Douglas Downey, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, said at a talk Thursday that American public schools deserve two cheers, but not quite three.
In a lecture at the sociology building at 8 Prospect Pl., Downey told an audience of about 35 graduate students and faculty that the American school system is less faulty than many people believe. He argued that more attention should be paid to the time students are not in school, which he said accounts for about 87 percent of their waking hours. Downey noted that the disparity in learning between students of high and low socioeconomic background increases most when these students are not in school.
“I’m not going to completely dismiss concerns, but schools are doing really well,” Downey said, admitting that there are shortcomings within American schools, but making an optimistic case for their achievements.
“We expect schools to reduce inequality and provide a ladder for mobility, and on all of these accounts we’ve heard serious complaints,” he added. “I’m not going to discount those concerns, but I’m going to make the case that schools are doing better than we typically think.”
Downey called attention to studies on kindergarten and first-grade students, which he said demonstrate that the disparity in the cognitive skills of students with high and low socioeconomic statuses widens over the course of the summer vacation.
“There are lot of different reasons for believing that schools are engines of inequality,” Downey said. “But if we take seriously the 87 percent of time that children are outside of school, it changes our way of thinking.”
Schools are not being viewed in context, Downey said, if they are being blamed for factors outside of their control. Just as police are not entirely to blame for high crime areas, teachers are not entirely to blame for poor academic performance, he said, noting that teachers are often unfairly held accountable for the performance of their schools.
Downey proposed two changes in educational policy. First, he suggested that schools be evaluated in terms of students’ growth, rather than their achievements; judging schools by achievement levels, he said, mislabels many effective institutions as failed schools. . Secondly, he suggested that the government increase the number of school days, reducing the amount of time students are not in a structured learning environment. He drew attention to the success of charter schools that follow this model, linking this policy to the students’ success.
Following the talk, Downey opened up the floor for questions. Some audience members asked about the consequences of Downey’s view and agreed with Downey about the need for more available data. But some audience members also voiced concern that his view would be difficult to implement as policy, as it concerns the private home life of families.
“I never said this was going to be easy,” Downey responded. “But that doesn’t mean that’s not really where the issue lies. I think it’s important to identify where the engine of the problem is.”
Marianne Wilson GRD ’14, who is currently conducting similar research in education, said non-school environments “should be looked at,” as Downing suggested, but she recommended a closer examination before adopting Downey’s proposed perspective.
Jensen Sass GRD ’13, a student in the sociology department, remarked that he enjoyed the presentation, which covered policy research that he praised as “relevant.”
Downey closed his presentation with a slide titled “five minutes with Obama.” If anyone in the audience could get him those 5 minutes, he joked, he would be happy to talk to him.