'Education Does Not Begin Or End At The Schoolhouse Door'

Wednesday, March 10, 2010
A lot of us in education policy get lost within our own locus of control. In my case, it's all about teachers. After all, teacher quality is the strongest school-based indicator impacting student outcomes.

Sounds good, right? Yes, and no.

While it is inevitable that one focuses on what one can control professionally, it is important to have a sense of the bigger picture. That goes for us in education. After all, research has shown that the influence of schools on student outcomes pale in comparison to family and social factors outside of schools' direct control -- especially, but not only, in the early years of childhood. So while it is critical that we concentrate education policy efforts around attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, we also must attend to a variety of factors outside of schools that impact students' ability to learn and succeed.

This report (Promoting A Comprehensive Approach to Educational Opportunity) from Cross & Joftus, funded by the Mott Foundation, provides an important reality check to our typical tunnel vision. It also provides a series of recommendations to better coordinate a largely fragmented web of federal programs focused on children. It reminds policymakers and high-level government managers -- who have responsibility for interdisciplinary public policies -- that they need to think holistically and work in concert.

There are existing organizations and movements afoot -- Broader, Bolder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Coordinated School Health Program, the Coalition for Community Schools, National Assembly on School-based Health Care, The Rural School and Community Trust, come to mind -- that take such a broader view of education and what it takes to fuel student success.

Some excerpts from the Cross & Joftus report:
The dominant assumption of American educational policy is that schools, by themselves, can fully overcome the impact of social and economic disadvantage on children’s development into thriving citizens.

The ... No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ... perpetuated and gave further credence to the assumption that schools could fully mitigate the impact of low socioeconomic status on students’ achievement and that schools were also the chief cause of poor performance.

First, since at least 2000, there has been a broad scientific consensus that “virtually every aspect of early human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years.” As James Heckman, a Nobel Prize economist, wrote, “Life cycle skill formation is a dynamic process in which early
inputs strongly affect the productivity of later inputs [especially schools]. Put another way, “education” does not begin or end at the schoolhouse door, and the “education” that children receive before they enter school significantly affects their success after they go through that door.

Second, the evidence does not support the view that the substantial gap closing that had occurred by the mid-1980s was entirely the result of schools, though schools did indeed contribute.

Third, despite the ongoing debate about whether or not schools alone can level the education playing field, the federal government has long been engaged in a schools-plus approach.
Read Deb Viadero's blog post at Inside School Research on the study as well.

Image courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension