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Reform's Other Front

There is no shortage of opinions on why US public schools are not doing better after more than a decade of reform. But one of the more arresting suggestions is that reformers, despite good intentions, just aren't dealing with the real problem.

That's the hypothesis of researchers Laurence Steinberg, Bradford Brown, and Sanford Dornbusch, whose findings are summarized in a new book, "Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do." That last phrase is the tip-off. They indicate the failing lies not with tired teaching methods, but with unengaged parents who allow their offspring to get most of their academic incentives and energies from equally unmotivated peers.

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The authors followed students and parents in nine high schools in California and Wisconsin over a period of years. They found that a quarter to a half of the adults took little interest in their children's education. These folks thought it was the schools' job, not theirs. The kids, lacking any push from home, figured they didn't have much to lose if their grades slipped. Some worried what friends might say if they did better in school.

We doubt this analysis has its finger on the whole problem facing US schools. But it's a significant part of the problem. Nothing substitutes for encouragement at home. Meaningful reform has to include that front.

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