Not by school alone

Focusing on preschool, health services and after-school programs is a “broader, bolder approach to education,” says a new task force.

Despite the impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can close these gaps in a substantial, consistent, and sustainable manner.

Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement.

There is? I’ve seen many programs tried without lasting success. Social programs can do little about incompetent, inconsistent parenting.

Eduwonkette backs the “broader, bolder” manifesto.

Eduwonk calls it That 70s Show.

I’m all for many of the proposals it champions, better access to health care and other social services, better access to pre-kindergarten education for low-income kids, using time more effectively …. those are all vitally important.

But, the conspicuous soft-pedaling of a focus on results and the explicit rejection that perhaps schools are even a substantial part of the educational problem is unsettling. It’s as though the debates and progress of the last 25 years didn’t happen at all.

. . . We do know that a lot of the “gap” exists before kids come to school, but we also know that schools then exacerbate it because of a host of policies.

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli also thinks the manifesto is “squishy” on accountability. It also puts a lot of eggs in the preschool basket:

. . . we don’t have any experience bringing high-quality preschool to scale, just like we don’t have any experience bringing “no excuses” schools to scale . . .

And finally, while it’s fair to say that “schools alone” can’t solve all these social problems, we shouldn’t pretend that most schools are coming anywhere close to doing all they could be doing to narrow achievement gaps. As long as the vast majority of inner-city schools, in particular, use watered-down curricula, hire inadequate teachers, and refuse to create a culture of high expectations, then we won’t know just how much “schools alone” could do.

Indeed. Resources are limited: I think providing quality K-12 schools for poor kids is job one; this includes a longer school day and year, making after-school programs and summer school less important. Providing quality preschool is job two. Better health care for poor kids is good in itself but not going to close the achievement gap.

I’d also like to see a privately funded campaign that promotes good parenting: how to help your child develop language and reading skills and how to teach good behavior, for example.

About Joanne


  1. “I think providing quality K-12 schools for poor kids is job one; this includes a longer school day and year, making after-school programs and summer school less important.”

    Joanne, I admire your blog, but I completely disagree with the idea that a longer school day and year are important answers to our problems in schools where kids aren’t learning. My experience has been that the major reason for low achievement is poor effort by the students themselves–for whatever reason–or students who are willing to try being placed in classes with other students who won’t try or won’t behave. Kids who want to learn and are placed in environments where learning can take place might learn more with longer school days and years, but I doubt very much that the kids you’re talking about would gain anything.

  2. I also have to strongly disagree about the longer school day. First, it is punishing to the students who don’t need a longer school day, keeping them from doing all the after school “kid stuff” that makes them a well-rounded human being. We do enough of that with too much homework already. Second, Mr. Fermoyle makes a good point. Many underachievers either don’t care to try or won’t behave, or they have inattention issues that would only be exacerbated by a longer day.

    I would be all for an extended day for ELD students, required until they are redesignated. This would be a great help to them AND to the non-ELD students in my classroom, who have time taken away from their learning (oh–that’s right–they can just do “independent work” while I teach someone else) while I spend 30-60 minutes a day doing state mandated time with my ELD students.

  3. Tracy W says:

    My experience has been that the major reason for low achievement is poor effort by the students themselves–for whatever reason–or students who are willing to try being placed in classes with other students who won’t try or won’t behave.

    Denis – check out the results from the Direct Instruction curriculum at Project Followthrough. By starting at the start of school, they managed to create kids who were willing to put in effort (or perhaps, they managed to stop from creating kids who only put in poor effort). The central ideas were:
    – teaching the kids in such a way that every kid would succeed in learning. So kids had the experience that they could succeed at school. Consider what happens to a kid who fails to learn to read, due to poor instructional technique. Reading is vital to school success, so the kid who can’t read is failing at everything academic. They mentally have about three options, decide that they’re stupid, decide that school’s stupid, or keep trying regardless. How many are going to pick to keep trying regardless?
    – ample use of praise and other positive rewards.
    – various psychological tricks on the tough cases, such as the Teacher-Me game, where the teacher sets up games by which if the kids don’t do the work, the teacher “wins”, and the teacher therefore gets to eat lollies in front of them, with great indications of delight. The teacher then “sulks” when the kids do the work, and having established his/her state as a bad loser, is well prepared to change the rules of the game to tougher ones.

