An earlier version of this essay appears in educational Horizons 85,4 (Summer 2007)

Power Failure:
Why U.S. School Reform Persistently Misses the Mark

by Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

Imagine you walk into a dark room, flip on the lights -- and nothing happens. You try the switch again. Still nothing. What's wrong? It could be the bulb. But perhaps the switch is faulty. Possibly a circuit breaker tripped. Maybe electrical power is down in the neighborhood. In short, there are many possibilities.

Similarly, when students aren't evidencing the desired learning, the problem may or may not be the school based. For decades both state and national officials have complained that U.S. school kids aren't learning as much as they should. But these critics typically presuppose that the problem is school based. They are, in a sense, fixated on one element of a complex system—say, the light bulb—while ignoring the fact that the problem might be with the switch, or the circuit breaker, or the wiring, and so forth.

Denny's Story

Experienced teachers know that non-school problems often cause poor school performance. For instance, I recall one student—we'll call him Denny—who regularly fell sound asleep in my seventh-grade class. Obviously, he was learning very little. I worried that my lessons were the sedative, but no one else in class was dozing.

In time I discovered the source of the problem. Denny's father was a mean drunk alcoholic who often came home smashed drunk and then proceeded to abuse Denny's mother. When Denny tried to defend her, he took a licking himself.

Enraged and frightened, Denny eventually took refuge in a nearby pool hall. In return for cleaning up after closing, the owner permitted him to sleep, as best he could, on one of the pool tables. Denny's classroom failures had nothing to do with my lessons or with school. But he still learned nothing.

Frontline teachers know from bitter experience that what goes on outside school either limits or enhances school success. But they often are loath to say it so for fear they will be accused by public officials, or their school administrator lapdogs, of making excuses. For instance, in a speech at Notre Dame University, President Reagan's secretary of education, William F. Bennett, contemptuously referred to any externally based explanations of school failure as "sociological flim-flammery."(1) (Flim-flam men are con artists.) Bennett, by the way, had no, as in "zero," classroom experience in basic education. In fact, he had no training in education whatsoever. He was, however, a master of bombast.

Meet the Parents

Regardless of what Bennett and his ilk say, non-school factors matter greatly, and a child's home life is a key element in school success or failure. In fact, parents are often the switch that controls the educational lights. Have you ever gone to the equivalent of Meet the Parents Night, only to find your worst student's parents missing and the best student's parents there? I know I have—repeatedly. If you think this is a coincidence, raise your hand.

It takes a special breed of parent to intelligently aid and encourage the schooling process, and not all parents are up to that. In fact, not all parents are even interested in that. And it is terribly difficult, if not impossible, for educators to overcome parental incompetence and dereliction of duty.


The disproportionate school success of Asian-American students offers dramatic evidence of the importance of the parentaling role. Asian-American parents typically emphasize their child's role as student; they often also take on the role of after-school educator, making sure homework is done and done right. Additionally, these parents tend to have great respect for educators and education.(2)

Such parenting pays off. Although Asians make up only 4 percent of the U.S. population, Asian-American students constitute an amazingly high percentage of the student body in top universities: 25 percent at both Columbia and Cornell, 24 percent at Stanford, and 18 percent at Harvard. More Asian Americans over the age of twenty-five have bachelor's and advanced degrees than any other race or ethnic group in the nation.(3) This success is not caused primarily by what goes on in school. It's caused by what goes on at home and the broader culture that supports it.

Ranked with Mexico

Of course, it isn't only parenting that influences what does or doesn't happen in school. Many other non-school factors turn the educational lights off or on. Generally speaking, for example, living comfortably helps schooling take hold, but living in poverty does not. Thus it is significant that children in the United States are disproportionately poor compared to other developed nations. While they make up just 25 percent of the total U.S. population, they constitute 35 percent of the nation's poor. In fact, eighteen of every hundred U.S. youngsters live in poverty.(4) That has a profoundly negative effect on their educational success.

Scandalously, twenty-two other nations rank ahead of the United States in terms of the relative poverty of their children.(5) (The term "relative poverty" defines persons as poor if, on financial grounds, they lack the goods and services a vast majority of people in their culture have.) Finland, for instance, which has attracted international attention for its outstanding school achievement, ranks third best in the world with just 4.3 percent of its children living in relative poverty. Japan, often held up to U.S. educators as an example of a nation with top-notch schooling, ranks twelfth best with 12.2 percent of its children living in relative poverty. So how does the United States rate? A shameful 22.4 percent of our children fit that categorylive in relative poverty. That's more than five times the rate in Finland and nearly double that of Japan. By the way, the nation ranked immediately below us is Mexico.

