‘Excessive focus’ on schools actually ‘hurts’ children

By Around the Web


[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Education.]

By Katharine B. Stevens
Real Clear Education

As thousands of schools across the country continue operating only virtually, at best, experts warn that children who were already struggling are falling further and further behind. A growing number of reports predict a devastating impact on disadvantaged children’s achievement, urging a range of ways schools can help them catch up.

The problem is even worse than it might seem, though. Pre-COVID schools have long failed low-income children. It’s unlikely post-COVID schools will do any better.

Indeed, we’ve long been expecting public schooling to accomplish what it cannot. As I show in a new report — “Still left behind: How America’s schools keep failing our children” — chronically low achievement and persistently wide gaps have characterized the nation’s public schools for decades, despite a half century of reform and dramatically increased spending.

It was just 55 years ago that President Lyndon B. Johnson advocated a then-unprecedented function for schools, proposing they serve as the means for breaking the cycle of poverty and bettering poor children’s lives. “Education is the only valid passport from poverty,” he maintained. “Universal, free, public education is the very foundation upon which our entire society rests today.” In 1965, he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law as a cornerstone of his War on Poverty legislation, describing it as “the core of all our hopes for a Great Society.”

The ESEA established a new purpose for K–12 schooling, accompanied by an unprecedented federal role in its funding and delivery. For the first time in US history, it called for schools to close gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children giving every child an equal start regardless of family income and ZIP code.

Since the passage of the ESEA over a half century ago, public schools have assumed an increasingly prominent role in US domestic policy. K–12 schooling now constitutes the nation’s core strategy for promoting social and economic mobility across generations and accounts for a major proportion of human capital development spending, especially at state and local levels. “The most striking aspect of educational expenditure,” Daniel P. Moynihan observed in 1972, “is how large it has become.” But per-student spending only continued to rise after 1972 — more than doubling in 31 states and more than tripling in 14 states and the District of Columbia by 2017, in inflation-adjusted dollars. K–12 schools are now states’ single-largest general-fund expenditure, consuming an average of more than one-third of state general funds. Sixteen states spend 40 percent or more of their general funds on the public schools. Total annual public spending on elementary and secondary education has reached over $700 billion nationally.

Throughout these decades of rising investment, big concerns about disadvantaged children’s low achievement and wide achievement gaps have persisted. Multiple reform efforts, led by multiple US presidents, finally culminated in No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), described as “the most sweeping education-reform legislation” since the ESEA. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed NCLB into law. “Today begins a new era” he declared, “As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results.”

Yet 15 years later, those results remained terrible for the very children so long targeted by reform. In 2017, my report documents, large proportions of lower-income eighth graders across all states failed to demonstrate even minimum levels of competence in reading and math, after years spent in school. In reading, the percentage of lower-income eighth graders scoring below the lowest level of Basic on the widely respected National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) ranged from 27 percent in Indiana to over one half in the District of Columbia. In math, that percentage ranged from 32 percent in Wyoming to 58 percent in Alabama and the District of Columbia.

Income-based achievement gaps also remained huge. Gaps in the percentage of lower- and higher-income children scoring below NAEP Basic in reading ranged from a 14-point gap in Delaware, Idaho, and Montana to a 30-point gap in Alabama, Mississippi, and Rhode Island to a 36-point gap in the District of Columbia. In math, that gap ranged from 17 points in Hawaii to 35 points in Ohio to 41 points in the District of Columbia. States’ per-student spending did not correlate closely with either achievement outcomes or gaps.

Fifty-five years after President Johnson signed the ESEA into law and almost two decades since President Bush launched the nation’s most far-reaching school reform initiative, the net outcomes of schools remain disturbingly poor for substantial proportions of children — falling far short of what a half century of reformers have hoped for. Despite decades of heavy investment aimed to improve the achievement of disadvantaged children, large percentages of lower-income children are still poorly educated and unprepared for college or the workplace. It’s become increasingly clear that K–12 schooling has largely failed as our nation’s primary engine of opportunity and human capital development.

Good schools do matter to children’s success: They’re a “vital and essential piece of the continuum of you trying to become who you should be,” as Derrell Bradford put it recently. But a growing body of science has established that the crucial foundation for achievement, in school and beyond, is laid in children’s earliest years, long before they enter kindergarten. Families are by far the most potent influence in children’s lives. And, as Terry Moe argues, powerful, vested interests in public schooling have gradually emerged, now forcefully preserving the system’s status quo. As a result, the effects of even major reform — like the “watershed event” of NCLB — will inevitably be weak and incremental, with “little impact on the system’s basic structure.”

Over a half century of history tells us the public schools cannot fulfill the role we’ve long been wishing they would. They couldn’t before COVID. They won’t be able to after COVID, either. And our excessive focus on schooling — rather than the non-school environments that most powerfully shape children’s lives — continues to hurt the very children we are trying so hard to help.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Education.]

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