We have all heard how our schools are failing our kids. We have heard that we are slipping behind other countries in both math and reading. There are documentaries that say it. There are politicians that say it. There are billionaires that say it. And now, another test says it.
The United States’ ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is 17th in Reading and 30th in math (1). In the minds of most, this means that our kids are falling behind the rest of the world. An American education is not what it once was. Our schools are failing.
A number of reasons have been used to explain these scores varying from extensive classroom diversity to minimal parent involvement, from lack of national standards and testing to poor teacher quality. The critics, including Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education, dismiss excuses and focus on the areas they think they can change, most notably testing and teacher quality (2). They argue that this is a “wake up call” for American education, and that we must fix these schools.
The possible solutions are numerous. More charter schools or voucher systems to get kids into better private schools. Change teacher tenure and knock down the teacher’s unions. Demand higher teacher quality and further training. Mandate teaching programs that show efficacy and replace ones that don’t work. Require longer days, longer school years, and more testing. Smaller class sizes and more individualized tutoring for struggling students. Strive for equality in the classroom.
But ignore what happens outside of it.
The truth of the matter is that some schools in United States still have the highest scores in the world on these tests. In addition, there are many schools in the US that are failing. The breakdown is pretty stark and the implications very important.
In analysis from Dr. Tirozzi, Director of the NASSP, the PISA test results were broken down by the percentage of students who receive free and reduced lunch as a proxy for poverty. The breakdown is listed below (5):
|Free and Reduced Lunch Rate||Math|
|Schools with <10%||551 (1)|
|Schools with <25%||527 (3)|
|Schools with <50%||502 (10)|
|Schools with <75%||471 (Bad)|
|Schools with >75%||446 (Worse)|
|US Average||500 (34)|
So what does this mean? Well, the number in paranthesis is the ranking in the world (4). So schools with less than 1 in 10 or 1 in 4 are still among the best in the world. Even if half the kids are on free and reduced lunch, the US ranks a respectable 10th. But as you can see, if more than half the kids are free and reduced lunch, the scores plummet.
Now perhaps this suggests that these schools are the worst. That the teachers need inspiring (or firing) and that the systems in place are not working. Others argue that these are the areas that need charter schools, new programs, and new leadership. But is it really as simple as that?
What if a kid can’t afford their school supplies? If no one can help with homework, how does that influence their schooling? If a kid is homeless, will that impact his learning? If a child’s brother is sent to jail and they don’t understand why, could this impact her test scores? What if a sibling is killed in a shooting, will this child score well? Sadly, these are just a few of the things that have happened in my wife’s classrooms this year.
How can a teacher or a school over come situations like this?
They can’t if we only focus on what happens at school. All the solutions mentioned above address changes in the classroom. But it seems obvious that what happens outside of school is just as important.
Ask successful charter schools. KIPP requires extensive hours and cooperation from its parents, students, and teachers (6, 7). Ask SEED DC that is a boarding school, ensuring that their kids have a stable, nurturing life outside the classroom (8). Even Harlem Children’s Zone focused on the community surrounding students in addition to the classroom (9) .
So what does this mean for schools like the one my wife teaches in?
It means making sure kids have the supplies they need. It means making sure they are nourished both physically and emotionally. It means support and instruction for their families and their community. It means longer school days and shorter summer breaks.
It means thinking outside the classroom in addition to with in it.