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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 09/20/2012

Why the ‘rithmetic of school reform doesn’t add up

Sometimes things about school reform just don’t add up. Here, Larry Lee, the former director of the Center for Rural Alabama who coordinated the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, tries to do the math. He can be reached at larrylee33@knology.net

By Larry Lee

 While I’m passionate about K-12 education, the fact that I’ve never been an educator no doubt allows me a different perspective than someone with years of on-the-ground education experience.

 For one thing, a broader view is possible.  In other words, you can see the forest without the trees getting in the way.


(Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Which is why I’ve often wondered why we expect schools and teachers to solve ills over which they have no control. It’s like blaming little Johnny’s math teacher for his inability to swim.

 President Clinton told the Democratic National Convention recently that we need to use “rithmetic” more often.  So I did and here’s what I learned.

There are 8,760 hours in one year.  Here in Alabama we require that a student spend 1,080 of those hours in school.  That’s 12 percent in school and 88 percent out of school.

This is what I call LEE'S LAW OF 88 DASH 12.

 Here’s how it works. 

Anyone who looks at me can tell I need to lose some weight.  So you tell me that you've learned how to cook some really nutritious and very weight conscious meals and I agree that I will let you cook for me and will pay you $100 for every pound I lose.

But I’m only going to eat 2 ½ meals (12 percent) a week with you.  Will you get much of my money?

 This is what we're doing with education — pretending that the hours students spend in school — about 12 percent of their year — are the only thing that matter in academic achievement. Too many reformers ignore the outside influences on children during the other 88 percent of their year.

 Which is why I found a book that was published back in 1997, Beyond the Classroom, Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, of great interest. What it says still matters today — especially in an era when modern school reformers insist that great teaching can overcome outside influences that affect young children and their ability do focus on school work.

Written by Dr. Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, this book is a recap of a research project that collected data from 20,000 high school students over three school years. 

While the majority of students completed questionnaires, researchers completed 600 one on one interviews with students and 500 one-on-one interviews with parents.  Students attended nine different high schools in Wisconsin and northern California.  Researchers took great care to sample a range of different socioeconomic brackets, ethnic background and family structures.

 The purpose of the research was to try and figure out why so many teenagers — and their parents — are disengaged from the education process. 

As stated in Chapter One: 

Given the vast amount of previous research that had already been conducted on effective schools and classrooms — and the absence of any consistently encouraging findings showing that reforming schools or classrooms makes much of a difference in student performance — it made little sense to conduct yet another study of teachers, classrooms, or schools in an effort to understand America’s achievement problem and what we might do within schools to address it.

As I read I found myself repeatedly grabbing a pen and underlining another section, something most books don’t move me to do.  For example:

 

In response to suggestions for educational reform, government institutions and private foundations have spent massive amounts of money on research designed to transform America’s schools.  In one blue-ribbon report after another, the American public has been told that if we change how we organize our schools, change how and what we teach in our classrooms, and change how we select, train, and compensate our teachers, we will see improvements in our children’s educational performance.  Many such reforms have been tried across the country—some, admittedly, only halfheartedly, but others, both thoughtfully and in good faith.  And many of these reform efforts continue today.
Our research indicates that a profitable discussion about the declining achievement of American youngsters should begin by examining students’ lives outside of school.
But our study also shows that school is only one of the many influences — and probably, when all is said and done, not even the most important one — that affect what students learn and how well they perform on tests of achievement.  It seems only fair to acknowledge, based on studies of school quality and its relations to student performance, as well as disappointing evaluations of many, many different types of school reform, that, although schools matter, they probably account for less variation in student achievement than we believe — or than we hope — they do.
Thus, we come to a clearer understanding not only of what schools need to do to engage apathetic students, but of why students come to school with such low levels of interest and enthusiasm in the first place.  In order to do this, and accordingly, in order to reengage students in school, we must focus our attention not on the classroom, not on the principal’s office, not on the school district’s administration, but on the students themselves.  No degree of school reform, no matter how carefully planned, will be successful in solving the achievement problem unless we first face and resolve the engagement problem.

Sounds to me like some others have figured out LEE’S LAW OF 88 DASH 12.

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