Schools Matter for Student Achievement, Don’t They?

Ever since the Coleman Report was published 50 years ago, it has been well-known that student achievement is impacted mostly by many factors outside the classroom.

If you want to predict student performance, non-school factors will explain a majority of the variability in observed outcomes.  (The ‘outcomes’ include how much a student knows, whether they will be admitted to a competitive college, how much additional education they will pursue, and how much they will earn in their future career.)

Which non-school factors have the most explanatory power?  Researchers have found that these factors go a long way in explaining much of the performance differences between students:

  • Family socio-economic status
  • Level of parental education
  • Family structure
  • Level of parental involvement in student’s education
  • Student IQTerrible Genes

At first glance, this finding can be unsettling.  If educational outcomes are so connected to family background, then maybe education is not the great equalizer of opportunity that we hope it can be.  I don’t know about you, but I would rather believe that all kids, regardless of background, have equal chances of achieving academic success, and climbing the economic ladder.   This finding would seem to invalidate, or at least diminish,  the viability of the American Dream.

Nevertheless, the research of the last 50 years has shown that:  family background and household resources are very important influences on student learning. (examples herehere and here).  So we need to grapple with these realities.

Some take this to mean that what happens inside our classrooms is unimportant.  And others, taking the argument even further, say that if student learning is largely predetermined, then schools should accept that there is little that can be done to change student learning outcomes.  Perhaps (they say) trying to raise student achievement in troubled communities (Chester PA) is swimming against a relentless tide.

DestinyOr (as I have heard a few say in our own community) perhaps the extra resources we pour into our UCF schools are actually making very little difference.  Perhaps the high levels of achievement we see at UCF merely reflects the prevalence of well-educated, higher-income, two-parent families in Southern Chester County. (An example of this type of argument is here, and another one is here)

But even if family background determines half  of student success, that still means the other half is up to our schools.   What role do schools play in developing the raw talent that walks in the door?  And how can school boards and communities separate the influence of schools from the very substantial influence of family background?

In my next post we will look at a real life example of student achievement … and how testing can help us differentiate between school and non-school influences on student achievement.