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Schools take the blame for failures rooted in the home

There's a simple truth about schools that you won't find in any of those studies on school reform, school restructuring or educational choice. You can find it in your own head, where the knowledge has lain for as long as you can remember, and in the February issue of Scientific American magazine, where three researchers say it almost in passing.

Here it is: America's schools are doing a pretty good job of teaching children who come to school ready for learning.

Now if you and I know that, why is it that the people in charge of educational policy have such difficulty figuring it out? The reason, I suspect, is that, as with so many other policy matters, we tend to go searching for answers before we reach agreement on what the questions are.

For some, the question may be how to eliminate the problems of race and caste in our society, or how to raise the test scores of black and Hispanic children from poor families. For others, it may be how to get all of our children more interested in math, science and English, or how to get smarter teachers into our classrooms.

With so many questions, it is not surprising that the only thing we can agree on is that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

There's truth in that, but there is also truth in what you vaguely suspect and what teachers know beyond doubt: that much of what we talk about in our discussions of school failure has little to do with what happens at school and a great deal to do with what happens (or fails to happen) at home. For the youngsters who come to school ready for learning, the schools are working pretty well.

Nathan Caplan, Marcella H. Choy and John Whitmore, all of the University of Michigan, set out to explore reasons for the academic success of the children of Indochinese boat people in American schools. Their principal conclusion is that family is the critical influence: the value parents place on education, the sacrifices they are willing to make _ and to demand _ for it, the direct involvement of parents in their children's school work.

Their secondary conclusion is that "the American school system _ despite widespread criticism _ has retained its capacity to teach, as it has shown with these refugees. We believe that the view of our schools as failing to educate stems from the unrealistic demand that the educational system deal with urgent social service needs."

You knew that, too: that the more you require schools to feed children, protect them from drugs and violence, look after their health and coach them in safe sex, the less time and energy the teachers will have left for academics.

The authors do not dismiss the importance of the social services schools are called upon to deliver; they simply insist that we separate teaching from social services.

One social service that needs to become a matter of routine is teaching parents how to get their young children ready for school learning. I'm talking about parenting classes conducted in recreation centers and church basements for those who already are parents, and mandatory parenting classes for junior-high and high school students.

That one innovation, widely instituted, might do more to improve school outcomes than all the reform/restructuring/choice recommendations that occupy so much of the educational debate.

That's not to say that the schools don't need improvement _ perhaps even reform, only that there are some things that have to be done at home.

But you knew that.

Washington Post Writers Group