  4. I’m agnostic on longer school hours. In principle, it’s fine. But if it’s just more of the stuff that’s not working from 8 until 3, it’s a waste of time. I’d like to see afterschool time devoted to all those things that don’t work — ability grouping, direct instruction, a content-driven curriculum — not just more test prep.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    “Social programs can do little about incompetent, inconsistent parenting.”

    I more than suspect that this is untrue. Beginning with the success of visiting nurse programs, there is some track record of success at impacting the competence of parenting. But I would primarily assert that “incompetent, inconsistent parenting,” is over-assumed to be the problem for schools who are doing poorly. When the primary vantage point is the school and the indicators of competent and consistent parenting are who shows up for conferences (or who provides kids ready-made to the school’s specifications), the definition of good parenting can get a little self-serving.

    I am deeply envious of the Finnish school system, where social systems of support are more available and where there is a high degree of coordination between education and other health and welfare providers. I don’t see that coming down our road any time soon. But I would assert that what we can do, that we are not doing as a general rule, is to build networks of communication, coordination and collaboration between systems of education and the existing systems of mental and physical health, public housing, recreation, child care.

    It wouldn’t hurt for school employees to spend some time on a regular basis in the neighborhoods where they work. It would definitely be beneficial for the mental health workers assigned to “fix” the problem children to be well-versed in the in-school and in-class conditions that their clients deal with on a daily basis.

    None of this negates, however, the need to continue (or start) to focus on the teaching that goes on in the building and why it isn’t meeting the needs of so many. To conclude, as Dennis (and other) have that the problem is that the kids just don’t want to be educated is an adult cop-out of the highest order.

  6. Tracy, I won’t argue with you. I’m a high school teacher, so I feel much more confident talking about what happens there than what happens in those very important early years, but it sure sounds to me like DI is a valid program. What you are talking about really addresses one of those central problems–kids who won’t try. Longer school days or years won’t to do that.

  7. SuperSub says:

    The best thing that the government could do to improve urban school performance would be to strictly limit public entitlements.
    I have taught in low-income urban schools the past four years in four different impoverished cities and have seen little desire by students or their parents to “get out” of the city, which was a large motivator for individuals in the past.

  8. Margo/Mom says:


    I don’t know where you have been for the last couple decades, but “public entitlements” have been severely limited. Perhaps you don’t recall the three year life-time time limit, work requirements and other changes to “welfare as we know it.” I taught GED classes during the era of reform–things were hopping for a few years as recipients were required to go to school in order to get check. Then they cut out the ed requirement and just required people to work.

    But since when is the aim of education to make people want to leave home and go somewhere else?

  9. SuperSub says:

    The aim of education is not to make them want to leave home, but to improve upon themselves and provide an avenue of opportunity, which is almost impossible to find in most cities.

    While I don’t have the experience of the last couple decades (if you don’t count the time I spent in diapers or playing with GI Joes), I do know from my own observations and those of my fiancee (who works in health care) that there is plenty of taxpayer money for those who have little.

    Earlier this year a 14 year old 7th grader told me during a budgeting exercise in Home and Careers that he did not have to budget for food because of food stamps and that he only had to budget a little for housing because of reduced-rent programs. Of course, he had a $200 clothing budget so he could buy new sneakers each month. Another student pointed out that they did not need to budget for health insurance either. I do understand that teens don’t have the most accurate understanding of reality, but they did get the message from somewhere, and that message is that the taxpayers will cover the basic necessities for their lives.

    It may be harder now to access public entitlements, but there still seem to be plenty of people who do use them long-term.


  1. […] other hand offers “big props” and provides a link for others to sign the statement.  Joanne Jacobs plays it down the middle, but wants to see a “privately funded campaign that promotes good […]