Why Educational Policies Fail:  The Elephant in the Family Room

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/05/03/why-educational-policies-fail-the-elephant-in-the-family-room/

It’s so huge that most of those in the position of making education policy want to pretend the elephant isn’t there. The problem to be solved in their eyes is not why increasing federal and state funds targeted to low-performing schools and students over 50 years has been generally ineffective, but how our educational institutions for K-12 can address low achievement despite the fact that the various education interventions, strategies, policies, and regulations that policy makers in the U.S. Department of Education have imposed have mostly failed to move the needle. Might other agencies do better? We need to task agencies that don’t assume that classroom teachers are the source of unequal educational outcomes.  

While it is readily acknowledged (and shown in many studies) that low-performing groups begin their school experiences in preschool or kindergarten with fewer language skills than other groups – one example:  a smaller vocabulary — it is unacceptable to policy makers that teachers and schools don’t equalize group achievement after six to 12 years of schooling. Someone or something must be held accountable for what is claimed as the failure of public education to produce similar academic results across groups. The most obvious candidates have been hapless classroom teachers.

Current policy makers also want us to believe that gap-closing (not strengthening public education for all students, especially children of low-income families) was the central goal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act when it was first authorized in 1965. To promote this notion, unknown writers of the 1,000-page bill made gap-closing the explicit goal of the 2015 re-authorization of the original act, called the Every Student Succeeds Act. In turn, that led state departments of education (responsible for coming up with four-year state education plans in each state) to believe that similar percentages in every currently defined demographic group should go to college. But what if similar proportions of kids in all these demographic groups can’t do the kind of reading and writing that college work requires (or don’t want to do it)?  We know that all currently defined demographic groups do not emerge from our (or any) system of public education with similar patterns of academic achievement, ambition, and interests. Some groups do better percentage-wise than others (e.g., Asian-Americans, girls) despite their unique histories of discrimination in this country. How did all classroom teachers get to be the fall-guys?

Instead of torturing teachers and school administrators with more useless regulations and policies, education policy makers could at least try to address the central finding of the 1966 Coleman Report.  James Coleman, a sociologist, was commissioned to examine what become the title of his report: “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” He and his colleagues concluded from all the data they gathered and analyzed that families matter more than teachers in their influence on school achievement. Teachers in general don’t cause low achievement.

Beginning with the efforts of education researchers themselves, we find references to the Coleman Report and its central findings suggesting that many researchers do not understand the thrust of the report. Researchers’ goal in 2018 is still to figure out educational interventions that would produce “equality of outcomes” even if they can’t point to one large-scale educational intervention that has done so. Education researchers seem to be stuck in a rut.  

In many ways, children are the victims of indifference or cowardice on the part of Congress or civil rights organizations. So little research (comparatively speaking) has been done to explore the possibility that massive adolescent under-achievement reflects influences outside of our schools.

Some get it. An article on the Brookings Institution website in September 2014 examines the advantages students whose parents are married to each other and living together have, a point relevant to the Coleman Report. In an article this past March on the National Pulse web site, the author discusses the bad effects on students with missing fathers, which also highlights the central finding of the Coleman Report.

Not only is there research pointing to the role of parenting on children’s well-being and future academic achievement, there is also research attesting to the importance of a mother’s literacy skills. The importance of a mother’s literacy skills has been known for decades. It is therefore not at all clear why members of Congress and presidents have assumed that the only or best federal agency to address this influence on children’s academic achievement is the U.S. Department of Education.

The U.S. Maternal and Child Health Bureau, for example, might have chalked up a better record improving the academic record of low-achieving children in American families than has the U.S. Department of Education if it had been tasked by Congress to improve maternal skills in reading and writing and given similar funding. Families are in fact one of the areas of interest of this Health Bureau. There may be many other entities, private or public, state or federal, that could have been more effective than the federal education department has been. We just don’t know, because Congress and most foundations have assumed that educational wisdom could be found only in the federal government’s massive education bureaucracy despite the lack of evidence to support that assumption.

The Coleman Report implied where policy making might take place (in state or federal agencies focused on the family), but there has been little if any public discussion of why most if not all federal funding for “disadvantaged” students should go to an agency that does not focus on the family. Worse yet, funding has continued to go to the federal Department of Education despite its poor showing for all the federal money it was given to distribute to the states and local school districts.

The federal Race to the Top grant competition tried to stimulate competition among state departments of education to evaluate teachers and commit their state to participate in statewide tests (based on Common Core’s inferior standards), as if teachers, in general, were the problem, and as if these state departments of education, in general, were staffed by people who had effectively addressed low achievement.

Neither is true. Maybe we need a little competition among federal and state agencies to find those that could come up with programs that visibly improve the educational outcomes of low achievers. It’s time for self-appointed policy analysts to examine why federal or state programs designed to achieve equality of educational outcomes have not worked and what the elephant in the room is.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.