Chicken? Egg?

At the very least, it has to be in the top five least surprising headlines for any experienced classroom teacher: “Home Life Influences School Performance.” Yet the idea that students’ lives outside of school are decisive parts of their school performance has had a surprisingly contentious history. This week we see a renewed interest in the interaction between educational performance and alleviation of poverty.chicken and egg

As I’m finding in the research for my new book, Americans have long assumed that improving schools would simply and quickly eradicate poverty. In the early 1800s, school-reform celebrity Joseph Lancaster promised that he could eradicate poverty with his simplistic school plan. His fans believed him. For example, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton lauded the Lancasterian reform

as creating a new aera [sic] in education, as a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distressed of this world from the power and dominion of ignorance.

Or, as the New York Free School Society wrote in 1814, thanks to the “Lancasterian system of education,”

the darkness, which has overshadowed the minds of the poor, will gradually disappear.

The assumption that better schools could “fix” poverty has been so strong that a fifty-year old sociological report on the subject remains controversial. As historian Leah Gordon has noted, the Coleman Report of 1966 suggested, in part, that changes in schooling could do little to improve students’ lives.

As James Coleman wrote,

For most minority groups, then, and most particularly the Negro, schools provide little opportunity for them to overcome this initial deficiency; in fact they fall farther behind the white majority in the development of several skills which are critical to making a living and participating fully in modern society. Whatever may be the combination of nonschool factors poverty, community attitudes, low educational level of parents-which put minority children at a disadvantage in verbal and nonverbal skills when they enter the first grade, the fact is the schools have not over-come it.

Coleman’s work was controversial at the time and it remains so. Can it really be true that schools don’t hold the golden ticket to economic mobility? That making schools better isn’t the first and best way to help people improve their lives, economically?

Or, as Coleman suggested, was the key to improving lives and increasing equality to be found outside of school, in factors such as family income, family education levels, and other non-school factors?

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This just in: Benefits for students benefit students.

Writing in Chalkbeat recently, Matt Barnum reviewed studies of the relationship between improving students’ living conditions outside of school and those students’ educational achievement. Not surprisingly, when students had better home conditions, their school performance improved. As Barnum wrote,

A large and growing body of research . . . [shows] not only that poverty hurts students in school, but that specific anti-poverty programs can counteract that harm. These programs — or other methods of increasing family income — boost students’ test scores, make them more likely to finish high school, and raise their chances of enrolling in college.

Seems obvious, right? As every teacher knows, though, it really isn’t only one thing or another. In order for students to thrive in both school and life, it makes the most sense to improve everything at once.

If we want students to do better in life, we should work to improve schools. And if we want students to do better in school, we should work to improve their lives.

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2 Comments

  1. Chicken? Egg? | MemePosts
  2. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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