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Report: Schools can’t solve social problems for kids

Craig Clough | June 16, 2015



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raising-hands-in-classroomWith the national mood trending toward schools solving more and more of their students’ social problems, a new report by the Economic Policy Institute takes a look at the issues that schools alone cannot solve but depress student performance.

What kind of services public school districts should provide and the problems they should solve seems to be ever expanding. In California and elsewhere, there is a growing level of support for expanding access to preschool. Many districts like LAUSD are now providing breakfast to every student. And a recent lawsuit filed against Compton Unified says the district needs to provide extra support and counseling for students suffering from PTSD.

But the new study, titled “Five Social Disadvantages That Depress Student Performance: Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps,” takes a step back and looks at the issues that impact students but need a larger scope to solve beyond what a school can provide. It also offers suggestions on policies to address the issues.

“That students’ social and economic characteristics shape their cognitive and behavioral outcomes is well established, yet policymakers typically resist accepting that non-school disadvantages necessarily depress outcomes,” the report states. “Rather, they look to better schools and teachers to close achievement gaps, and consistently come up short.” 

The five social class characteristics the report focuses on are:

  • parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development
  • single parenthood
  • parents’ irregular work schedules
  • inadequate access to primary and preventive health care
  • exposure to and absorption of lead in the blood.

“These are not the only characteristics that depress outcomes, nor are they necessarily the most important. This report makes no judgment about the relative importance of the many adverse influences on child and youth development,” the report states. “Parental unemployment and low wages, housing instability, concentration of disadvantage in segregated neighborhoods, stress, malnutrition, and health problems like asthma are among other harmful characteristics.”

The study also compares white families with black families on the five points it explores, ignoring Hispanic families due to a lack of enough data.

For example, on the issue of irregular work schedules, the report states: “Children of mothers with non-standard schedules have worse verbal and other cognitive skills, mental health, and behavior. New regulatory policies—for example, requiring call-in pay for workers sent home before shifts end—could create incentives for employers to reduce use of ‘just-in-time’ employee scheduling.”

The report concludes that “policies other than school improvement should be given strong consideration, as should the possibility that at least some of these policies may be more powerful levers for raising the achievement of disadvantaged children than the school improvement strategies that policymakers conventionally consider and advocate.”

Click here to read the full report.

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