(2003) Last week this page featured a column by ESL①specialist Doris Partan, who, on the basis of the results from a recent UNICEF study comparing educational inequality in the 24 nations of the OECD, lamented the state of American public schooling. Her analysis of the contrast between US suburban schools, usually good, and urban schools, typically bad, struck me as fair, but I must take exception to some of the assertions in her article.
Ms Partan refers to America's number 18 position in the 'Educational Disadvantage League' in the UNICEF report. I was prepared to be shocked. The gap between the best and the worst public schools, or between the average and the lowest educational attainment of pupils, was greater in America than in any OECD country except Germany (!), Denmark (!) and, less remarkably, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal. Wealthy, suburban-and-small-town and ultra-homogeneous Finland shines in slot 3, while wealthy, suburban-and-small-town but far less homogeneous Denmark occupies slot 20. Canada and Australia rank 4th and 5th, the US 18th.
No doubt the rankings bear some relation to classroom realities, but I wonder if it is reasonable to go too deeply into lamentation mode. Finland and Denmark are culturally very similar countries, but one clear difference between them lies in the size and origin of their immigrant populations. Finland has very few immigrants. In contrast, Copenhagen, the Danish capital, has substantial neighborhoods of poorly integrated recent Muslim immigrants and many schools where little Danish is heard on the playground. In this respect Denmark resembles Germany.
Might the presence of large numbers of immigrants not explain some of the performance problems in American schools? And not just any immigrants: the children of poor ill-educated families from societies like Mexico, where few peasants escape poverty through the village school. Canada and Australia are also wealthy English-speaking nations with sizable immigrant populations, but their governments carefully dole out visas on the basis of would-be immigrants' education and professional background; in other words, these nations absorb foreigners fully aware of the economic value of education, having already used it to better their lives. (How many disruptive middle-class Chinese- and Indo-Canadians pupils are there in Canadian schools?) When boatloads of much more ordinary Asians approach the shores of Australia, on the other hand, they are received coolly. For better or worse, official US immigration policy is not geared towards this sort of social selection, and whatever the policy may be, the country cannot control the illegal influx over its southern border.
For historical reasons, this problem does not keep me awake at night. America has been flooded with illiterate Irish, Italian and Slavic peasants in the past, yet in three generations the newcomers were almost wholly absorbed into the American middle class. Given half a chance②, the new peasant arrivals from Mexico and farther south will follow the same broad pattern: problems in the first generation, adjustment in the second, advancement in the third.
What particularly troubles me about Ms Partan's article is the statement that "we need to stop blaming poverty, parents or the home environment for the difficulty a child has in learning." Poverty, I agree, is not directly to blame for such difficulties, but parents and the home environment, on the other hand, are crucial factors. Those immigrant parents who recognize at least the economic value of education will be the first to see that their kids cooperate with schoolteachers. If parents take school seriously, by and large children will too, especially in the early years when literacy skills are being mastered —— and they will thrive even in run-down school buildings. Taking school seriously may mean that a parent forgoes some employment opportunities for a while to make sure that children are doing something constructive after school: homework, reading and supervised play, not watching garbage on TV or hanging out in the street. The worst impact of poverty is in making it harder for immigrant parents to assume this role.
Ms Partan seems to attribute the success of children in school above all to good teachers armed with an effective methodology. I am second to none③in my praise of the dedicated pedagogue, but the record of teachers in rescuing children from families where what kids do in school is of no interest to the parents —— or parent —— is not, in my view, encouraging. Most often at least one of the parents has to be reached in order to guarantee that children make progress in school. Where children respect a parent and know that he or she demands good behavior in school, even mediocre or loutish teachers can pull off the trick④of producing modestly literate and numerate children. Which is not to wish bad teachers on children, but merely to suggest where the key to success lies in most cases: with the parent who makes sure the child does its homework.