The Problem With Education: It’s Not Just the Schools

By David Low, MD, PhD1 and Barbara J. Low, Dr. PH2

1Professor Emeritus, University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston TX

2Adjunct Faculty, Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada


Tain’t what a man don’t know that makes him ignorant. It’s what he knows that ain’t so.” Samuel Clemens

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain)

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain)

What do we know about education that ain’t so? A partial listing would include the following bits of conventional but misguided wisdom:

  • Across the nation, schools are failing to teach our children effectively.
  • They fail because teachers aren’t accountable, don’t administer sufficiently rigorous curricula, won’t do enough testing or won’t maintain discipline in the classroom.
  • American children don’t do nearly as well as their counterparts in other developed countries on tests of reading, math, and science.
  • Education begins in kindergarten.

Whatever it is, it is important that we get the education problem right. Perhaps most importantly for individuals, education, health, and life expectancy are very closely linked–the longer you stay in school, the longer you are likely to live. For the nation, information is the currency of this age, and functional literacy is the critical element for understanding and using information effectively. Our own research work and that of many others clearly shows that while the future of our country may well be at risk in the new information age, it isn’t just because of what is or is not happening in American classrooms. Out of ignorance or unwillingness to face hard truths, we may be on our way to making some very expensive mistakes by trying to fix the education problem in the wrong place in the wrong way.

The real problems confronting education and educators are a consequence of the catenary chain of events that follows from the dramatic differences in people’s social and economic circumstances across this vast and varied country. Test scores that typically are reported as national averages obscure significant regional differences in student achievement. In reality students in some American States perform on a level with the best in the world, while some perform at a level below almost any other developed country. A better understanding of why these differences exist, and persist, can point the way to effective and lasting interventions.

We believe that the “problem” with education is not just that schools aren’t doing their job. Clearly many are doing a superb job. If some can do it, they all can do it; at least if they can work with the same range of student abilities and available teaching resources.   But not all children come to school with the same advantages. The differences between children that develop as they grow up in relatively enriched or impoverished circumstances, lead to vastly different levels of personal mastery, attitudes toward success, beliefs about education, and abilities to learn before they ever get to school. Inequalities in these personal “spiritual” resources, in Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel’s terms, are as important as material ones. Our greatest concern should be for the inevitable consequences of not addressing the conditions that lead to these differences.

What are those consequences? There are many, but the most costly in both human and economic terms is perpetuation of disadvantage. Along with the loss of social capital, we pay a price in human suffering and the highest health care costs in the world. A great deal of research in the USA and elsewhere has shown that health status in a population follows a gradient that is a function of social position. Those on top not only enjoy higher incomes, they are also healthier than those who are less fortunate. The greater the differences in economic status, the greater the differences in health status. As the economic gulf widens, the health gulf widens. Ominously, income differences between the most well-off and the least well-off in America are getting wider, and it is this deepening and hardening of social stratification that poses the real threat to America’s future. (Low & Low, 2006: http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2006/11/pfor1-0611.html)

Because of strong evidence linking educational attainment to social position and life’s chances generally, we are working to identify the personal and social determinants of educational success and health among children in America. Looking at personal, parental, social/cultural, economic, and school-specific factors, we are asking the questions “Which American children will succeed,” and “How can we ensure that all children have a fair chance to succeed in school, and in life?”

Using data from state and district levels across the entire United States and with standardized math and reading test scores of 4th– and 8th-grade students as our initial measure of “success,” the most striking finding is the geographic distribution of scores. The average scores of children from schools in states north of the Mason-Dixon line are all at or above the national average. In comparison to other countries, the scores from Iowa, Minnesota, and a few other northern-tier states are consistently on par with the best in the developed world. It is a very different story for children going to school below the Mason-Dixon line. With the exceptions of North Carolina and Virginia, their average scores are all below the national average. Mississippi and Louisiana are very much below, on par with the worst performing countries in the OECD. California and Hawaii also do poorly, but native language and culture appear to be the primary reasons for their performance on standardized tests. (NAEP, 2014: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/assessmentsched.aspx)

The strongest statistical correlations between math and reading test scores are with personal factors specific to the students themselves, their parents and families, and resources in their homes. Teachers’ experience, and personal and regional economic conditions are also important factors. It is clear that an exclusive focus on schools will miss most of the critical factors that lead to success for children, both in school and in life. The case of Washington, D.C., where they spend nearly twice as much per student as in Montana, for example, with significantly worse outcomes, shows that money alone, even large amounts of it, is not the answer either. Learning and education begin at birth, not in kindergarten. Even more importantly, a child’s early life experiences are critical factors for brain development. Both positive and negative experiences have very long-lasting effects.

What is really needed is a comprehensive and integrated model for optimal early childhood development, health, and education that can be applied in every community in America, securely supported by federal, state, and local resources–something like a strengthened and expanded version of Georgia’s Bright From The Start programs. (Bright From the Start, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning: http://decal.ga.gov/#1)   We need to think of our common responsibilities for the education of our children in these terms and begin to create policies that reflect such understanding. Our children deserve it, and our country needs it.   

Peer-Reviewed Reference:

Low, B. J., & Low, M. D. (2006). Education and education policy as social determinants of health. American Medical Association Virtual Mentor, Journal of Ethics, 8(11), 756-761. Retrieved from http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2006/11/pfor1-0611.html

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