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?
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?
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 FamilyCritics 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 study estimated how specific family features affect student performance, as measured by mathematics and verbal/reading scores. 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
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 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.
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
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."
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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:
Part of the bad news is that not everybody agrees that
these elements are important.
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.
Typical classroom is structured and rigid, with teacher in the front and students facing teacher. Research shows that most class time is spent with
students spend about:
30 minutes for passing between classes
So, from 7th to the 12th grade students have spent approximately:
7,560 hours in school
Sounds boring, n'est pas?We use the Inoculation Theory of Education
(Postman and Weingartner, 1969: 21 - Teaching As a Subversive Activity).
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?
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
Beyond Choice to New Public Schools:
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.