important family characteristic influencing student performance is parents' education. For example, students with one or two college-educated parents performed significantly better than students whose parents were not high school graduates.
  • Income, family size, and mother's age at child's birth were modestly significant. For instance, a student whose family earned $40,000 annually outperformed one whose family earned only $15,000; a student with one sibling performed better than a student with four siblings; and a child of an older mother scored higher than a child born to a young mother.
  • Surprisingly, whether the mother worked had a negligible effect, after accounting for other family factors.
  • In addition, single-parent status by itself was not significant. This result suggests that any performance gap between students from one- or two-parent families arises from other differences, such as family income, family size or parents' education.
  • Figure 1--Net differences in mean mathematics test scores for selected groups, NLSY and NELS

The changing family: a boost for student test scores, 1970-1990

The researchers used these results to predict the changes in test scores that would be expected from changing family characteristics. They found that students in 1990 would be predicted to score higher, not lower, on tests than youth in families in 1970. This is because the two most influential characteristics--parents' education and family size--changed for the better (see Figure 2). Mothers and fathers in 1990 were better educated than their 1970 counterparts. For example, 7 percent of mothers of 15-18 year old children in 1970 were college graduates, compared to 16 percent in 1990. In addition, 38 percent of mothers did not have a high school degree in 1970, compared to only 17 percent in 1990. Changes in family size were also dramatic. Only about 48 percent of 15-18 year old children lived in families with at most one sibling in 1970, compared to 73 percent in 1990. The decline in family size coupled with the unchanging average family income levels (in real terms) between 1970 and 1990 means that family income per child actually increased during this time period.

The effect of the large increase in numbers of working mothers and single-parent families during the past two decades is more complex. The estimates imply that the large increase in numbers of working mothers had--other things being equal--a negligible effect on test scores. However, this measure was taken when the youth were approximately 14 years old, so the results may not apply to younger children. In the case of the increase in numbers of single mothers, the researchers' estimates imply no negative effects from changed family structure alone. However, such families tend to have lower incomes and mothers with lower educational attainment, so that predictions for youth in these families show a negative effect mainly because of the lower income associated with single-parent families.

The research also found that the positive changes in the family were mirrored in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP contains a set of standardized tests administered by the Department of Education. Since the early 1970s, the NAEP has been monitoring student achievement among nationally representative samples of students at ages 9, 13, and 17. One function of the NAEP design is to monitor achievement over time. As other researchers have reported, results from the NAEP from 1970 and 1990 indicate that the average mathematics achievement of 13 year-olds increased by about 0.18 of a standard deviation, or roughly 6 percentile points, whereas that of 17 year-olds increased by about 0.13 of a standard deviation, or roughly 4 percentile points.

Figure 2--Changes in selected family characteristics, 1970-1990

The NAEP is a much more valid indictor of nationwide student performance than the oft-cited Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). In fact, the SAT is not designed to compare student performance over time because it is not taken by a statistically representative sample of the nation's students. The SAT is actually taken by a different mix of students each year and moreover excludes non-college-bound students--the group registering the largest gains in scores. Therefore, using the SAT as a "national report card" on American education is at best misleading.

Larger gains for minorities

Improvements in test scores varied significantly for different racial/ethnic groups (see Figure 3). The greatest improvements in NAEP mathematics and reading test scores were posted by black and Hispanic students. This helped to narrow the minority-nonminority test score gap even though a substantial difference remains.

Subtracting the predicted gains resulting from family changes from actual overall gains in NAEP scores suggests how much the improvement in test scores among racial and ethnic groups can plausibly be attributed to the family as opposed to influences outside of the family (e.g., public investment, public policies, and schools). Scores for black students increased dramatically even after subtracting family effects, as did scores for Hispanic students (see Figure 4). By contrast, there was a negligible difference between the actual and predicted scores for non-Hispanic whites, implying that the test score gains for these students were fully accounted for by the changes in family characteristics.

