Federal Opinion

Jencks Reassessed, One Career Later

By Roger T. Sauer — May 21, 2003 8 min read
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A sociologist's theories on the relationship between demographics and school success hold enduring lessons.

I read with interest last month the essays in these pages by Theodore R. Sizer and John I. Goodlad, as well as the then-and-now student accounts regarding the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. (“20 Years Later: Two Views,” April 23, 2003.) These pieces caused me to reflect upon an educational publication now some 30 years old, one that I have often had cause to review in my career.

As a graduate student taking his initial coursework in teacher education in the early 1970s at Oregon’s Portland State University, and yet having little actual teaching experience, the article I ran across in Harper’s magazine by the sociologist Christopher Jencks had at that time some theoretical but little practical use to this future educator.

The piece was actually the concluding chapter in Jencks’ landmark book, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. As most readers of this newspaper will recall, the book was the result of three years of work by Jencks and a team of researchers for the Center for Educational Policy Research. Looking to the past, it drew upon the earlier Coleman Report of 1966 that focused on issues of equal educational opportunity in American schools. And looking forward, it became a document that virtually thousands of educators over the next 30 years tried to disprove, given Jencks’ chief assertion that "[none] of the evidence we have reviewed suggests that school reform can be expected to bring about significant social changes outside the schools.” That is, schooling alone cannot, in itself, help narrow the gap between the richest and poorest of Americans.

Entering education as a novice high school English teacher, I often recalled Jencks’ words when my lessons, so carefully crafted and presented, fell to the floor in my suburban classroom before a less-than-receptive audience of juniors and seniors. And later, as a vice principal and principal who faced hundreds of parents each year, I came to recognize that school for many of these students was perhaps the only affirming and structuring activity they experienced on a daily basis. After listening to colleagues and reading about the “effective schools” research by Wilbur Brookover, Larry Lezotte, and Ronald Edmonds in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was more than convinced that schools could make a difference in these students’ lives (a slightly different issue from the one that Christopher Jencks addressed.) The principles of effective schooling became articles of faith in the new testament of school reform, while Jencks’ old-testament admonitions were set aside.

These same principles were reinforced when, as a new administrator, I read the political message of A Nation at Risk and was thus provided additional impetus to “do something” in my school to show we were improving students’ learning. We got our nationally normed standardized test scores up; we got Scholastic Aptitude Test scores (as they were called then) up. We tightened up on discipline to ensure a safe school environment. The school where I’d taught and served as vice principal won a U.S. Department of Education Secondary School Recognition Award; the principal went to the White House. As a principal later in my own school, I saw the process repeated with higher standards, better scores, a safer school environment.

As more school reform models and mandates were added to the schooling mix in my state, the United States’ economy boomed. With income-tax revenues up even after property-tax limits were imposed, my state was funding schools more equitably and with a greater sense of accountability. Publicly announced report cards from the state’s education bureaucracy had become a fact of life. And, as the high school in the district where I had just become a superintendent had the dubious honor of being one of the state’s three “unacceptable” schools, my belief in the efficacy of our schools was challenged. But excellent work by the staff and its principal reassured me in my belief in the ability of schools to improve the learning of their students. The following year, the report was better, due to students’ improved outcomes.

But the Oregon school report cards also caused me to begin thinking of Christopher Jencks’ book. Because data covered in the cards were online, it was easy to work with these statistics and drill them down to reveal some rather unsettling conclusions. I have done this every year to one extent or another, but more extensively this year, given the most recent educational reform mandate, President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 (more about this later).

You see, the schools that rated poorly when the first report cards came out in 2000 were just that—poor. They also served large minority populations (one high school served a large, inner-city African- American population; two others, including that “unacceptable” school in my district, had significant Native American populations). I played with the numbers a little more. What did the highest-rated schools look like? Suburban and white and affluent. I pointed this out to an education reporter from The Oregonian when he stopped by to visit. I asked what the scores would look like if one factored out socioeconomic status. Less than a year later, the newspaper ran a series that did just that: a regression analysis looking at student performance and socioeconomic status. Schools that were plotted above the regression line could breathe a sigh of relief; those below the line indicated their students’ performance was not as high as might be expected given their affluence and other environmental factors.

In 1972, Christopher Jencks concluded: “Our research suggests ... that the character of a school’s output depends largely on a single input, namely the characteristics of the entering children. Everything else—the school budget, its policies, the characteristics of the teachers—is either secondary or completely irrelevant.” The data almost 30 years later tended toward that same conclusion, despite years of school reform efforts. When I did a more thorough analysis of the 2003 Oregon report cards in a report sent to the state’s House and Senate education committees, several other conclusions stood out.

District poverty had little or no correlation to Oregon schools’ rating or performance (a correlation coefficient of +0.031). However, there was a significant difference between the poverty level in schools with “strong” and “exceptional” ratings (12.64 percent) and those few with “low” and “unacceptable” ratings (17.25 percent).

While poverty and language are not destiny, they do present persistent realities that teachers, administrators, and parents try to address every day.

The challenge of meeting the needs of English-as-a-second-language students was also evident in the data. Regardless of school configuration, there existed a small but statistically significant relationship between the size of a school’s ESL population and school rating (+0.169), but a larger relationship between ESL population and academic performance (+0.28). Moreover, this relationship was evident consistently through the grades of schooling. Again, the difference between highly ranked schools and poorly ranked schools was telling: The former had a 4.53 percent ESL population, while the latter had 14.44 percent.

I could not escape the economic and demographic contrast between the best and worst schools as I looked at the data. While poverty and language are not destiny, they do present persistent realities that teachers, administrators, and parents try to address every day. Educators do make a difference. But those differences are, so to speak, different. What educators are left to do within this larger context is to make schools better places. Jencks actually anticipates this important, though less exhaustive, role for teachers and other school people:

“Instead of evaluating schools in terms of long-term effects on their alumni, which appears to be relatively uniform, we think it wiser to evaluate schools in terms of their immediate effects on teachers and students, which appear much more variable. ... If we think of school life as an end in itself rather than as a means to some other end, such differences are enormously important.”

Meanwhile, the inequities remain. This is due to the social and economic environment from which the students come. This, in turn, bears heavily upon which students will advance and which will be left behind.

As educators in our schools try to make sense of and, more important, to comply with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, they need to do so fully confident of their efficacy to make improvements in their students’ lives. They also need to recognize as citizens that improvement in the long-term lives of students will require more than an educational/political strategy. It may require an economic/political strategy.

Christopher Jencks recognized this in 1972 in a paragraph that I have been unable to erase from memory for 30 years:

“As long as egalitarians assume that public policy cannot contribute to economic equality directly but must proceed by ingenious manipulations of marginal institutions like the schools, progress will remain glacial. If we want to move beyond this tradition, we will have to establish political control over the economic institutions that shape our society. This is what other countries usually call socialism. Anything less will end in the same disappointment as the reforms of the 1960s.”

The war with Iraq is moving out of the media spotlight, and the Bush administration appears to be desirous of addressing domestic issues. This is the time for educators to remind their political leaders of the gap between this administration’s admirable educational goal of higher outcomes for all students over the next 10 years, and its economic program that may be headed in a decidedly different direction: toward greater economic disparity between the poorest and wealthiest of our children.

As I have tried to illustrate, this is the tension that I as an educator have felt the most strongly over 30 years in service to children: how to improve the lot of all students in an economic terrain that is getting higher peaks and lower valleys.

Roger T. Sauer is a senior associate of School Resource Associates, an education consulting firm in Salem, Ore. He has been a teacher, school principal, and superintendent in Oregon over the past 30 years.

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