Real Public Education Reform Starts at Home

November 22nd, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

To his credit, Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary Waiting for Superman has generated real buzz far outside the usual sphere of policy wonks, professional educators, and concerned parents. Unfortunately, to his fault, his film is also a biased, revisionist, and propagandist take on what really ails public education in America, rife with self-serving anecdotes, cherry picking of data, pulling emotional heart strings, and outright distortion of the facts. For example, Mr. Guggenheim makes charter schools the answer to our public education woes despite the fact that only about 17% outperform traditional public schools and only accommodate 3% of the student population. He also makes teachers’ unions the bêtes noires and the fall guys (and gals) for the myriad of problems that have afflicted public education for decades.

One of the most glaring misrepresentations of the facts is his (and many others’) misreading of the research on the impact of teachers on student achievement. The widely held view of this relationship is that the quality of teachers largely determines academic performance. This misinterpretation of the data has caused teachers and their unions to be demonized and scapegoated. Additionally, considerable policy reform (and rancor) has been directed at neutering teachers’ unions and using student performance (an unproven metric at best) as a means of weeding out bad teachers and retaining good teachers.

Unfortunately, the actual research on which these conclusions have been drawn doesn’t support the relationship that is so frequently bandied about. What the findings actually demonstrate is that teachers are the most significant influence on student achievement within schools. But that effect (10-20% explanatory power) pales in comparison to the role that outside factors, such as family income, medical care, family composition, family communication, and early learning experiences, play in student performance (about 60% explanatory power).

What this well-documented finding suggests is that elevating teacher quality is likely a necessary, but not sufficient contributor to improving the quality of public education for underprivileged students and closing the achievement gap. Further, as I have argued in previous posts, a focus on improving schools is a matter of too little too late for many students who are wholly unprepared to succeed when they enter elementary school regardless of the quality of the schools they attend.

Based on this research and as I suggest in the title of this post, real public education reform must start at home. All of our efforts to elevate the quality of public education will go for naught if the precursors to academic success are not put into place before poor students begin elementary school.

To that end, I propose the American Good Parent Initiative (it’s always easier to sell an initiative when it’s wrapped in patriotism), a joint public and private “Manhattan Project” aimed at closing the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots (of which the have-nots are overwhelmingly African-American and Latino) and bringing public education in America back to the top of the international educational food chain. The AGPI would be comprised of five programs:

1.  Have President Obama and other national, state, and local leaders from government, industry, and education announce and throw their support behind the AGPI. These champions would provide the initial impetus for creating a groundswell of support that would be necessary to produce broad-based “buy in” across America for the initiative.

2.  Create a public-service campaign, Be the Best Parent You Can Be, that blankets old and new media with positive and practical messages aimed at parents from celebrities, professional athletes, politicians, and other notables. The purpose of the PSAs is to raise awareness, add a “cool” factor to the AGPI (okay, maybe we should leave out politicians), and offer useful tools to bring the initiative to life. It could be modeled after the successful anti-smoking campaigns of the late 20th century.

3.  Establish Parent for America, based on Teach for America, in which trained parent coaches educate and train poor parents on all aspects of effective parenting, including financial management, stress management, nutrition, reading, communication, life skills, and much more. This voluntary program would allow parents of children who qualify for free-lunch programs to get personalized parent coaching and support, the goal of which is to fully prepare their children for success in school and beyond. PFA would recruit recent college graduates in return for tuition assistance as well as retired citizens who are inspired to give back to their communities.

4.  One of the most significant predictors of academic achievement, as discussed by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame, is the presence of books in the home. As a consequence, in partnership with already-established volunteer organizations, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America and Reading Is Fundamental, Read for Kids’ Futures would provide disadvantaged children with early exposure to books and regular reading opportunities.

5.  A large proportion of disadvantaged families are either led by a single parent or both parents work full-time or have two jobs. As a result, a primary cause of these children being unprepared for elementary school is that their parents have little time to devote to what it takes to ready them. And, because child care in America is expensive, underserved children are often left with extended family or subpar daycare. The AGPI would create an affordable, high-quality national child-care system that is overseen and subsidized by the federal government and run by private operators. An enriched childcare environment could provide the children of poor working parents with the learning experiences and tools that their parents are unable to give them and that are essential for success in school.

Some aspects of the AGPI are already being implemented successfully in different parts of the country, for example, in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, much as other types of reform, both within and outside the classroom, have demonstrated their effectiveness. But these changes have only reached a relatively small number of students in need nationwide and it remains a question to be studied as to their scalability. Those reforms that have proven themselves to be empirically beneficial must be scaled outward to increasingly larger numbers of students and schools, and their value must be constantly reassessed until those that are most efficacious are deployed on a grand scale nationally.

Of course, given these times of deficit hawkishness, the inevitable question that will be asked is: How will we pay for the AGPI? As I noted above, I foresee this initiative as being a joint public-private venture with shared funding. Yes, the federal government would assume its share of the cost. At the same time, imagine if the foundations, hedge fund managers, and other wealthy supporters could be convinced that the hundreds of millions of dollars currently being devoted to public education reform would be better used by the AGPI.

