COLUMN: Schools not all to blame

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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As I type these words, I have an excruciating toothache. And it’s made me realize that we blame schools too much for our children’s problems.

(Keep reading. That’ll make sense eventually.)

Earlier this month, a research arm of UNICEF issued a report dryly titled, “An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries.” Its goal was to measure how children in 21 well-off nations – mostly the U.S., plus much of Europe – compared with one another. It took dozens of measures from each of the countries and compiled them into a series of ratings.

The results were pretty miserable for fans of the Stars and Stripes.

Overall, children in the United States finished 20th, beating out only Great Britain.

Gather the torches and pitchforks, right? That sort of pathetic showing surely must be the fault of lazy teachers, incompetent principals and administration bureaucrats!

Not quite. Actually, in the one UNICEF rating that schools have some impact on – what the study calls “educational well-being” – America does OK. Not great, mind you, but our 12th-place showing in schooling was easily the best we did in any category.

Our test scores are below average, and we have more dropouts than we should. But according to UNICEF, our schools are earning a solid C-minus.

It’s the rest of society that’s dragging down our grade point average.

How about “material well-being,” a measure the richest country in human history should fare well in? We finished 17th. We have more of our kids living in poverty than any other rich country. We’re near the bottom in how many books our kids have in their homes.

How about “health and safety”? We all care about protecting our kids, right? Then why do we have the second highest rate of infant mortality in the study, barely edging out Hungary? Why are we second from the bottom in the percentage of our kids who die from accidents or violence? Why does UNICEF rate us dead last out of 21 nations overall?

Maybe you think we’ll do better in “family and peer relationships.” Sorry – try 20th place. We have more of our kids living in single-parent homes than anywhere else. We’re near the bottom in how often kids eat dinner with their parents and in how many of our kids rate their friends as “kind and helpful.”

The final category the United States was rated in was “behaviors and risks.” (Or, as those Euro-loving UNICEF types spell it, “behaviours.”) Again, we finished second to last. Our kids lead the most unhealthy lifestyles, eating more and junkier food. They also smoke more pot and, by far, have the most babies of their own.

I’m sure there are ways to quibble with UNICEF’s numbers. (And I’m sure the tinfoil-hat-wearing portion of our readership won’t believe anything that comes from the U.N.)

But the story line is clear: Our kids are in trouble, and for reasons that have nothing to do with schools and teachers and superintendents. By the time a kid turns 18, she’s only spent about one-eighth of her life on a school campus. The rest of the time, she’s at home, at the mall, with her friends – places a teacher can’t easily reach.

As the Texas Legislature meets in Austin, they’re considering a number of changes to the state’s school rating system. The assumption behind some of the proposals is that schools need more pressure to perform well. Set higher standards on the TAKS test, the argument goes, and schools will find a way to meet them.

The testing and ratings systems of the past decade have led to student gains and helped in some ways. But I wonder if we’re hitting the ceiling for how much good more pressure can do.

There have been any number of studies showing that between 70 and 80 percent of a school’s academic performance is based solely on the socioeconomic background of its students – whether it’s handed poor kids, middle-class kids, or rich kids.

Let’s say the quality of a child’s parenting takes up another 10 or 15 percent. That doesn’t leave much space for schools to maneuver in.

So what does all this have to do with my tooth? (My left maxillary second molar, if you must know.)

Because of a poorly done root canal six years ago – finally come home to roost – I’ve spent much of the last week in various states of agony, shuffling back and forth to the dentist’s office. I tried to work on a few stories I’m writing, but the persistent firebombing in my mouth kept distracting me. Then I remembered reading a study a couple of years ago that found access to dental care was a small but significant factor in how kids did in school. If a family can’t afford regular trips to the dentist, there’s a good chance their kid will have toothaches. A federal study found that poor children are three times more likely to have an untreated cavity than middle-class children. And a kid with a toothache is going to have more trouble concentrating in class than his pain-free neighbor.

Would universal dental care boost our test scores? Maybe a little, but that’s not the point. The point is that there’s not that much teachers can do, on any sort of scale, about their students’ teeth – or any of the other factors that keep kids from being teen Einsteins.

Blaming schools for problems beyond their control doesn’t help. And putting more pressure on schools to solve them won’t, either.