School Performance Trends Begin Far From the Classroom
> 12/11/2007 12:35:24 PM

Most observers, especially the parents of those currently working their way through American schools, welcome the newfound sense of scrutiny regarding our largely unsatisfactory education system. But new research performed by the same groups responsible for designing a large share of our standardized tests implies that some of this emphasis may be misplaced: the widescale failure of American students, particularly those in the lower economic brackets, can very rarely be attributed to the schools themselves. Not only does environment play a huge role in a child's academic future, researchers conclude that individual institutions themselves bear little of the blame. This revelation hardly absolves school systems and officials of all major responsibility, but it may allow them to breathe a little easier while the larger portrait of American education continues on its dismal way.

The usual social factors play a larger-than-suspected role in determining a child's academic trajectory. Researchers were able to predict the test-score rankings for each state with startling accuracy by considering only the following four variables: the percentage of students living in single-parent homes, the percentage of 8th graders who missed at least three days of school each month, the percentage of kids 5 or younger whose parents reportedly read to them every day, and the percentage of 8th graders who watched 5 or more hours of TV a day. The study's largest point may serve as a considerable talking point for early-intervention advocacy: most failing kids fall behind before they set foot in their first classroom, and if we don't attack the education problem at its root, it's unlikely to go anywhere in the near future, no matter how many faulty schools lose funding in the meantime. And by the time these kids start school, the increases in funding and resources devoted to helping them catch up, necessary as they may be, are largely ineffective.

Unfortunately, these cultural divisions are largely socioeconomic in nature, as illustrated by this alarming statistic: "for every $10,000 of additional family income, the [child's] SAT score climbs an average of about 10 points." And the most influential element in this equation is the single-parent factor: while growing up in the absence of one parent does not guarantee any sort of personal or academic failure, these students (on average) experience more behavioral problems, have poorer attendance records and score lower on every test. Those numbers begin to become insurmountable considering that nearly 1 in 3 American children live with only one parent. Income strongly influences another significant factor: quality of child care. A majority of infants are in some form of outside care for a portion of their days, and poor or minority children spend more time than average under the supervision of unfamiliar adults. Single mothers are obviously not of the stay-at-home variety because their incomes don't allow it, and the settings in which they inevitably place their children are simply not as good as those afforded by their wealthier peers. But we cannot jump to stereotypical conclusions about these parents. Most of them are women who work full-time while separated or divorced from their spouses, not the free-ride drug addicts so often depicted by their detractors. And, of course, they want the best opportunities for their own children, but they are severely limited by their own circumstances. When children start from such disparate levels of support and preparation, how can we use universal standards to declare that their schools have failed them?

Who is to blame for these depressingly predictable statistics, and how can we best temper their influence? How can one explain a 14-year old who spends at least four hours in front of the television every weekday? The fact is that kids who live with both parents, who participate in extracurricular activity, whose parents read to them regularly and who spend less time in front of the television do better in school regardless of their individual intelligence measurements or the particular classes they attend. Most will not be surprised by this discovery, but the United States government cannot monitor the behavior of its citizens to ensure that they hew close to this model, however proficient it proves to be. What they can do, according to the study's author, is offer more support early: the costs of furthering superior childcare could conceivably offset the price of helping the most disadvantaged kids catch up. And crucial details like increasing the accessibility of paid leave for new parents could also help to balance the equation. Unfortunately, the questions raised by this study is largely open-ended. But more research in this vein could help curb our tendency to scapegoat a public school system which, while far from perfect, is not the sole origin of our student's academic failures.

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