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Student and Family Background - How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Although evidence about the influence of student and family backgrounds on student success in school is incontrovertible (e.g., Henderson, 1987; Sanders and Epstein, 1998; Snow et al., 1991; Walberg, 1984), there remains considerable conflict about how this variable should be addressed in district and school improvement efforts. Such conflicts are based on two largely incompatible views of public schools.

The "independent producers" view: This view holds that schools are largely separate from the rest of society and capable of doing their job well in the absence of much interaction with families, communities and the wider world. Schools have "no excuses" for failing to teach all children to the same high standards. Two quite different groups of people advocate this view: one group (not much concerned with equity) believes that if school professionals were more highly motivated, problems of low student achievement would be solved; a second group (passionately concerned about equity) believes that the solution is much more complicated but believes that even to acknowledge such complexity decreases the school's motivation to achieve high standards with children who, traditionally, do not do well in school.

The "interdependent co-contributor" view: This view holds that schools must certainly continue to improve what happens inside their buildings. But they stand little chance of addressing the needs especially of highly diverse populations unless the boundaries of their work encompass children’s experiences in the home and wider community. Those adhering to this view typically value equity as a prominent goal for public schools and consider the building of productive working relationships with parents and the wider community part of the core mission of schools; schools cannot overlook the social and emotional needs of students manifest in classrooms every day.

These two views of schooling have strong roots in political ideology. The independent producers view, as advocated by those not much concerned with equity, is closely aligned with the ideology of the political right, while those in the middle to the left of the political spectrum may adhere to either view depending on their understandings about what works best for children’s learning. Because political ideologies represent more or less coherent value systems, they are quite useful for many purposes. But they also get in the way of pursuing shared values. As we see with the two groups of “no excuses” advocates, ideology sometimes does not help us to decide how best to realize our most fundamental values. Empirical evidence bearing on this matter supports four claims.

The first claim is that a family’s socio-economic status is strongly related to student learning and behavior. Beginning with the now-famous evidence reported by Coleman and his colleagues (1966), study after study suggests that socioeconomic status (SES) of families explains more than half of the difference in student achievement across schools; it is also highly related to violence, dropping out of school, entry to postsecondary education and levels of both adult employment and income.

Schools serving low SES families often find themselves in an "iron circle" that begins with the family’s impoverished economic conditions. These conditions may be a consequence of unemployment, recent immigration, high mobility, family breakups and the like. These conditions often give rise to such family risk factors as erratic parenting skills, poor parental supervision, low family income, poverty, isolation, family violence, abuse, neglect, and parental conflict. Low SES families are more likely to have low expectations for their children’s performance at school. Impoverished economic conditions increase the chances of families struggling to survive in communities living in highdensity housing and their members suffering from malnutrition, other health problems and substance abuse. These are community risk factors, as are high turnover of residences and lack of facilities and services for young people.

A second claim is that a family's economic status (SES) influences learning indirectly by shaping the educational culture of the home. Some low SES families have children who do very well at school. In fact, SES is a relatively crude proxy for a set of family and community conditions and interactions considerably more direct in their impact on student success than SES. These conditions and interactions constitute the family's educational culture; they vary widely across families, occasionally without much relation to income or other social variables, although the relationship between SES and family educational cultures is both positive and significant.

At the core of family educational cultures are the assumptions, norms and beliefs held by the family about intellectual work in general and school work in particular. The behaviors and conditions resulting from these assumptions are related to school success by a substantial body of evidence. Walberg (1984) concluded that family educational culture includes family work habits, academic guidance and support provided to children and stimulation to think about issues in the larger environment. Other components resulting from Walberg’s analysis include academic and occupational aspirations and expectations of parents or guardians for their children, the provision of adequate health and nutritional conditions and physical settings in the home conducive to academic work. Communities are able to supplement and sometimes substitute for some dimensions of family educational cultures in ways we touch on below.

A third important claim justified by the evidence is that strong family educational cultures provide children with intellectual, social and emotional capacities which greatly improve their chances of mastering the school curriculum. Family cultures are only the first part of the explanation for differences in student success. Primary mechanisms joining particular types of family educational cultures with student success are the capacities children acquire by virtue of experiences with, and relationships among, immediate and extended family members. Such "social capital" is comprised of the assets people accrue by virtue of their relationship with other individuals and networks of people. Depending on the existence of high levels of trust, these assets may take a number of forms, such as reciprocal obligations, access to information and norms that enforce functional behavior.

The fourth and final claim warranted by available evidence is that the wider communities in which the children live also contribute to the capacities needed for school success. The old adage that "it takes a village to raise a child" also reminds us that the nuclear, or even the extended family, is not the only source of social capital for a child. Community agencies, neighbors, churches, clubs and the like are all capable of contributing to this form of capital. In the best of circumstances, these networks, people and agencies form strong communities based on familiarity, interdependence and commitment to a common purpose; they may add to the capital provided by healthy family cultures or compensate for unhealthy cultures. But this means that children living in unhealthy family cultures situated in weak community cultures face especially difficult challenges.

This evidence makes clear that leaders cannot view the school and the students' homes in isolation from one another; leaders need to understand how schools and homes interconnect with each other and with the world at large and how their schools can increase the productivity of such interconnections for student learning. Examples of school-sponsored practices aimed at building more productive family educational cultures about which considerable evidence has accumulated include: school-community partnerships, which although difficult to implement in some social contexts (e.g., Griffi th, 2001; Hatton, 2001) can have dramatic effects on student success at school (Henderson and Berla, 1994); parent education programs (e.g., Cheng, Gorman and Balter, 1997); and school-linked, integrated, social services (e.g., Smrekar and Mawhinney,1999). Leaders may provide the stimulus for adopting and implementing school-sponsored practices such as these.

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