These results suggest that black student gains during this period and, to a lesser extent, those of Hispanic students may in part be attributable to public investments in families and schools and/or equal educational opportunity policies. This implies that programs targeted for minority students may have yielded important payoffs, but identifying which programs have worked and their relative cost-effectiveness especially for children placed at risk remains an important topic for future research. Project Director David W. Grissmer observes "These findings are like a caution light at an intersection, warning us to go slow in dismissing the large investments in public education, social programs, and equal opportunity policies over the past twenty years as a waste of resources and a failure of social policy. Future research in this area will allow us to target family and educational resources where they do the most good."

Figure 3--NAEP mathematics score differences by racial/ethnic group between 1978 and 1990
for 13- and 17-year-old students.

Figure 4--Unexplained differences between actual (NAEP) and predicted (based on family changes) mathematics scores for different racial/ethnic groups, 1978-1990

[1]Mathematics scores were used to illustrate study results; however, verbal/reading scores would have shown similar results. RAND research briefs summarize research that has been more fully documented elsewhere. This research brief describes work done in the Institute on Education and Training and documented in MR-488 , Student Achievement and the Changing American Family by David W. Grissmer, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, Mark Berends, and Stephanie Williamson, 131 pp., $15.00, which is available from RAND Distribution Services, Telephone: 310-451-7002; FAX: 310-451-6915; or Internet: RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve public policy through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of its research sponsors. RB-8009 Copyright 1994 RAND All rights reserved. Permission is given to duplicate this on-line document for personal use only, as long as it is unaltered and complete. Copies may not be duplicated for commercial purposes. Published 1994 by RAND's Home Page 
The bad news is that we could be doing better.

The Functions of Secondary Education are:

  • Instruction in skills / Intellectual Development
  • Communication of the values and morals of the culture
  • Successful acculturation of all students
  • Fostering of personal/social development
These elements must be transferred from teacher to student if we, as a society, want to produce reflective and thoughtful, tolerant, self-reliant citizens.

Part of the bad news is that not everybody agrees that these elements are important.
Which skills? How much intellectual development? Which values - mine or yours?

The current debate over the demonstrated ability of public education to transmit valid academic skills is filled with invidious comparisons and faulty logic, which we'll get to in time.

Another part of the bad news is that, once the functions are agreed to, we don't teach the way human beings really think.

My experience in public school was one long lecture, filled with facts, almost totally devoid of a guiding philosophy, with very little in the way of principles or development of skills. Here's this very imaginative kid (little Davy) who hungers for a taste of life, being asked to color in a map of South America for 55 minutes. One day I would visit Brazil, and let me tell you, it is not burnt orange in color.
Or spelling exercises, carumba! With the entire 5th grade at the ready, Mrs. Weidle would stroll around the room, carrying this week's spelling words, and read off each word four times
- s-l-o-w-l-y.
De-ca-pi-tate (pausing, looking) | It was possible for me to have
De-ca-pi-tate (pausing, looking) | 16 full blown, completely technicolor
De-ca-pi-tate (pausing, looking) | fantasies by the time she got to
De-ca-pi-tate (pausing, looking) | the fourth iteration of the first word!

This is mind-numbing - This is mindless - This is disrespectful of the student!

Typical classroom is structured and rigid, with teacher in the front and students facing teacher. Research shows that most class time is spent with

      1. a teacher lecturing students taking notes - passive involvement
      2. students working at their desks on written assignments
      3. test taking
      4. passing in the halls
    In a typical middle/high school, out of a typical 7 hour day in school
    students spend about:

    30 minutes for passing between classes
    30 minutes to settle down when arriving
    30 minutes to get ready to leave for the next class
    60 minutes passing/taking up/going over homework
    100 minutes working at the desk/being tested
    55 minutes of study hall
    25 minutes for lunch
    Which leaves 90 minutes for teaching a day!

    So, from 7th to the 12th grade students have spent approximately:

    7,560 hours in school
    540 hours passing between classes
    1080 hours fidding around at the beginning and ending of classes
    1080 hours dealing with the administration of homework
    1800 hours working at their desks or being tested
    990 hours in study hall
    754 hours at lunch
    and a whopping 16220 hours in face to face instruction
    and this doesn't include things like homeroom, assemblies, and fire drills.

