The real problem in education: an open letter to Arne Duncan

Michelle Rhee, the head of Washington, D.C., public schools, and most so-called school reformers for the last half century have gotten the headlines in their attempt to fix the schools, but most have been operating with the false assumption that schooling is synonymous with education. Schooling is a part — perhaps a small part — of the totality of education, which includes the family, the peer group, the media, the larger culture and social structure.

About 40 years ago, James S. Coleman published his profound study, "Equality of Educational Opportunity," which concluded that an out-of-school factor, the socioeconomic background of the student, was most predictive of educational achievement. Of the in-school factors, Coleman found that the peer group mix (segregated or desegregated, particularly by social class) was next in importance, followed by the quality of the teacher and then by facilities. There has been no major empirical research to challenge these findings in the past four decades.

It seems fashionable to decry the "failure of American education," but the truth of the matter is that the top half of American students score well when compared to the top half of students from other countries. It is with the lower echelons that our education fails. This "education gap" is the problem, but it is not surprising.

A syllogism: the income or socioeconomic gap in the United States is the greatest in world. School achievement correlates highly with socioeconomic status. Ergo, our education gap is the greatest in the world. But challenging the social class structure by narrowing the gap between rich and poor is not easily done, and socioeconomic desegregation of the schools has little public or legal support. So, of the remaining variables, teaching quality is the easiest and most intuitive to attack. Teachers get a bum rap. To make a real difference we need reform in our culture, society, economy and politics, the matrix within which our schools are embedded.

Of course, there are some palliatives which the schools can undertake. We can improve the buildings. We can upgrade textbooks; perhaps we can buy more computer. We can put our best teachers in the schools that need them the most. We can equalize spending. But more to the point, we need the schools to help improve the families and neighborhoods from which our lower-achieving students come.

We need community schools, schools that address the cultural and vocational needs of parents as well as students, schools that relate to, and enlist the resources of the neighborhood. And in some extreme cases, we need residential schools that remove students from those forces that are not only apathetic to education, but are actually hostile to education.

Lou Goldman has lived in Ashland for eight years after retiring as a professor at Wichita State University in Kansas.

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