Education, Equity and the Family

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 1, 2008.

Responding to John Curry, Sorry, Barack, but teachers aren’t the saviors you think they are . . .

Would have been nice if you could link to the Obama quote, so readers could fact-check it. But anyhow...

Quotes like that are common from politicians, not just Obama. It is usual to hear that 'teachers are the most important factor' in an education. This refrain comes from all sides of the political spectrum, and are uttered as some sort of initiation rite.

That said, from everything I've seen or heard, the best predictor of educational outcome is socio-economic status. Poverty is routinely related to health and nutritional issues, which in turn have a direct impact on capacity. Children living in impoverished homes are usually subject to different sets of expectations, which in turn impacts their motivations and drivers. Children living in impoverished homes will be more likely to work, more likely to walk rather than ride or drive, more likely to have to do things by hand rather than use a tool, all of which impact the amount of time they can spend learning. And children living in impoverished homes typically have access to far fewer educational resources outside the home.

All of this is well known, which it is why it is no surprise to see those countries that address social and economic inequities in society, particularly as they affect learning, to have the highest scores in international testing, such as PISA, to have the highest levels of educational attainment, and to be centres of economic stability and innovation.

The cynical me thinks that politicians say 'teachers are the most important factor' because they can then address simple factors, like funding for teachers, or testing to evaluate the result of teaching, instead of addressing the really expensive and complex factors that impact on education.

So - when a person criticizes Obama for saying 'teachers are the most important factor', I have to ask, is it because they are prepared to address, on a society-wide level, the inequities that impair a child's ability to learn?

It's all very well to day "it's up to the family" - but from where I sit I observe that children don't choose their families, that many families are dysfunctional, and that many children have partial families or no families at all. The fact is, though the family forms the basic social unit for many, it by no means forms the basic social unit for all, and is in many ways insufficient to address the factors that impact learning.

When 50 million Americans, for example, are without health care insurance, you can't address inequities in health care simply by saying "the family should provide it." That is tantamount to washing your hands of the whole issue, shrugging your shoulders and saying, "well I guess nothing can be done." The reality is that many *families* are suffering from poor or nonexistent health care, and are passing this on to their children.

I have no problem with a person focusing their beliefs and their value system on the family - but if this translates into a value system that does nothing for impoverished families, or does nothing for people without families, well then I see the focus on family as nothing but a well-developed excuse system.

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