School & District Management

Out-of-School Influences On Learning Debated

By Debra Viadero — June 13, 2001 5 min read
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Sociologist James S. Coleman ignited a national debate in 1966 when he issued a landmark study concluding that differences in children’s academic achievement had more to do with background characteristics, such as family wealth, than with anything that went on in schools.

Last week, in a circa-1900 mansion here on the banks of the Hudson River, the debate raged on.

Sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and other researchers gathered at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College to discuss studies on the role that out-of-school factors play in children’s academic achievement. During the two-day meeting, scholars discussed research on everything from learning in after-school programs to the influence of grandparents on student achievement.

“If someone were to actually analyze all these issues, the question that comes to mind is, would it be possible to have an education policy without the word ‘school’?” said Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, the institute’s president and a professor of economics at the college.

To be fair, the Coleman Report, which was formally titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” did not just focus on whether schools were the great equalizers that society hoped they would be.

Commissioned in 1964 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the report concluded that American students, for the most part, attended racially segregated schools and that African-American children who went to integrated schools tended to do better academically than their counterparts in all-black schools. Those findings formed the academic underpinnings for school desegregation policy for decades to come.

The findings on schools’ influence, however, led some scholars to draw a controversial conclusion: Equalizing resources for schools would not, by itself, close test-score gaps between rich and poor, or black and white students.

Yet most of the learning-related research that has taken place since the 1960s has ignored that proposition, focusing on in-school, rather than out-of-school, factors that influence academic achievement.

‘Blinders On’

One reason for the lack of attention, said Dalton Conley, the New York University sociologist who organized the meeting, is that national education policy is made in distinctly separate fields and institutions.

Dalton Conley

“You have the departments of Education and Health and Human Services and all these other institutions, and it puts blinders on policymakers and researchers that keeps them from seeing the linkages across domains,” he said.

There is still plenty of evidence, however, that such factors matter. Eighty percent of the test-score gap separating poor children from their better-off peers, for example, can be attributed to the differential-learning losses—or the lack of learning—that take place when schools are closed for the summer, said Barbara Heyns, a New York University sociologist who reviewed literature on that topic for the meeting.

Although researchers still don’t know for sure why that gap widens over summer vacation, they speculate that one reason may be that middle-class students spend more of their vacation time in education-related activities, such as reading, museum-going, or attending summer camp.

Other contributing factors highlighted at the meeting include:

  • Warm or harsh parenting practices, parents’ mental health, and the degree to which a child’s home environment is educationally stimulating. The conclusion that such factors can exacerbate or lessen the effects of poverty on children comes from a new study by researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University. They base their conclusions on analyses of data drawn from three large national databases on preschoolers and their families.

  • Having an older parent. Brian Powell, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, presented preliminary findings showing that, compared with younger parents, older parents confer more educational resources to their adolescent children.

  • Being born at a low birth-weight and having a mother who smokes. Jere R. Behrman, a University of Pennsylvania economist, presented data from studies of adult, female twins suggesting that those health factors can lower a child’s lifetime earnings by 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

  • Spending time with poorly educated grandparents. Looking at longitudinal data on middle-class black and white children in Prince George’s County, Md., a group of Chicago researchers found that, for black children, spending a lot of time with less educated grandparents may be associated with lower levels of academic performance.

“We’re not saying that black grandparents should be discouraged from interacting with their grandchildren,” said Mary E. Pattillo-McCoy, a Northwestern University anthropologist who worked on that study. “We think this points to a more nuanced understanding of racial gaps and the recency of the black middle class versus what we often think of as bad parenting.”

Ms. Pattillo-McCoy’s findings and those of the other researchers were discussed in papers written for the conference. Once revised, they will be compiled and published by the institute.

A number of scholars at the June 4-5 gathering cautioned against basing policy on their findings, some of which are still in preliminary stages. Simply because some out-of-school factors are associated with poorer academic outcomes doesn’t mean they are the cause, they said.

Even after 19 years of tracking 800 schoolchildren in Baltimore public schools, Doris R. Entwistle, a sociologist from Johns Hopkins University there, said she refrains from making policy recommendations based on her work.

It points, for example, to summer learning gaps between poor and more advantaged children.

“When policy people see this they say, ‘Ah, what we need to do is provide summer school for poor children,’ ” Ms. Entwistle said. “If we were to provide summer school experiences to close the gap, we’d better be very careful because they could have unintended consequences.”


Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Out-of-School Influences On Learning Debated

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