March of the pessimists

Backward reeled my mind upon discovering that the New York Times's liberal education writer Diana Jean Schemo and conservative icon Charles Murray (writing recently in the Wall Street Journal) share essentially the same defeatist view of education: that schools aren't powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids' achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane due to the many other forces (family, neighborhood, poverty, heredity, etc.) tugging them downward.      

It's true that mediocre schools, of which the U.S. has far too many, have great difficulty overcoming those forces. But it's equally true that outstanding schools do it all the time.

Fifteen years ago, in a book titled We Must Take Charge, I reported a surprising and alarming calculation: that an American child with perfect attendance at a conventional public school from (full day) kindergarten through high school would, upon reaching his/her 18th birthday, have spent just 9 percent of his/her hours on earth under the school's roof-and 91 percent elsewhere. That ratio still amazes me but you can calculate it for yourself. The numerator consists of 13 (years of school) x 180 (days per year) x 6 (hours per day). The denominator consists of 18 (years alive) x 365 (days per year) x 24 (hours per day). I didn't even take account of Leap Year.         

To be sure, the 91 percent includes sleeping time, but even when you make that adjustment you find that non-school time exceeds school time by a multiple of four or five.         

"What," I asked in 1991, "is the leverage of the 9 percent, especially in situations where the other 91 percent works at cross-purposes? How much should we expect schools to accomplish?"

It's obvious that schools can do lots more when the 91 percent cooperates, when non-school influences (family, peer group, neighborhood, church, you name it)  tug in the same direction as school. It's also obvious that schools face a huge challenge when they must combat uncooperative forces in other parts of their pupils' lives.

What's remarkable, however, and what Schemo and Murray both overlook, is how many terrific schools manage to overcome precisely that challenge. For three decades, there's been a wealth of anecdote, example, and research attesting to the success of individual schools in "beating the odds" and producing well educated youngsters in spite of the hostile forces at work in many of those kids' lives. You can find hundreds of examples in the Ed Trust data base. You can read about them in the Thernstroms' magisterial No Excuses and in an earlier Heritage Foundation publication with the same title. You can watch them on Oprah. You can see further evidence in article after article about the growing network of KIPP academies.

I believe it was Kant who said "the actual proves the possible." Plenty of schools show that the 91 percent can be overcome. The great challenge has been replicating the schools that succeed at this. To which end, vast philanthropic dollars (most notably from Gates) are now being directed.

That sort of replication is still more art than science, but we're beginning to understand what some of its essential elements are. Besides all the usual attributes of "effective schools" (i.e., clear mission, good leadership, coherent program, strong curriculum, high standards), the schools that do best in educating poor and disadvantaged children despite the 91 percent add three special ingredients. First, they reduce the 91 percent itself--and expand the school's share--by starting young and running really long days, weeks and years. Second, they envelop their pupils in a culture of achievement--the heck with contrarian messages transmitted by the outside culture. And third, they never quit: their students are dialing teachers' cell phone at 10 p.m., the middle school makes sure its graduates are placed in a terrific high school, it helps them fill out their college applications, and so forth.

Yes, such schools cost more. Sometimes the cost is measured in dollars, sometimes in sweat equity from tireless teachers and relentless principals, most often in both.

But it can be done and is being done with and for the kids who need it most. The challenge America faces is to do it with millions more. Of course it would be easier if the 91 percent were cooperating. But it can be done anyway. It is being done. Why can't the likes of Schemo and Murray see that?

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute