Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 3)

With Part 3, readers have now seen most of the draft Introduction to my next book. Comments welcomed. For those readers wanting citations, please contact me.

Perverse outcomes of school reforms

Consider the massive effort by civil rights reformers to desegregate schools between the 1960s and 1980s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954).

Where students went to school in the U.S. depended upon where families lived.  In most cities and suburbs neighborhood were segregated producing schools that were nearly all-white, Black or Latino. Activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and legal strategies to get urban and suburban districts to desegregate through busing, building schools that straddled city and county attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn.

Nonetheless, each generation of reformers believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success.  Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic slowdowns.

Migration of white, Black, and Latino families moving in and out of urban residential areas where racial covenants and banking practices kept neighborhoods segregated, leading to re-segregated schools where mostly minority children enrolled—often coming from families in poverty.  Suburban schools often became white enclaves. The unintended effect of direct actions and court-driven desegregation decisions, then, was to speed up re-segregation of poor and minority students by the 1990s.  Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children.

Or consider that one of the intended effects in the 1980s and 1990s of raising state high school graduation requirements, strengthening curriculum standards, using tests to determine how well students achieved those standards, and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for student academic outcomes—all policies aimed at tying schools closer to the nation’s economy–would have dire effects upon U.S. schools and students. Recall that state and local reform-minded policymakers and political leaders cheered the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2002-2015) containing many of these features because reformers believed that such policies would help students and forge tighter links between schools and the economy.

The documented record, however, is mixed as to whether those reforms, including NCLB, aimed at producing skilled graduates who could enter an information-driven workplace achieved the intended goals. Yes, high school graduation rates have risen. And, yes, percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased. But test score gains sufficient to close the achievement gap between minorities and whites had not improved. Nor is there much evidence that graduates were better prepared to enter the workplace than an earlier generation.  Furthermore, the promise that higher standards and accountability would alter historic inequalities between minorities and whites remained unfulfilled. Unemployment and wages for African Americans remained largely unequal and stagnant during economic growth and recessions.

Few reformers, for example, thought that NCLB with its mandated state tests and its required reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores would push state and local policymakers to manipulate student results. State officials fiddled with numbers setting the threshold for a passing score on its tests to avoid many schools being tagged as “failing.” Additionally, many districts across the nation pressed teachers to taper their lessons to fit what was on these state tests. Schools set aside school time to prepare students for end-of-year exams. These unintended outcomes became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.

Even worse in the wake of NCLB, many urban and suburban districts found that their schools had failed to meet the law’s criteria for improvement. States published districts’ test scores and districts announced school-by-school scores identifying those schools that were in danger of closing if results didn’t improve.  Each year, shame and blame exponentially spread across the U.S. as more schools flunked NCLB requirements.  Local and state officials complained annually about the unfairness of such measures applied without acknowledging demographic differences in districts and schools. They lobbied their legislators to alter the federal law. The deluge of complaints and meager student outcomes led the U.S. Congress to dump NCLB and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act delegating the power to determine school success and failure to each state. President Barak Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015.  In effect, the 2002 reform was re-formed in 2015.

None of this, of course, is new. Policy researchers and historians are well aware of how hard it is to show unvarnished success of reform-driven policies over time in districts and schools. They are equally aware of how commonly unexpected outcomes accompany these very same policies. Nor is it new that these unanticipated outcomes seldom loosened decision-makers’ embrace of reform-driven policies simply because of the pervasive faith that Americans had in the power of schooling to uplift those who historically have done poorly in public schools—immigrants, rural migrants, and low-income children of color.

Rock-hard Faith in Schooling

Recall that industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed the Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in 1905 and funded the construction and maintenance of nearly 1700 free libraries across the country between 1883-1929.

Also President Lyndon Johnson had as the centerpiece of his “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) that provided billions of dollars to poor and minority children then called “disadvantaged.”

And it is precisely on this point of faith about the curative powers of schooling that one pillar of that belief has wobbled and remains contested in 2021 even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.  For many decades there has been an enduring struggle among educators, parents, policymakers, and public officials over how much students’ backgrounds shape school effects.

For true believers, schooling improves everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way. Consider, for example, that the majority of urban districts in the U.S. now house mostly minority and poor children. More than half of African American children and six out of ten Hispanic children and youth attended schools in 2017 that were at least 75 percent minority.  Most of these schools are located in urban districts and historically segregated southern rural districts. Note further than in 2013 researchers found that over half of U.S students are poor.

Moreover, the research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.

Yet many educators in public traditional and charter schools in poor neighborhoods either ignore or dispute those research findings. They continue to operate on the principle that engaged and committed staff unaccepting of  “excuses” (e.g., low-income family, all minority enrollment, neighborhood crime) could lift students out of poverty through helping them become academic achievers, entering college, and securing well-paid jobs. Evidence of such outcomes is both available and rich.

The issue, then, for those policymakers, practitioners, and parents, then, is determining to what degree family background and ethnic/racial school demography affect student achievement. For those willing to seek answers to that has to digest a large body of evidence of schools graduating low-income minority students who enter higher education. Hovering over all of this point-counterpoint argument is another discomforting and inescapable fact:  Formal  schooling  occupies only a small portion of a child’s day.

Consider that children and youth attend public schools about 1100 hours a year for 13 years (or just under 15,000 hours.  That time represents less than 20 percent of a child’s and teenagers waking time for all of those years in school.  Hence, most of student’s time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and workplace. Important as time spent in school is economically and socially in accumulating content and hard- and soft-skills, diplomas and degrees for jobs and careers, it is often given far more weight—recall the basic faith that Americans have in the power of schooling–than life lived outside of school in assessing not only how a child becomes an adult but also what kind of adult.

So two fundamental questions past generations of reformers in these three movements neglected, sometimes considered, but seldom wrestled with publicly are about the complex intersecting of individuals, schools, and society. These questions remain unanswered for contemporary crusaders:

*How much of a child’s academic success or failure in school is due to family background?

* Can schools, reflecting the larger society’s faith in perfecting individuals and institutions, not only alter the effects of family background but also reform society?


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Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

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