Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Accountability/Under-performing Schools

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How should society respond to under-performing schools?
Of all developed countries, only two systematically have spent less money educating poor children than wealthy children. One is South Africa, and the other is the United States.

—Paul Tractenberg, a founder of New Jersey’s Education Law Center (Gross, 1999)

Most Americans are armchair critics of our education system and are quick to point out the decline in the quality of education for our nation's children. Wouldn’t it be nice if they stopped complaining and became proactive for the benefit of the students? Who is responsible for the quality of education for our nation’s youth? Yes, the accountability lies partially with teachers and schools. Our education system is certainly far from perfect and we need to personally evaluate our respective state education policies. However the state of our country’s academic achievement is “due more to the conditions of students’ lives outside of school than it is to what takes place within school walls.”(Steinberg, 1996). A large portion of the accountability should be placed on us, the citizens. If our students are failing, it is a reflection of our actions or inactions. The education system that our children have is the one that we have given them. Let us look at the possible causes of under-performance in our schools and how we as a society can contribute to finding a solution.

Acknowledge the Problem[edit]

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gives us a report card on our nation’s educational status. Of the tested fourth grade students in 2005, only 35% were found to be proficient in math, and 30% were proficient in reading (School Matters, 2005). The Kansas Action for Children has come up with six basic red flag conditions to identify students with high risk for underachievement. They are:

  • The head of the household is a high school drop-out
  • The children have no health insurance
  • The family lives in poverty
  • Only one parent lives in the home
  • Neither parent works full time
  • The family receives welfare benefits

A large portion of failure among students is attributed to their personal attitudes toward the importance of academic success, peer opinions toward academic priorities, media influences, and time spent in leisure and other activities outside school (Steinberg, 1996). Academically many underachieving students credit their failures to causes other than a lack of hard work. Our graduates are among the least educated in the world (Steinberg, 1996).

Laurence Steinberg credits the biggest problem for children as being “the high prevalence of disengaged parents in contemporary America” in his book Beyond the Classroom. Steinberg goes on to say that “one in three parents is seriously disengaged” from their child’s educational performance and only one out of five parents attend school programs and functions on a regular basis (Steinberg, 1996). Parents must make education a priority not only to themselves, but instill an importance of educational success in our homes. “Students need to believe that their performance in school genuinely matters in order to do well in the classroom,” (Steinberg, 1996). We can also enforce good time management skills which will benefit our children not simply through school but as an essential asset in life (Friedman, 2005). We must become involved in our children’s lives, regardless of the demands on our own. Our children must be our top priority! Lack of parental involvement is a predictor for “drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency and violence, suicide, and sexual precocity.” (Steinberg, 1996). We must carefully guard our children’s activities, the amount of time they spend in leisure activities, the content of the media that they view, and even the quality of people surrounding them (Steinberg, 1996). “Nearly one-fifth of all students say they do not try as hard as they can in school because they are worried about what their friends might think.” (Steinberg, 1996).

Generate Interest[edit]

This information is intimidating to a society seeking to help. We must formulate a plan of action for helping our nation’s students. As a whole we need to become interested in the future of our schools and recognize ourselves as being accountable to our nation’s youth for enforcing a response proportionate to their need (Meier, 2004). Apathetic attitudes and ignorance must not be accepted. We must generate awareness and interest in the academic situation (Popham, 2004). We must ask ourselves a few key questions about our communities, such as how we should judge the condition of the schools closest to us, whether they are well maintained, if the areas they are in are high in crime or violence, what type of role models or mentors we think the children in our neighborhoods see, if the school is in a low income area, and how these factors contribute to an environment conducive to learning and social behaviors desirable for our youth (Eighmey). We need to evaluate our schools on the basis of where we live before we begin to assess how we can best help.

Becoming Informed[edit]

Evaluating our schools accurately requires that we ask the right people the right questions. We must dig for telling facts and not simply be satisfied with the “everything is fine” educational bureaucratic glaze (Popham, 2004). On a national and local level we can search for information on the schools near us and state wide through the local department of education website as well as other sites that gathers and publishes information from the various states. We can also contact our Representatives, local board of education, and even specific principals (Popham, 2004). A few of the questions we need answered are:

  • What tests are used in our state to satisfy the provisions of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act)?
  • Do they help our state’s teachers in their efforts to promote students’ progress?
  • How many content standards do our state’s NCLB tests attempt to assess?
  • What increase is required each year in the proportion of a school’s students who must score at a proficient-or-above level on our state’s NCLB- required tests?
  • What are our state’s academic achievement standards?
  • Does our state’s assessment test accurately represent the education our students are receiving? (Popham, 2004)

This last question is especially important. Schools where testing is not difficult enough will reflect inflated, unrealistic scores (Steinberg, 1996). The more dangerous alternative is that the state adopted achievement tests are too difficult and therefore create tendencies for teachers to teach the students just the sampling of information on the standardized testing instead of giving them a well rounded education (Popham, 2004).