Consider the alternative. The economic cost of having a significant proportion of our citizenry mired in poverty, poor education, low-paying jobs, crime, and incarceration is far greater. America will have to pay now or pay much more later. And what of the moral cost of continuing to fail a substantial segment of Americans that has suffered long enough. Isn’t it time that we have the vision, compassion, and courage to institute real public education reform for their and America’s future.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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11 Responses to “Real Public Education Reform Starts at Home”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I think there are some great ideas here. Bill Gates and others like him are already oriented this way, and I’m sure they would help fund a worthwhile initiative.

    I have some problems with “an affordable, high-quality national child-care system that is overseen and subsidized by the federal government and run by private operators.” I think this is too much intrusion by the federal government into what are family and local problems. Many businesses already provide free or very inexpensive child care, and local governments can provide those services as necessary, funded by local tax dollars. There’s a great disparity in need from one area to another — some places people can and do take care of themselves, and other places people aren’t capable of taking care of themselves. A one-size-fits-all federal approach would be wasteful and in many areas unnecessary.

    I’m not quite so ready to remove blame from teachers’ unions. Like other public sector unions, they’ve become too strong and have too much ability to override the preferences of parents, school boards, and local government. It should be much easier to hire and fire teachers based on their competence or other kinds of problems, like deviating from the curricula to indoctrinate kids in their own political and social preferences and ideas.

    It doesn’t surprise me to hear that Guggenheim’s film is “biased, revisionist, and propagandist” after the great job he did with An Inconvenient Truth….

  2. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Tom: Yeah, I figured the idea of national child-care wouldn’t be very popular on O-P. Perhaps there is a local solution. But the reality is that the US is the only developed country that doesn’t have some form of structured high-quality and low-cost child-care system. And its absence has immense economic, family, and societal costs.

    As for teachers’ unions, they have definitely been a problem, but they are coming around (kicking and screaming in some cases). As for your claim that teachers are “deviating from the curricula to indoctrinate kids in their own political and social preferences and ideas,” I’d like to see data to support that one.

    And I thought An Inconvenient Truth was objective, impartial, and entirely factual. :->

  3. Tom Carter |

    I don’t object to federal involvement because I’m against it per se. I just think there’s too much disparity in different parts of the country to try to solve it from the highest level. There are just some things that are best done at the state and local level. As for Europe, well, I don’t think size and local, state, and regional differences in the U.S. are comparable. In addition, this would seem to fall more appropriately under the same local responsibility as public education.

    I don’t have hard data on teachers indoctrinating kids in areas they have no business getting into. Maybe there’s research and surveys, but I haven’t seen them. The anecdotal evidence, however, is very powerful. Just Google “teachers indoctrinating students.” I got over 700,000 results. And need I remind you of this one:

    Barack Hussein Obama,
    Mmm, mmm, mmm!

  4. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Tom: Now when you start going all ideological on me (re: your last comment), then you lose me…

    BTW, one person’s indoctrination is another’s education.

  5. Tom Carter |

    You can read the lyrics of a couple of the songs teachers have had their students sing in tribute to Obama. I apologize for linking to a Fox News web page, but I couldn’t seem to find this on other media websites. I wonder why that would be?

    Does this strike you as education? Looks an awful lot like indoctrination…but that’s just me. I don’t think you have to be a liberal or a conservative to see this for what it is.

    And as for education, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see the mangled grammar in “we all doth say ‘hooray!'” The word “doth” is the third person singular archaic conjugation of the verb “to do.” If necessary to use archaic language, it should have been “we all do say….” or better yet the modern usage “we all say….” Shouldn’t a teacher know this?

  6. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Tom: Point taken.

  7. Dan Miller |


    I agree with the thesis suggested in the title, that reform starts at home. Some of the best educated and well adjusted kids I have met were being home schooled (a topic not covered by the article) — not for racist reasons and not to indoctrinate them with weird notions but to teach them. The parents had little choice but to be involved, because they were cruising the Caribbean — a grand educational experience itself– with their families on sailboats and schools were not otherwise available. The cruisers we encountered came from all over the world and, contrary to common misconception, most of the younger cruisers were doing it on a shoestring, making just enough to get by doing odd jobs for others.

    The children learned and shared “adult” responsibilities at early ages and it was common for twelve year old and occasionally younger kids to stand watch when sailing just as did their parents. When they seemed capable of doing so efficiently and safely they also did so at night. They learned how to trim the sails, tack, jibe and do other such things. They also learned much about safety and one of my favorite related topics, situational awareness.

    As to “education,” the parents either had to know algebra, history, geography, proper grammar etc. or to learn them along with their students. They did. As far as I know, none had degrees in education or even prior experience in it. Most used curricula and tests available by mail from the Calvert School and other accredited organizations. There was far more togetherness than is common ashore, even in port. The kids socialized with their peers in port but were also capable of interacting appropriately with adults; they not only tolerated our adult behavior but seemed to enjoy it.

