WHEN the federal Education Department recently reported that children in private schools generally did no better than comparable students at public schools on national tests of math and reading, the findings were embraced by teachers’ unions and liberals, and dismissed by supporters of school voucher programs.
But for many educators and policy makers, the findings raised a haunting question: What if the impediments to learning run so deep that they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms? What if schools are not the answer?
The question has come up before. In 1966, Prof. James S. Coleman published a Congressionally mandated study on why schoolchildren in minority neighborhoods performed at far lower levels than children in white areas.
To the surprise of many, his landmark study concluded that although the quality of schools in minority neighborhoods mattered, the main cause of the achievement gap was in the backgrounds and resources of families.
For years, education researchers have argued over his findings. Conservatives used them to say that the quality of schools did not matter, so why bother offering more than the bare necessities? Others, including some educators, used them essentially to write off children who were harder to educate.
Schemo frames No Child Left Behind as one side of an argument between people who believe that factors outside schools affect students, and believe who don’t believe that factors outside schools affect students. There is no such debate. No reasonable person believes that students’ economic, social, and family circumstances are irrelevant to educational progress.
To say that NCLB “holds a school alone responsible” for student progress is to ascribe far more power to the law than it, or any law, could possibly have. There are whole worlds of responsibility for the dire circumstances of disadvantaged students who aren’t learning well. All No Child Left Behind does is create a system that identifies which schools those students attend, and insists that we should try to make those schools better.