Our Approach to an Education System Is Not Working


With the release of another round of miserable PARCC scores for Rhode Island public schools, showing (as usual) urban-ring schools performing especially badly, an article by Linda Borg in yesterday’s Providence Journal comes to mind.  Basically, urban schools experience a great deal of churn (that is, movement of the school population into and out of the schools), which has been found to affect their learning adversely:

Numerous studies have found that multiple moves are linked to lower performance in reading and math and a greater risk of dropping out of school. A recent study of 381 low-income, mostly minority students in Chicago concluded that 327 changed schools at least once from kindergarten through fourth grade and 40 students transferred three or more times, according to Education Week. …

Students lose three months of academic achievement each time they transfer schools, according to Sarah D. Sparks, an assistant editor of Education Week, a national publication for educators.

No doubt, this is true applied generally across the population (with a difference, I suspect) between those who transfer in the middle of the year and those who simply start at a new school with a new school year.  That said, a fact that is disturbingly absent from such conversations is that the specific circumstances of each child matter.  Our oldest daughter, for example, changed schools five times (not counting high school), and I’d say, if anything, the experience benefited her.

I offer the personal anecdote with full awareness that our household circumstances aren’t but so applicable to those of the families indicated in the article, but that’s the point.  It matters why a student changes schools, what school he or she transfers to, whether the parents fill in gaps and otherwise foster confidence, and so on.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner suggests to Borg that the urban schools could easily come to an agreement that accommodates students’ moves with respect to funding and transportation, but the problem needs a more comprehensive look.  At one level of analysis, the idea that we should so rigidly assign schools by zip code ought to come into question.  If parents were empowered to choose their schools, whether public or private, they could better anticipate changes due to their unique circumstances.

Their incentive structure might also change; that is, to the extent that they picked a school for some reason other than proximity, they’ll be more likely to be motivated to continue with that school through moves, divorces, or what have you.  The implicit theme of public school insiders is that public schools ought to be interchangeable (that’s why they talk about funding inequities and pay differentials so much), in which case, parents will see less reason to inconvenience themselves when their assigned school changes.

At a higher level of analysis, the key factor is the stability of the family itself.  How much, I wonder, would changing schools actually be reflected in test scores if researchers could tease it apart from all of the familial disruption that probably accompanies many of the moves.  That’s an issue that our educational system isn’t sufficient to address, requiring something as comprehensive as the Family Prosperity Initiative (FPI).

We can say, though, that the piece that schools fill in the puzzle takes at least a generation to bear fruit. In other words, the students of today will be the parents who do or don’t disrupt their children’s lives to the point of educational harm in ten or twenty years.  Every decade of useless tweaks and new testing regimes that policymakers deploy in order to avoid addressing the grown-up problems of our education system is another generation with problems that the education system won’t be well suited to address.