Education, Alone, Is a Weak Treatment

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It is exhilarating and exciting to have education become, once again, a matter of public interest and concern. From the president and the 50 governors, to national and state legislators, the issues of education have now become a matter of public policy ra ther than just internal educational concern and dispute. In addition, the topics that are being addressed, such as student assessment, accountability, standards, and curriculum reform, all hold promise for an improved educational effort, in the near and l ong term, so we can celebrate our re-entry into the public consciousness. However, there are a few cautions that need to be observed if we are to avoid a poisonous cycle of overexpectations, disillusionment, and despair. One such caution is to recognize t he unpleasant reality that education, by itself, is a weak treatment.

In this case, a weak treatment means that education probably accounts for less than 25 percent of the total effect on whatever the outcome we are trying to achieve. Whether it is academic achievement, or appropriate social behavior, or creative self-expre ssion, there are many other factors that also are having a significant influence on that outcome. It is clear that there are variables within the family, within the culture, and within the physical environment, plus limitations within the genetic makeup o f the individual, which will have a greater influence on student achievement than our "improved educational program" for that student.

In short, the schools, as one of the few social institutions left standing, are being given responsibilities for outcomes larger than our legitimate domain extends. Take, for example, the thrust toward Goals 2000, which, among other things, has generated eight national goals underwritten by the governors and the president. At least two of the eight national educational goals have an odd ring to them: No. 1, "All children in America, by the year 2000, will start school ready to learn"; and No. 6, "Every sc hool in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning."

Are these really educational issues or, rather, are they societal problems delivered to the schools? For that matter, goal No. 2--a 90 percent graduation rate by 2000--also may depend more upon the job market and perceived opportunities than anything the schools can do.

We can find much agreement with the observation that education and our educational system are a mirror of our society. Both the strengths and the weaknesses of the society are played out in that mirror for us to see. If we have a drug problem in the schoo ls, then we have a drug problem in the society. If there is a problem of violence in the schools, then there probably are many violent individuals at large in the society. So when we talk about school reform, we may really be asking for societal reform.

Why are so many children arriving at school age unprepared to learn or to do the fundamental things necessary to begin their school careers productively? It is certainly true that a child who is abused, has poor nutrition, sees few role models, and may be afraid for his or her very life is not exactly primed for learning. Surely the schools cannot be held responsible for that. We do, and should, take the somewhat masochistic view that, whatever the condition that the children come to us in, it is the resp onsibility of the school to respond creatively and productively to the needs of each individual student and, thus, to try to counteract those previous ills. But to expect the schools to counterbalance all of the negative forces affecting many young childr en today is to expect too much. The following formula expresses the situation:


This is a crude way of expressing the notion that academic achievement depends upon much more than the education program. The interaction of factors recognizes the effects of the major categories on each other. For example, most of the better teachers are likely to seek to avoid teaching in the inner city or in rural areas. This will result in a lower-quality education program in those settings, which will affect the student-achievement level in those schools.

In short, there are enormous problems--within the family, the society, and the physical environment--that get reflected in an impressive series of problems in the schools. The problems lie not merely in the inner-city schools, they lie in the in ner cities. Should we expect the schools, alone, by the year 2000, or even 2500, to solve these problems?

Then there is the issue of political will. Over the last two decades, it has been the predominant political wisdom not to present irritating truths to the public. The idea of public sacrifice, meaning sacrifice from each of us in order to achieve an impor tant national goal, has not been a popular political idea. Instead, we have been told that we can have it all--low taxes and yet the ability to spend money on all the things we would like to consume. All that is necessary is a minor tinkering with the mac hinery (the schools); but "not to worry, it won't bother you." A very popular message.

From one type of political perspective, it is a lot easier to focus reform on the schools as the main focus of remedial societal effort, which, after all, need not be a matter of great concern to most adults. This "reform of education" convinces people th at something is being done, without irritating them with the necessity to think about changing their own habits, lifestyles, incomes, and so on.

What is required, I believe, is that we recognize that education has a significant role to play in any reform movement that can improve a society that is in trouble. We are, and should be, delighted to be a part of that team effort. What we need are some other members of the team, and other reform efforts, which are carried out parallel to the educational effort. The schools, alone, cannot effectively deal with the societal drug problem, the disintegrating family unit, the rotting nature of our inn er cities, or the isolation of many rural areas. Further, unless these other societal issues are addressed simultaneously with the educational issues, then all of the work of educators is likely to yield little result--not because the work that they have done is not effective, but merely because it will be drowned in a sea of negative forces.

Education cannot do the job alone. This is a message that needs to be nailed to the door. What is needed is a total push, meaning reform of these significant elements together. Such an effort at serious social reform, in fact, will be painfu l, will require sacrifice, and will upset our normal routines. The alternative is to accept a growing permanent underclass in our society, and major urban areas that have "invisible fences"--erected not to keep people out, but to keep the people who are there in, so that they don't come out in their anger and despair to bother and harass "the rest of us." It is not a society in which I would like my grandchildren to grow up.

Educators have been down this road before. In the 1960s, Head Start and a variety of remedial education programs were supposed to counteract the multiple effects of poverty on the young child. The wonder is that such programs did as well as they did, give n the societal circumstances in which they were applied. This time, educators would like to be partners in any new social-reform efforts, but not scapegoats, to be told by a recreation-seeking public, "I see that you incompetent educators have failed us a gain."

James J. Gallagher is the Kenan professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a senior investigator at the university's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Pages 43, 60

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Education, Alone, Is a Weak Treatment
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