When Learning Fails

It is not difficult to imagine why public officials ignore non-school factors when learning fails. It is, after all, on their watch that we end up with millions of U.S. children living in povertywell below the standards that children in many other nations enjoy. And put simply, far too many of themUS children also are homeless; lack moral, physiological and/or family security; are exposed to violence and aggression; don't get enough to eat; are lonely, anxious, or depressed; get little or no encouragement to learn, explore, discover, and create; or have little opportunity to become engrossed in beauty or appreciate the wonders of the world.(6) Yet instead of trying to ameliorate these deficits, our public officials vote for a discretionary invasion of Iraq that has cost a half a trillion dollars and counting.

The Eexternal factors, such as those just listed, are the prime reason inner-city school problems are so intractable. In Philadelphia, for instance, six private groups—including two universities, two for-profit corporations, and two nonprofits—were hired to manage forty-one public schools. The Philadelphia district spent more than 107 million extra dollars on the contracts, and these diverse managers tried a wide variety of approaches. Nevertheless, an internal school district audit indicates that despite a wide variety of approaches none of the schools has shown sufficient academic progress and recommends that the district consider non-renewal when the contracts expire this summer.(7)

No Magic Wand

By what magic are educators to overcome destructive non-school forces? In most cases there is no magic to be found. Despite relentless bullying of educators by federal and state officials, damaged children will inevitably be "left behind" both now and well into the indefinite future,

It is true that charismatic educational leadership, uncommon self-sacrifice, and inspired pedagogy can sometimes produce short-lived educational turnarounds. But all too often such successes usually are flashes in the pan because they are so often excessively dependent on charismatic personalities and extraordinary effort.

That is not to say that we live have in the best of all possible schooling worlds. More could be done in-schoolin school to improve U.S. education. We could, for example, quit relying on academically marginal, undergraduate-trained teachers carrying out the orders of local amateurs and substitute research-based methods implemented by well-paid, graduate-school-trained professionals. But even if this wildly improbable, though perfectly logical, vision were to become reality, the lights will still remain out for far too many youngsters until inhibiting non-school issues are resolved.

What Is to Be Done?

The fact is that iImproved schooling results schooling actually requires major non-school initiatives. Considering that poverty breeds school failure as surely as carrion breeds flies, for instance, the first necessary, but unlikely, step is probably to establish a muchmore equitable-fairer distribution of the nation's wealth. And equal funding of all U.S. public schools is also almost certainly required. How can we expect to achieve across-the-board school improvements so long as the nation routinely under-funds the very schools teaching that teach the most needy?

Truly ambitious parent-education programs might also prove necessary. And an unconditional guarantee of free and readily available child health care, including free eyeglasses, is probably required. Also, as suggested hinted at earlier, eliminating lay school boards at both the local and state levels might be in order. (After all, what do amateur political dabblers really know about children, instruction, or school management?) And we certainly don't need any more inexpert, demagogic political hacks as secretaries of education at either the state or the national level. Indeed, if we wanted to get really radicalInstead, we could appointneed experts who knowactually know what they are talking about.

Another necessity might be deadly serious efforts to foster greater respect for education and the educators who provide it. Not the usual teacher-of-the-year backslapping and the like, mind you, but serious long-range efforts to nurture a sea change in national attitude. We could begin by requiring all candidates for public office to post their high school and college transcripts for all of us to see. Why not? We're considering hiring them.


The core point here is that non-school issues will have to be addressed if we want to achieve significantly more learning. As we've said, public schooling does not operate in a vacuum. It is deeply and ineluctably influenced both by who goes to school and by what they bring along as baggage.

The fact that our political leadership regularly ignores this consideration, often for dishonorable reasons, represents a power failure of major consequence. If we want the educational lights to burn brightly, we most assuredly must attend to all aspects of the system.


1. William F. Bennett, "Lessons from Great Schools," speech delivered at Notre Dame University and reprinted in Reader's Digest (November 1988): 122–125.

2. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kimm, "How Do Asian Students Get to the Top of the Class?" available at <>.

3. Ibid.

4. National Poverty Center, "Poverty Facts," University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford Poverty Center, available at <>.

5. Relative poverty is defined by the United Nation's Children's Fund as households below 50 percent of the national median.

6. This list is derived from what Abraham Maslow presciently called "deficiency needs." See Toward a Psychology of Being, 3rd ed. (John Wiley and Sons, 1999).

7. Susan Snyder, "An Inside Call to Fire 6 School Managers," Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, May 20, 2007: B1.