I really don’t understand how Facebook works, and resist learning. I am at every moment on the verge of quitting Facebook because I don’t get it, I don’t like it, and I have privacy concerns. But I do check my account every so often. Last night I saw that one of my FB friends in St. Francisville, my hometown, expressed concern that the local school district, which has long been one of the best in the state, scored a “B” in the state education department’s first-ever “letter-grade” ratings. Only one public school district in the entire state earned an A – and it wasn’t theirs. Local folks have been justifiably proud of the West Feliciana Parish school system for so long that this rating understandably comes as a shock to many of them.

Now, the typical thing when ratings like this come out is to figure out what the teachers in the school or school system are doing wrong, and figure out how to compel them to change. I have long been skeptical of this approach. Of course there are bad teachers, and of course it makes sense that a school system would seek ways to get rid of the bad ones and help the others to improve. I get that. I support it. But what this approach doesn’t take into consideration is the possibility that the problem is not entirely, or even mostly, with substandard teachers or flawed pedagogy. What if the problem is with the students and their dysfunctional family situations?

My late sister Ruthie, as longtime readers know, taught in the West Feliciana parish schools. It’s important to know that West Feliciana is a rural parish with a fair amount of poverty. Half the people are black, half are white. When I was growing up there, a huge number of the black kids with whom I was in school did not have fathers in the home — a social fact that has been strongly correlated with substandard achievement in school. I doubt that this has changed, and in fact I know anecdotally that more white kids there come from homes like this. Only a small number of people with college degrees live in the parish (caveat: the Census data are skewed because the state penitentiary is in the northwestern corner of the parish). Everybody goes to the same schools — I mean, almost everybody goes to the public schools, and there is only one high school, one middle school, and one elementary school for the entire parish. The motto for the local schools is, “Here comes everybody.”

A decade or more ago, I was back home visiting and helping Ruthie grade papers. I was shocked by how many fairly easy questions many of her kids were missing. Exasperated, I asked her what the deal was. She gave me an education.

“Take this kid here,” she said, pointing to the paper in my hand. “A couple of years ago, his mother dropped him off on her parents’ doorstep on Christmas Eve, and disappeared. He’s still trying to deal with that.”

And she went through the stack of papers, telling me the personal back stories of many of these kids who were scoring so low. It was a catalogue of adult failure. I began to see the children as Ruthie did: largely as victims of the failures of the adults in their lives to do right by them. One of her kids — and if memory serves, these were 11 and 12 year olds — had lived through two divorces. On and on, things like this. Absolutely heartbreaking stuff. Ruthie said, “When you think about the lives these kids have at home, it’s a wonder they even make it to school in the morning.”

She went on to say that people expect teachers not only to be social workers, but to be miracle workers, and it’s neither realistic nor just.

I had a similar conversation years ago with a public schoolteacher friend in California, who told me how unfair it was that many public schools in her state were held hostage to social dysfunction in the families of their students. Her school had a large number of Hispanic students whose parents were recent immigrants. N., my teacher friend, said that the attitude of these immigrant parents toward education, and their expectations for their children’s study habits, were atrocious — certainly by comparison to her Asian immigrant students, whose parents had even more trouble with the language situation, but whose personal culture was far more accommodating to educational goals. For example, N. told me, many of her Hispanic kids would disappear for two or three weeks at a time during the school year. This was when their families went back to Mexico for extended visits, the teacher said. So, children in these families would return to school having missed weeks of instruction, and without the kind of help at home they absolutely needed to catch up.

How do you think schools with significant populations of students like this did in testing and evaluation? Teachers and administrators stood to lose their jobs or at least have them significantly affected because of these “failing” schools, despite the fact that the reasons particular schools might be failing have nothing to do with the quality of instruction. Nobody has yet figured out how to reliably educate children who come from homes where education is not strongly valued or other cultural barriers to educational achievement, or where there is significant family instability. But we are prepared to blame public school teachers for other people’s failures. This is what No Child Left Behind all but guarantees. No politician has ever been elected telling his constituents that if they want their kids to get a good education, they’ve got to clean up their own lives and do their part in service to their children, because however difficult it may be, there really is no other way. You can pour all the money you want into a school, but if the parents aren’t playing their role in the mission, it will be money wasted. For example.

Mind you, I have absolutely no idea why the West Feliciana public school system got a “B” rating from the state. Maybe there are some improvements the school system can make. Or maybe they’re doing the very best that can be expected under local conditions. I don’t know. I do want to say, though, that as a general matter, economist Robert Samuelson is right:

Americans have an extravagant faith in the ability of education to solve all manner of social problems. In our mind’s eye, schools are engines of progress that create opportunity and foster upward mobility. To the contrary, these persistent achievement gaps demonstrate the limits of schools to compensate for problems outside the classroom – broken homes, street violence, indifference to education – that discourage learning and inhibit teaching. As child-psychologist Jerome Kagan points out, a strong predictor of children’s school success is the educational attainment of their parents. The higher it is, the more parents read to them, inform and encourage them.

For half a century, successive waves of “school reform” have made only modest headway against these obstacles. It’s an open question whether the present “reform” agenda, with its emphasis on teacher accountability, will do better. What we face is not an engineering problem; it’s overcoming the legacy of history and culture. The outcome may affect our economic competitiveness less than our success at creating a just society.

Teachers can help a kid learn grammar. They can help a kid learn algebra. They can help a kid learn history. But they cannot fix a dysfunctional culture and a broken society, and it is unfair that we expect this of them, and that we build a regimen of “school accountability” that punishes public schools for things they cannot reasonably be expected to have done.

UPDATE: Just got this from a parent and friend who lives in the broader West Feliciana area, but whose kids are in a nearby parish’s school system:

Check out this website to get a clear understanding of why/when they are now reporting letter grades:

From what I understand from a letter that we received from [my son's] school, much of this “grading” also depends on previous goals that were set by that parish and meeting/exceeding/falling short of meeting those goals.  So, I don’t necessarily know if a “B” is unacceptable or an insult to the teaching staff.  Zachary, for example, has an “A”, and if you had just a few select parents to engage from the Zachary school district, you would learn quickly that Zachary will always rise above our other districts.  Please note that this is not because Zachary has better teachers, have students that are far advanced for our state, etc.  No sir, it is because Zachary refuses to take those children that Ruthie loved and described to you under their wings.  Zachary will ONLY keep on its books the students that will get that “A” rating for them.  Pisses me off to say the least.  Any child that does not show that character, any child that is struggling, becomes labeled and Zachary quickly starts trying to get them out of Zachary and into an alternative school.  I am serious Rod, it is pathetic.

So, don’t worry so much about that “B” standing, worry that the teachers in West Fel will become discouraged by that “B” and try to make it an “A” at any cost.  It just isn’t worth it.