    Sounds boring, n'est pas?

We use the Inoculation Theory of Education
(Postman and Weingartner, 1969: 21 - Teaching As a Subversive Activity).
    English is not History and History is not Science and Science is not Art and Art is not music. This means that education sees each subject as a distinct and solitary discipline, which isn't true. It wasn't until college that I took a course (by accident) entitled the History of the English Language, in which we spent a lot of time talking about poetry (art) and child development (science). My professor had just undergone throat surgery and lectured using one of those buzzing gizmos held against his jaw to affect speech. He was one of the top three professors I would have in 8 years of college instruction.

    Art and Music are minor subjects - English, History and Science are Major subjects, and a subject is something you 'take' and when you have taken it, you have 'had' it, and if you've 'had' it, you are immune and cannot take it again (for credit).

    Did you, in your entire secondary education career, have a teacher that was so good you wished you could take his/her class again because you just know you'd learn something new?

We teach by Rote learning, performance for grades and mystification.
It's not what you learn that matters to teacher or student, it's the grade you get that counts.
Implicitly we are teaching students that the grade is the important thing.
    We've forgotten one of teaching's fundamental rules. From the American Pragmatist Poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was buddies with William James and John Dewey. He said,
    "The secret of teaching is respecting the pupil."

    Teachers too often make a game out of education, taking unfair advantage of students in much the same way a bully might beat up on smaller children.

    There's the "Guess What I'm Thinking" game where teachers have all the right answers, not students. And they pose questions like, "What is the real meaning of this poem?", "What were the three causes of the Renaissance? ", or "What do you suppose was running through the writer's mind when he wrote this article?"
    One might as well call up the Psychic Phone Line.

    Even all the way into graduate school, students inescapably feel a definite class structure separating them from faculty with boundaries of impenetrable condescension.

    And the sad part is, students are not motivated to change these situations, and neither are teachers. Maybe we are all conditioned from the first grade through to their first day on the job to expect no more than repetitions of the "right" answers to subjective questions and logging up hours toward graduation/retirement.

    We teach powerlessness, dependency, and reliance on authority to adolescents.
    To quote Vinkman from GhostBusters, "This is Baddddd!"

    How can increases in self-confidence, respect for one's body, empathy for others be instilled under an educational system that rewards passivity, makes us sit still for hours on end, rewards those who are most cooperative and least intellectual, and emphasizes grades above all else?

In Defense of American Education:
    In the U.S. (until recently) we have the mandate to teach everyone - all who come to the table of education are allowed to dig in and learn.
    In our main competitors' schools (Europe, Japan) this is not the case. Only the brightest and best scorers are allowed to continue the equivalent to our high school. The others are moved into various levels of trade instruction and work.
    SAT scores are finally stabilized after 20 years of decline, but they aren't high enough for the psychometricians.
    A note about achievement tests - since 1950 the average education level of the U.S. population has gone from 6th grade in 1950 to High School Grad in 1993. The way this happened is that fewer and fewer students dropped out of school. This means more and more of the less prepared students stayed in school - Of course the scores are going to drop!

    The Big Event that initiated the emphasis on increasing the quality of education back in the 1950s wasn't a strong desire from the leaders of our nation to give children the best education in the world. It was Global Politics - the Russian's caught us with our technological pants around our knees with the successful launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. For all the wrong reasons, the federal government decided to finally get into the education business (for middle class white kids anyway). Now that we have no real global threat, and now that many of our economic leaders have become multi-national and proponents of the New World Order (President Bush!), there really is no self-interested motivation on the part of Government and Economy to widely support public education.

    In the 1960s, the public schools were singled out as the most likely institution to achieve racial equality, reduction in teen pregnancies, adequate social and personal adjustment, reduction of child abuse, and safe drivers. So how're we doing on these issues?

    I would submit to you that while many of these issues are with us still, we've been remarkably successful in the main.

