DETERMINING WHAT NEEDS to be done about primary and secondary education depends on your vision of how it is produced. Education outcomes depend at least upon two important variables: the home and the school. But these two variables are related to one another in a critical fashion, and the assumptions made about that relationship are crucial to policy.
One assumption is that educational achievement depends on what happens in the home plus (and the plus is very important) what happens in school. Therefore, if the home environment is poor and not conducive to educational achievement, it can be offset by putting more resources into the school.
This additive relationship has been the ruling assumption for the past several decades. The nation has been trying to improve education by dumping billions of dollars into schools, equipment, books and teachers with little to show for it.
Another assumption is that educational achievement depends on a multiplicative relationship between the home and school. That is, educational achievement depends upon what happens in the home times (and the times is very important) what happens in school. In that case, if the home environment is worth zero, no matter what resources we put into schools there’s going to be disappointing results. That’s because zero times anything of any magnitude equals zero.
Considerable evidence suggests a multiplicative relationship. Children who tend to do well in school generally come from two-parent families. Their parents ensure that homework is done and educational material is in the home. They’re lectured about school behavior and punished when necessary. Parents make sure they attend school every day and on time. Parents respond to school notices and grades. And, they make sure their kids go to bed at a reasonable hour.
A good home environment is vital to getting a good education. The measures that parents take to create a good home environment cannot be done by government or educators. If what only parents can do is not done, education results will always be disappointing. If you accept this vital multiplicative relationship between the home environment and the school, what are the policy recommendations?
Even in the rottenest of schools, there are some kids whose parents provide a good or marginally good home environment. However, these kids might not achieve anywhere near their academic potential because of the presence of other kids from poor home environments. School administrators cannot prevent these kids from bringing the education process to a virtual halt. Instead of teachers teaching, they spend most of their class time on discipline, trying to motivate hostile and alien minds and vainly attempting to help chronic truants to catch up.
The education establishment and the civil-rights establishment seem to have the attitude that no kids shall be educated well until it is possible for all kids to be educated well. That’s what’s implied in their argument against school vouchers and tuition tax credits, when they say, “We shouldn’t abandon public schools!”
But there’s a bit of hypocrisy in that message, since public-school teachers send their own children to private schools at a much greater rate than the general population. Black teachers nationally are 50 percent more likely than black parents in general to use private schools.
You tell me what’s compassionate about condemning kids, whose parents try to create a good home environment, to unsafe and poor-quality schools. We ought to set as our education priority the provision of high-quality education to kids who are ready and able to use it.