Communities Affect School Achievement

February 16, 1998

PHILADELPHIA -- How much children learn in school depends in good measure on the attitudes and values of the surrounding community -- and on how much those values are shared by the children themselves -- education experts agreed at a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Philadelphia today (Feb. 16).

Encouragement from adults, federal support and even summer vacation activities have a profound effect on what children learn, education experts reported in a session exploring the cultural and social aspects of educational success.

"When it comes to school achievement, one crucial factor is the level of a community's commitment to education and the level of the children's own continuing commitment to learning what the schools have to teach them," said Ulric Neisser, a Cornell University professor of psychology and a co-organizer and discussant in the AAAS symposium, "Cultural and Social Foundations of School Achievement." "If parents and the community care about schooling, it will get better," Neisser said.

Panelists in the symposium presented findings from a variety of studies:

-- Scholastic achievement of children in Japan, China and other East Asian nations substantially exceeds that of their American peers, especially in mathematics, because children as well as adults in Asian nations believe that learning should be the central focus of children's lives, reported Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Stevenson drew that conclusion after reviewing data from recent international surveys of children's knowledge in mathematics and science. East Asian parents believe that providing a first-class education is among the most important responsibilities of society, Stevenson said.

-- Communities that commit greater resources to their children's education have more effective schools to show for it, said Larry V. Hedges of the University of Chicago. His analysis of three decades of research on school quality in America focused on the relationship between how much money is made available to schools and how successfully those schools teach their pupils. While no single study gave a definitive result, a clear trend emerges from the research as a whole, Hedges said.

-- In "The Schooling of African-American Children: A Proactive Social Capital Analysis," A. Wade Boykin of Howard University described forms of schooling that deliberately build on "the cultural assets that are resident in the experience of many African-American children from low-income backgrounds." That approach, Boykin said, "can reveal and greatly amplify the cognitive and motivational functioning of these children."

-- Exploring data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, David W. Grissmer of Rand Corp. said a deliberate commitment of federal resources to education of minority children during the 1970s and 1980s contributed substantially to gains by black and Hispanic students. Grissmer said the achievement gap was cut in half during that period of federal support.

-- Children's activities during summer vacation may affect school achievement, Karl L. Alexander and Doris R. Entwisle of Johns Hopkins University reported. These researchers repeatedly tested middle-income and low-income children in both September and May. They found that all children learned equally well during the school year, but that middle-income children continued to make modest gains during the summer months, while low-income children did not.

"The common impression that urban public schools are failing our neediest students is very likely wrong," the authors asserted, noting that as long as they are in school, advantaged and disadvantaged children move forward at the same rate. The schools are doing their job, the Johns Hopkins researchers said. The different achievement levels of middle-income and low-income children are evidently influenced by their differential experiences during the summer.

One possible source of those experiences, Neisser suggested, is that the resources available to wealthier families enable their children "to engage in more structured activities, which may provide at least occasional reminders of school-related values." Less affluent children, in contrast, may spend most of the summer engaged in a "youth culture" that has little in common with school values. "In this case, too," Neisser said, "the culture in which schools are embedded has a major impact on the outcomes of education."

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Cornell University

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