    Racial Equality - Coleman's research on school busing showed that while parents didn't like the idea of busing their children out of the neighborhood, the children themselves grew up to be more tolerant than their parents. So it worked! Further, most Americans are not nearly as prejudiced as popularly believed.

    Teen Pregnancies - Given the lack of parental guidance so many teenagers today, how many would be pregnant if sex education were not offered in the schools.

    Adequate social and personal adjustment - Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you about the kids who find their only connection to their future in school and through the relationships they have with teachers and other students.

Students reactions to school
    What if you were forced to attend the University of Akron?
    Think about your attitudes in that case? Most students like school even though some studies show that 52% say most classes are boring but 92% thought teachers didn't know their subject matter. Most students felt school prepared them for life after high school.
Problems with Secondary Schools
    Sex differentials in courses taken. Females still take traditional electives whenever possible - home economics, and business service courses. Males still take more demanding math and science courses - generally.

    Relevance of courseware - it just isn't being pointed out to students.

    Dropout rates = family background, ability, gender. Interestingly, while the dropout rate is, itself, dropping, students are a little less competent in English, math and science.

The Policy Debate on Education Home Page| About DLC-PPI| Library| Join/Order| The New Democrat
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Beyond Choice to New Public Schools:
Withdrawing the Exclusive Franchise in Public Education
Ted Kolderie. November 1990.

Going beyond the current debate over school "choice" plans, Kolderie, of St. Paul's Center for Policy Studies, advocates ending the exclusive franchise of local districts to own and operate a public school by permitting enterprising educators to open innovative public schools under contract to a public agency. Under divestiture, local districts could even give up the operation of schools altogether, while retaining a broad policy-setting role. Kolderie offers eleven guidelines for creating a more competitive public school system that would remain under public control. Home Page| About DLC-PPI| Library| Join/Order| The New Democrat
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In Defense of Civic Culture
Jim Sleeper. 1993. From the Progressive Foundation.

Sleeper, a New York writer, offers this primer on civic virtues for the Progressive Foundation's Project on Cultural Politics. Noting that "the growing racial, religious, and cultural diversity of the United States is a fact--indeed a juggernaut," Sleeper sees this development as an historic opportunity to enrich democratic pluralism, but one which is simultaneously threatened by a rising tide of "identity politics" that is itself a product of increasing cultural diversity. Noting the growing tendency toward ethnic polarization in U.S. electoral politics, education, and economic and social development, Sleeper concludes that it is the values we share as Americans, not those on which we differ, that will further our freedom and our goal of a truly tolerant multicultural society.

Goals 2000: Educate America Act

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act was passed by Congress and signed by the President in March 1994. It is based on the America 2000 program initiated by the National Governors' Association and the Reagan and Bush administrations, truly a bipartisan and national grassroots piece of legislation. The provision that supports Washington Goals 2000 (Title III) encourages states to do their own planning around general improvement guidelines (listed below). The Department of Education intends to use the state improvement plans as the umbrellas under which all federal education programs will operate and be evaluated in the future. That means that we will only need one state plan and one school plan for all the federal programs. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the fall of 1994 was the first step in this direction. If this direction continues, it will truly be a revolution in federal-state relations.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act formally adopts the National Education Goals, originally developed under America 2000 during previous administrations, and sets up other programs at the federal level (as opposed to the state level) to address the National Education Goals, such as violence prevention and early childhood education. Local grants are available under most of these other programs. The National Education Goals and the other titles of the Educate America Act are listed below.

National Education Goals

  • School Readiness All children will start school ready to learn.
  • School Completion High school graduation rate will increase to 90 percent.
  • Student Achievement and Citizenship Students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 with competency in core subjects and prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment.
  • Teacher Education and Professional Development Teachers will have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all U.S. students for the next century.
  • Mathematics and Science U.S. students will be the first in the world in math and science achievement.
  • Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Every adult will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
  • Safe, Disciplined, and Alcohol- and Drug-Free Schools Every school will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
  • Parental Participation Every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.