Getting Involved[edit]

If we as individuals find the necessary answers to these questions and are dissatisfied with the results, then we are obligated to take action. We must speak out against faulty systems when educators cannot for fear of professional backlash (Meier, 2004). Those of us outside the schools can take action by supporting organizations of change like the Children’s Defense Fund (Steinberg, 1996), promoting awareness through local media (Karp,2003), telling other concerned citizens you know (Wood, 1992), and supporting media which promotes education and disassociates from poor role model images and messages of glorified violence (Steinberg, 1996).

As a community we need to welcome the opportunities to interact with schools, not view them as institutions to occupy children by contacting state and local policy makers, becoming a community activist, becoming a program, teacher, and child advocate, making sure we are voting and researching the history of candidates in relation to education issues (Karp, 2003), and supporting legislation to equalize the amount spent per student regardless of community incomes (Wood, 1992). We can volunteer at schools or seek to open free tutoring and assistance centers (Friedman, 2005). One wonderful example of community involvement in education is a church in Hampton, Virginia, called Six House. Six House runs a three-day-a-week after school homework club. Local citizens and high school students volunteer to work to help children. Businesses can help to support schools through training programs and donations. We must all try to play a part to create a community that nurtures education. As parents, or those who care for children, we bear a great responsibility for the performance level of our children. Parent involvement is essential for the success of a child’s academic career (Steinberg, 1996).


Clearly the responsibility of the state of our nation’s education belongs not simply to the teachers, administrators, and politicians, but to every citizen. If we become participants in education through the discovery of relevant facts, active as individuals doing our part, and a community seeking to take pride in our children, then we might say we have fulfilled our obligation to the students. We must provide our children with the opportunity to succeed by doing what we can as a society. It is then and only then that we can pretend to assign blame to teachers or programs. The actions that we take or choose to ignore will predict our path as a future nation. “Solving America’s achievement problem will require a national effort that involves not only schools, but parents, employers, the mass media, and ultimately students themselves.” (Steinberg 1996).

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Which of the below indicators for underachievement is not listed by the Kansas Action for Children?
A. No health insurance.
B. Family living in poverty.
C. Not having attended a preschool.
D. No parents in the home work full time.
E. None of the above.

C. Not having attended a preschool.

If I were evaluating a school in my neighborhood what might I ask?
A. How many playgrounds do they have?
B. Are they in areas of crime or violence?
C. What kind of car does the principal drive?
D. How many buses do they have?
E. None of the above.

B. Are they in areas of crime or violence?

To investigate schools I might contact all of these except:
A. The local law enforcement agency
B. The board of education
C. Local principals
D. The department of education (state or national)
A. All of the above

A. The local law enforcement agency

If I ran a community center what could I do to help local students?
A. Only use recycled paper.
B. Start new sports teams.
C. Start an open invitation pizza night for socialization.
D. Start a volunteer-based homework club or tutoring site.
E. None of the above.

D. Start a volunteer-based homework club or tutoring site.

As a parent or caregiver what should I pay special attention to in the home?
A. My involvement with school and school activities.
B. Filtering the media influences on children.
C. Being mindful of my child's peers.
D. Limiting my child's leisure activities or work schedule.
E. All of the above.

E. All of the above.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

In your opinion what might be the reasoning for a teacher to only teach test required material? Do you agree or disagree?

The simple idea of a teacher only teaching material related to one test is contradictory to the concept of education itself! Teachers do this in order to meet demands of administrations, of school boards, and even of Washington. If the students do not make their score goals, there are penalties. These penalties are almost more for teachers and schools. So these schools are not pursuing achievement solely for the benefit of the students, but as a defense mechanism for themselves.

As educators, our main concern should be the children above all else. They need a well rounded education, not cliff notes for the SOLs. How can we assign so much weight to one test as to allow it to pass or fail and entire grade level? Children do not complete an entire grade through one test; let’s not fail them in one. This is the system we have put into place. We have become so test-crazed that we are teaching students the answers instead of the questions. Let’s not make learning about the tests, but about the pursuit of knowledge and individual growth. Our students are the ones that are being failed by the very system that was designed to help them. A veteran teacher said "Students are learning a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing". I know as an educator I want to be part of a change to do better by our schools and students.


  • Eighmey, Eighmey's Think Tank: the community. Retrieved February 2, 2007, from Eighmey's Think Tank Web site: http;//
  • Friedman, M.I. (2005). No school left behind. Columbia, South Carolina: The Institute for Evidence-Based Decision-Making in Education, Inc..
  • Gross, M. L. (1999). The Conspiracy of Ignorance. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Karp, S. (2003). Rethinking school reform: Views from the classroom. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools, Ltd..
  • Meier, D., Kohn A., Darling-Hammond L., Sizer T.R.,& Wood G. (2004). Many children left behind. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
  • Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the classroom: Why school reform has failed and what parents need to do. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • (2005). United States Public Schools, Public School Districts- Overview. Retrieved February 9, 2007, from School Matters: A Service of Standard & Poor's Web site: