Filling in the Blanks

An excerpt from How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption About Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong by Douglas B. Downey


For at least 13 years, school all but consumes most of a child’s life. Between classes, homework, exams, college applications, field trips, sports, and clubs, the importance of the K-12 school environment to a student’s future success seems inarguable. But in reality, as Douglas B. Downey contends in his latest book, How Schools Really Matter, school is only a small part of a child’s life. Children spend far more time out of school than they do in it. What, then, are the true causes of inequality between students? Read an excerpt from Downey’s book here.

When I present the fact that children are in school such a lim­ited percentage of their life, most people are surprised. But for anyone interested in understanding how schools matter, they should keep [Herbert] Walberg’s 87 percent (the percentage of waking hours not spent in school) in mind. It reminds us that when we’re trying to understand how some aspect of children’s de­velopment is influenced by schools, we can’t forget that chil­dren mostly aren’t there—they’re at home and in their neighborhoods. Even if some children go to school a little more than Walberg’s estimate (mine do), it’s not by much. Unless the kid is at a boarding school, the vast majority of their waking hours are spent outside of school.

That means that there is an eight­-hundred-­pound gorilla in the mix, the home and neighborhood, making it difficult to understand schools’ role. The high reading test scores at East El­ementary may be because of the great teachers, or they may be because of what children experience during the 87 percent of time they aren’t there. And maybe the low reading test scores at Pleasant Street Elementary are due to lousy teachers at the school, but they also could be low in spite of the school. It’s hard to know.

Most people have a general sense that schools aren’t com­pletely responsible for their students’ outcomes. We know that some schools face tougher challenges than others, serving chil­dren who come in with poorer skills and home environments that are less conducive to supporting learning. But we don’t really understand how big a deal this is because we make two er­rors.

First, we underestimate how much early childhood shapes children’s skills and learning trajectories. This is surprising be­cause it seems like there is constant news about the importance of the first three years of life. Nevertheless, most people don’t realize that achievement gaps between advantaged and disad­vantaged children are mostly formed prior to kindergarten. Second, most people overestimate how much schools matter. I don’t mean that they overestimate how much schools influ­ence learning—children really do learn much faster in school versus out—but that they overestimate how much schools in­fluence inequality in skills. It turns out that when we study achievement gaps carefully, and by carefully I mean taking seri­ously the eight-­hundred-­pound gorilla problem, our ideas about how much schools contribute to inequality change in important ways. It becomes clear that schools play a much more limited role than we thought. Indeed, in some ways they even rub the rough edges off inequality.

But we don’t develop a clear understanding of how schools matter unless we keep Walberg in mind, acknowledging the 87 percent of waking time when children are not in school. This huge confound can really distort our understanding. This point is critical because it influences the kind of research best equipped for addressing the problem. When there are such huge differences in the kinds of students one school serves versus an­other, it is very difficult to understand how the schools matter by simply trying to “statistically control” for differences be­tween the students. Not only do eight-­hundred­-pound gorillas get to sleep wherever they want, they are too big to statistically control.

Reprinted with permission from How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption About Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong by Douglas B. Downey, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jayne Ross is the associate editor of the Scholar.


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