Opinion: Schools cannot do everything

The debates about how best to improve our schools will soon be in the media again. The confirmation process for Betsy DeVos, secretary of education nominee, has been one of many newsworthy flash points as President Trump and his team take the reins of power.

The DeVos nomination signals increased support for school privatization, more vouchers and charter schools. This shift brings with it considerable controversy, and both sides of the debate are mobilizing forces for a public and protracted struggle.

The deep divisions in the educational community are not new. We are 10 years into what are commonly referred to as the “education wars.” Stark differences on complex issues — e.g., charter schools, national standards, teacher evaluations and testing — exist between and among educators, policymakers, students and their families.

A portion of the acrimony is generated by the incivility that now dominates all public discourse. But another portion is driven by frustration about the quality of American education. Despite decades of reform, those from across the political spectrum believe that our nation is not preparing adequate numbers of students to meet the challenges of the 21st century workplace and democracy.

But warring factions are not the greatest impediment to a better educated America. The greatest impediment is a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the problem. The problem is a failure to acknowledge that schools alone cannot be held responsible for educating our students, that most factors related to academic outcomes lie not within but outside our traditional institutions of education.

A recent policy brief by the National Superintendent Roundtable, written by longtime educator Jim Harvey, puts this succinctly: “… most factors related to student achievement lie beyond the control of schools … 80 percent of the determinants of student outcomes lie outside the school door. These include issues such as family income, transiency and lack of access to health care, employment and mental health services.”

This is not a new thesis. In 1966, the federal Department of Education issued the landmark Coleman Report. Commissioned as part of the Civil Rights Act, the findings challenged the orthodoxy: that the quality of schools would dictate the quality of the student. Using data on more that 650,000 students, it came to the revolutionary conclusion that student background, including socioeconomic status, had more impact on education than the schools they attend.

Report after report give us overwhelming evidence that America needs better schools. Just recently we have Quality Counts 2017, from the Education Week Research Center. Using three indices (academic performance, school funding levels and the role of education in promoting a lifetime of benefits) it grades the nation and every state.

The overall national grade is “C”; no state received an “A”; and only nine received a “B.”

As those who care about American education move into another round of policy debates, they would do well to remember that progress in school reform cannot be limited to those items that fall under the traditional education tent. Progress in education must be woven into the many other issues involving our children and the larger world they inhabit. Without this broader view, debates on privatization or any other issues isolated to the schoolhouse will only prolong the problems we face.

— Gene A. Budig is past president/chancellor of three major state universities and former president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board.