What Really Influences the Education of Children?

It appears the bulk (about 60%) of the influence on children’s education does not occur in schools. It occurs elsewhere. Diane Ravitch, in “The Myth of Charter Schools“[1] (New York Review, 11 Nov.  2010), says that, according to studies, “teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes.” She adds, while “teachers are the most important factor within schools,” other factors outside of school have a greater impact on learning.

Ravitch says that, according to economist Dan Goldhaber, “about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. . . . Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”

Thus quality of schools is a low leverage point. Factors outside of schools are the root cause of the problem. Fix them, and the result will feedback to automatically improve performance in schools. This perspective, however, runs against conventional wisdom.

A couple of articles in the New York Times have addressed the issue of blame. Trip Gabriel, in “Parents Embrace Documentary on Pressures of School“[2] (8 Dec. 2010), covers the “Race to Nowhere” and “Waiting for Superman” movies and intuitively tries to find the causes of the problem.

Jeannette Catsoulist, in “The Overscheduled Child“[3] (9 Sep. 2010), covers just the “Race to Nowhere” movie. She says, “The film’s medical professionals share Ms. Abeles’s alarm and her awareness that blame, if it exists, is systemic and with little current incentive to change.” The word “systemic” is the key. It means the whole system, and schools are but a small part of it. Schools are where the symptoms of the rest of the system appear. They are not the primary cause of those symptoms.
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Webcite alternatives:
1. Diane Ravitch.
2. Trip Gabriel.
3. Jeannette Catsoulist.

3 Responses

  1. Everyone has the easy answer, including Diane Ravitch. There’s something to charter schools, although not as much as they’d have you believe. Smaller classes, dedicated teachers and administration, focus on outcome that pervades the institution all help. Nevertheless, even with more money and more hours, they tend just to match the public schools. Some do outperform them. Why?

    The second part about family income being a prime determinant cannot be as important as people believe. Poverty does not, by itself, cause poor educational outcomes. Other factors, often associated with poverty, do, in my personal opinion.

    Why do I have this opinion? I was in a poor family in a small, low-income beach community when I grew up. My father’s weekly paycheck was sometimes zero because he sold cars. When it came time for senior “Bermuda shorts” day, I could not participate because my family could not afford these clothing items. On senior ditch day to Catalina Island, I could not go because my family could not afford the cost. And so it goes. We barely were able to eat for long periods. We had FHB (family hold back) times.

    While not in abject poverty, we were poor.

    Yet, I excelled in school and went from my high school to Caltech, the most exclusive science and engineering school in the country. I graduated and went on to Columbia University, one of the top five graduate schools in chemistry. I was also admitted to Harvard University, also in the top five. I could barely afford to apply to three graduate schools; the other was my “safety.”

    Poverty alone cannot be blamed. “Cultural” issues also contribute. Why do you suppose that many rich children do not excel in school?

    Factors outside of school ARE important. A child arriving at school and believing that school is a waste of time received that viewpoint outside of school. Children who are hungry or tired from inadequate sleep perform poorly.

    A factor that does play out in education these days is the thinning of the so-called middle class. Enormous income disparity, which is increasing rapidly, plays an important role in the problems with education. I won’t go into the details here as they’re fairly obvious.

    Bill Gates thought that smaller schools were the problem and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to prove he was right. To his credit, he admitted his failure. Now, he’s on a crusade to show that the problem is “bad” teachers. It all depends on your definition of “bad.” Adjust the meaning, and you can prove anything. However, the number of “bad” teachers, teachers whose students leave their classes in worse education condition than they entered them, is extremely small.

    In my opinion, the arrogant billionaire strikes out again. Pay for performance will also not work because the really good teachers will not improve if you give them more money (you should anyway), and the truly poor ones also will not get better in order to gain greater income because they cannot. However, higher teacher salaries can help. They can help to attract a better pool of applicants from which to hire those in whom we place the future of our country. They can also help to improve the general opinion of teachers. After all, we have to know that our society approves of those who make more money more greatly than those who contribute the most to it.

    Consider the statistic quoted from a scientific point of view. Beside the obvious problems with making such a measurement, there’s the other problem of cause and effect. In a more perfect world, would that statistic still hold? In other words, were schools as good as they could be, would they be only a 10-20% factor in student success?

    More importantly, are we willing to accept such a small role for schools? They’re very expensive. If they’re so unimportant, why not simply eliminate them? Think hard and deeply on this question.

    If you’re a member of an educational establishment, I ask you if you believe that you can only have a roughly 15% impact on those children you have in your care. if you’re outside of education, I ask if you’re willing to support institutions that do so little.

    I challenge all of you to make our schools more valuable and therefore worthy of our funding and esteem. And do not abandon our country’s commitment to a quality, free public education for all as a fundamental right of every citizen. It’s part of our heritage and our greatness.

  2. […] 29 Dec It appears the bulk (about 60%) of the influence on children's education does not occur in schools. It occurs elsewhere. Diane Ravitch, in "The Myth of Charter Schools"[1] (New York Review, 11 Nov.  2010), says that, according to studies, "teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes." She adds, while "teachers are the most important factor within schools," other factors outside of school have a greater impact o … Read More […]

  3. i do agree with Diane Ravitch when she said that there are non school factors that influence learning , as an example , i am teaching in a class 42 students and only one of them has a dictionary of english this really has a very huge impact on their english learning because most of the reading and homework i gave them neccesitate dictionaries to work with and they would always come to me and say i am sorry sir i couldnt do the homework because i didnt have a dictionary . povery is a very big enemy in learning . thanks for the post i really like it and i ll soon have it as a reference in one of the symposiums i will attend here .

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