    When they reverted to a land based existence, they did quite well in college and later in the “real world.” Of the perhaps one hundred whom I met, I can recall only one who was a problem for her parents or others.

    Home schooling has been given a bad rap, and it is undeserved. Land based families who have the time and resources and who care enough should consider it. It is even possible that their successes will induce those who automatically reject the notion to reconsider their views.

  8. Michael |

    My thoughts on this article (and subject for that matter):

    1- The article fails to correct the fundamentally flawed premise that schools should be public (even Diana Ravitch fails to correct this premise). The public nature of schools is one of education’s key problems and any proposed solution must begin by recognizing the government monopoly on our educational system.

    2- Charter schools represent the way out for those who cannot conceive of an alternative and there certainly have been some innovative charter schools that have thrived from the limited freedom that this hybrid institution allows. But like the limited market-based experiments in the Soviet Union, charter schools are a sop to the free market—an effort to keep the public content by giving the appearance of choice and competition. Practically they crowd out private schools even more than public schools do. More fundamentally they hinge on the uncontested notion that government has a responsibility to educate children. If you want to know what they will look like in a generation or so, just look at the public school status quo.

    3- Public-private partnerships are a misguided notion. Government is force and by this I refer to how its actions are conducted very differently from voluntary cooperative projects. How does this force exhibit itself in government education? Compulsory education laws, laws against home schooling, statutory and regulatory restrictions and mandates over educational content, expropriation of funding etc.. In such “partnerships” private organizations often exclude ‘undesirable’ students whose low performance would take away from their bottom line. How is it that low performing students take away from the bottom line? By the terms of the public contracts as set by the public authority. The public and the private should not be mixed.

    4- Regarding teacher’s unions, I object to the wholesale firing of all teachers from failed schools. An alternative that should be considered is terminating the union from that school. This is not an anti-union reflex, but focused upon the question of “What is the purpose of teachers unions within education?” If one of their key purposes is not facilitating the delivery of excellent education or they have failed to do so, then they should be excluded.

    5- Raising the standards by for example, stricter certification of teachers does not create suddenly qualified teachers; instead, it identifies what we already know: students require better teachers than those created by our teacher colleges. If all schools were privatized tomorrow, we would still have the problem of poorly trained and poor performing teachers.

    6- There are some parents who are willing to evade responsibility for their kids’ education by letting the government decide for them.

    7- As far as Bill Gates is concerned, I recall him telling a charter school trade conference that they represented “the only place innovation will come from.” To say that they are the sole hope for education and that the future depends on “great public education is absolutely repugnant from a man who amassed his entire fortune in one of the freest sectors of our economy and graduated from a prestigious private school that had purchased an expensive minicomputer at a time when they weren’t widely available outside of universities.

    8- Despite the failed model of public education, some students do excel either without competent teachers, or with the benefit of a rare competent educator. Primarily, this potential gap ignored by ineffective publicly hired specialists is bridged by the parents; thus, those professionals frequently fault their clients for failing to perform the job for which the educrats are paid. This reminds me of a statement by Ralph Ketcham in his biography of James Madison:

    “A student of Madison’s endowments can sometimes overcome a series of poor teachers; that he was blessed with good ones at almost every step of his education undoubtedly contributed importantly to the characteristic discipline, keenness, and polish of his intellect.”

    More to come

  9. Michael |

    5. A large proportion of disadvantaged families are either led by a single parent or both parents work full-time or have two jobs. As a result, a primary cause of these children being unprepared for elementary school is that their parents have little time to devote to what it takes to ready them. And, because child care in America is expensive, underserved children are often left with extended family or subpar daycare. The AGPI would create an affordable, high-quality national child-care system that is overseen and subsidized by the federal government and run by private operators. An enriched childcare environment could provide the children of poor working parents with the learning experiences and tools that their parents are unable to give them and that are essential for success in school.

    We tried this in NZ and it didn’t work

    It’ll be a curious picture though when you educate all those “have-not” children only to have them discover there are no jobs for them because the economy is in shambles but then I suppose they can take government jobs and continue to extract wealth from the few remaining “haves…for now”

  10. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Dan: I believe that home schooling is a viable option for some families, but it takes resources of time, money, and considerable effort on the part of the parents. Home schooling also has social costs and the added challenge of parents wearing two hats (if the parents are the teachers), just like coaching your own child, though perhaps even more difficult because kids can’t quit school or find another teacher like they do in sports.

    What a grand adventure those sailing families have! And how wonderfully beneficial for the children.

  11. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Michael: I don’t have time rebut all of your views, but I will comment on one that you touch on somewhat indirectly, namely, that the only place to innovation and quality can occur is in a free market. There was a wonderful article recently in the New York Times (that liberal rag!) about how universities, quite the antithesis of the free market system, in which tenure is more unforgiving than in public education teachers’ unions, is where most advances (along with the military, another system far from free market) in the sciences and other fields occur.

    Besides that, on a slightly different tangent, to say that what we have in America is a free market system, even during periods of relatively little government regulation, is simply not true. Our market system is really an oligarchy.

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