Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Screen Doors and Schools

Yesterday was a big day for education in the New York City papers. First, the Daily News discovered the achievement gap. (I told you it was a big day.) They found that schools receiving D's and F's on the DOE-issued report cards tended to have a higher percentage of minority students (particularly black and Latino) than schools receiving better grades. Given that these grades are based largely on achievement on standardized test scores, it's hard to see that this report shocked too many people. Still, the headline ("Bad New York City Schools trap many minorities, study says") provides a nice implicit argument for charter schools and voucher programs. Not that the News would seek to inject their opinion or anything.

The bigger and more interesting news of the day was reported in the New York Times. According to a newly released study, New York City children who live in public housing perform worse in school than their peers who do not live in public housing. On the surface, this is another not terribly surprising statistic given that public housing in the city goes predominantly to low-income minorities. We know from reading the Daily News that this demographic doesn't do as well on standardized tests. What's interesting about the study reported in the Times is that kids in public housing perform worse in school, even compared to students at the same school who share similar demographic factors like race, gender, and poverty. That's a hugely important point. It's not just that the kids in public housing tend to share the traits that we know are indicators of the achievement gap. There is something about living in public housing itself that depresses school achievement even farther.

The authors of the study very professionally refuse to speculate as to what about living in public housing has this negative impact on school achievement. In their words, "We don’t have the data that would enable us to pin it down."

However, the inescapable conclusion is that homelife matters; it has an impact on a child's success at school. To my mind, this has to be a major focus of any real efforts to reform public education. We can't focus just on schools because there are so many factors beyond the schools that impact a child's ability to learn and succeed. As I have been told and say repeatedly, trying to fix education by focusing entirely on schools is like trying to clean the air on only one side of a screen door. Certainly, the schools are important and that's where we can and should focus resources and energy. However, it cannot be our only focus. This study shows us that there's more to schooling than school.

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