Why School Reform isn’t Enough

By implication at least, school reform was a central issue in the recent District of Columbia Democratic primary election in which an incumbent mayor known for naming and supporting a reform-minded school chancellor sought reelection. Moreover—and also by implication—school reform went down to defeat along with the mayor, as voters backed his challenger. (Outlanders need to understand that in this overwhelmingly Democratic capital city, the Democratic primary usually is the only election that counts.)

This is not to say that in a straight-up for or against vote on reform, school reform would have lost. Personalities and peripheral issues decided the outcome in Washington. In truth, reforming the nation’s schools is one issue that—in principle—just about everyone supports.

What rational person can say no to providing better teachers, better curricula, better facilities, better whatever-it-takes to kids in public schools? As a longtime supporter of church-related and other nonpublic schools, I wish these generous sentiments also extended to their students. But we can leave that for another day.

That said, I’m obliged to add that much of the agitation for upgrading schools misses the point. The deficiencies of public schools are undoubtedly real, and billions of dollars over the years have been spent on correcting them. But the results are rather less than overwhelmingly impressive. Even though it isn’t popular to say so, the unavoidable conclusion is that the roots of the problem of poor student performance, as well as the solution, lie elsewhere than the schools.

Specifically, they lie in homes and in culture.

As to culture, what should one realistically expect of students deeply immersed in a sensate visual environment whose primary goal is instant gratification without significant effort? “Studies” now and then purport to show that frittering away time on addictive TV viewing and constant involvement in social media does no harm, but such findings are a counter-intuitive joke.

Add to the media-saturated lifestyle of many young people a culture that scorns learning and learners, and you have a formula that virtually guarantees educational failure before kids get anywhere near the classroom.

As to the home, it’s been said for centuries that parents are the first educators—not just first in time but first in importance. Who can doubt it? How parents deal with a child—do they, for example, regularly read to him?—communicates not simply information but basic attitudes toward the learning process itself.

Notice that word “parents.” Some single parents labor heroically for their children’s educational success, and some succeed. So for that matter do some gritty and determined kids who, giving the lie to social determinism, overcome obstacles and battle their way to the top pretty much on their own. But in this matter of education as in so many others, the single parent and the self-motivated learner have the cards stacked heavily against them from the start.

They’re not alone. Those cards also are stacked against the schools when they are faced with kids formed by chaotic, dysfunctional homes and a cultural environment in which learning is held in contempt. Which is why, in the end, school reform that’s focused only on schools can have only very limited positive results.

Americans are schizoid about these things. We want kids to learn, yet we refuse to face up to, much less try to correct, the circumstances—dysfunctional home life coupled with a decadent popular culture—that send many kids off to school programmed for failure. But for reform to work, here is where reform has to begin.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • Joe DeVet

    This is a good start, but I think there’s a lot more to it than this in terms of cultural influences which defeat public education.

    The culture gets the schools it deserves. What’s the difference between today’s public school and that of, say, 50 years ago when we got better results for half of today’s cost? A big factor, at least where I was in small-town Midwest America, was that there still was consensus about morals, mores, decency, manners, right and wrong–and there were consequences to doing wrong. We also had not been subjected to the self-esteem virus which eats away at education from the inside. Discipline in the school was actually possible, and teachers who graded on performance were supported by parents and administrators alike. There was much less tendency to hire lawyers to get one’s kids better grades, or less discipline.

    The whole social consensus on right and wrong, decent or indecent, good and bad manners has since evaporated. You can’t run a public school without this underlying consensus–basically the article’s contention.

    I know–sounds like a “good old days” rant. But I think the point holds–within the lifetime of some of us we have seen a system which more or less works, compared to today’s super-expensive system which seems to get progressively worse the more money is thrown at it. What are we to do with this information?

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  • tldepaul


    Amen! We can throw all the money in the world, cutting edge teachers and curriculum at schools, but without a cultural change school reform isn’t possible. I have always been willing to pay higher taxes for education, but I am tired of supporting schools where children receive no guidance from home. These students can’t learn, because they are hungry, tired, scared and have no incentive to learn anything. We need to create a culture of education, before we spend more money on it!

    Theresa Bruno


  • One way to swiftly and drastically change the culture of schools is to take them away from self-serving packs of government bureaucrats: http://www.schoolandstate.org/home.htm

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