Executive Perspective

It Takes a Village To Raise Achievement

by Paul D. Houston

Irealize the longer I live in Washington, D.C., the less difference I see between the political parties. What appear to be great gulfs to most of America are small creeks inside the Beltway. There are several reasons for this. First, differences are exaggerated because folks want to create a reason for people to vote for their party or candidate and against their opposition. Second, no one really has the answers to the tough problems facing America. If they did, those problems would have been solved, so instead people exaggerate small answers into big-time solutions.

Finally, most of the answers available are pretty much in the center of the political spectrum and therefore open season for everyone to claim.

Similar Mottos
Education is one of those mainstream topics. Watching the current administration and the last one in action makes the point. To date, I see few differences. Sure, there is the issue of vouchers here and class size there, but the basic policy pronouncements are similar. More accountability and more testing.

 

The former first lady adopted the proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." The current White House wants to "Leave no child behind." The irony of this administration's motto is that it has been the motto of Marion Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund for years—an organization for which Hillary Clinton served as legal counsel and as a board member.

The reality is that the current administration is right—no child should be left behind. For that to become reality more than calls for accountability and testing in schools will be required. The last administration was also right—the village will have to be brought into the fray.

One of the most insightful writers on education today is Richard Rothstein, who serves as a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute and as a weekly columnist for The New York Times. In a study he conducted last year, Rothstein turned the voucher argument upside down. He pointed out that middle-class parents always have had the power to choose which school their children would attend—an argument used by voucher proponents. Rothstein says that the real solution is to give poor people the power to choose where to live. And that's where the village argument comes to the front.

The reality is that the quality of schools has been and continues to be tied very tightly to the level of wealth or poverty of the children the school serves. The greatest variable for SAT scores has been family income. The secret for raising SAT scores is to get your children born into wealthier families—or to attend schools where lots of other kids had that advantage. This is not an issue of genetics—it is an issue of advantage and available social capital.

Rothstein argues that families, communities, peer groups, culture, economic markets and schools are all educational institutions. Changes in any of these can affect student performance. The report written by Rothstein called "Improving Educational Achievement" argues that "most analyses today conclude that 75 percent of the variation in student achievement is attributable to student social and economic characteristics. … An assumption that schools are the primary institutional influence, with others acting only as school modifiers, is without theoretical basis."

Poverty and Privilege
No one is arguing that schools don't have a role and that more resources will not help. But it should be clear to anyone that to make a difference in the lives of children, more than a focus on schools will be required. The current administration's discussion on strengthening Head Start is the kind of worthy first step that must be considered.

 

No one is arguing that responsible assessment should not be a part of an educational improvement strategy. And holding schools and others accountable for their part of the solution is sound both intellectually and morally. Schools that fail children or that discriminate against children should be radically altered.

Schools must focus on knowing which children are being left behind. That means the assessments we have must be disaggregated by race and social class so we know who is being underserved. Schools also must work hard to connect learning to students in meaningful and engaging ways. And interventions must be made to alter the trajectory of students' lives when we find they are not on a successful path. Summer school, afterschool and intensive tutorial programs must be tried. And we have to use the research on what works.

But if we are to truly be a nation where the children of poverty are able to run alongside the children of privilege, then a total strategy and a commitment by all is needed. The village must be galvanized to action. Merely letting some children escape a school that has failed to overcome the 75 percent of non-school issues doesn't seem to be a sound strategy. Engaging the village in a rededication to other people's children might be a better way.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org