Failure to excel; who’s to blame?

School has begun. Expectations for teachers, administrators, and districts are high as students enter the classroom for 2008-2009. Unfortunately, we continue to see students’ educational achievement diminish.

  • Wednesday, October 1, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

School has begun. Expectations for teachers, administrators, and districts are high as students enter the classroom for 2008-2009. Unfortunately, we continue to see students’ educational achievement diminish.

Beating up teachers and administrators for low academic achievement – or using the excuse that financial support is lacking – are shortsighted ways to handle a shared frustration. A closer look at America’s family structure could be the answer to this increasing decline.

Dropping educational attainment coincides with a breakdown of the American family and points to a major cause of student failure. It also offers a roadmap to success!

In a recent article, New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us that America’s educational progress between 1870 and 1950 was unparalleled by other countries. In 1890, the average American adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and in 1960, the average American had completed 14 years of school.

America made education a priority and an entitlement for all citizens, not just a path for the elite. Brooks wrote, “In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school.” The United States did. We enrolled 70 percent of older teens.

The advancement that made this nation proud, however, hit a snag around 1970: America’s educational progress began to stagnate, and results fell. At the same time, and not coincidentally, family breakdown skyrocketed. Research suggests that the past 40 years of deteriorating family environments and our educational decline are linked.

Between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of married adults decreased, and the percentage of intact first-time marriages also declined (from 72 to 60 percent). The ratio of births to married parents dropped substantially (from 89 to 67 percent), as did the proportion of children living with two married parents. Cohabitation, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births grew to all-time highs.

Family structure matters when it comes to students’ educational performance. Kids who live with their married parents have a better shot when it comes to school success. The Institute for American Values found that as early as age 3, “a child’s ability to adapt to a class setting is influenced by his or her parents’ marital status. Children growing up without an intact family were three times more likely to experience emotional or behavioral problems.

“Fourth-grade students from intact homes have higher reading scores and teens without intact families are more likely to drop out of school,” the Institute notes.

Preserving marriages and helping to start new relationships off on the right foot should be a priority for society. Our communities, churches, businesses, and nonprofits have a role to play by creating policies and offering programs that help families thrive. That includes premarital counseling, marriage mentorship, family-friendly business practices, and flexible workplace schedules.

Being aware of the challenges facing students who don’t have the benefit of an intact family can help us change their outcome. There are multiple ways to help children succeed in school, whether their parents are married, single, or divorced. To that end, 40 Developmental Assets for three age groups are posted on our Web site, www.FamiliesNW.org. Click on the “back to school” link.

These developmental assets, created by Search Institute (a youth-centered research organization) are essential building blocks of healthy development. The lists offer basic, cost-neutral, employable action suggestions that help parents support children in ways that ensure academic readiness and success.

That will aid not only students, but also it will help ailing schools and teachers battling orders that are too tall.