10/15/2010 02:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Really Holds Students Back?

"It's not the kids. It's not their parents. It's not their neighborhoods."

That's the argument made by a new coalition of education reformers called "Done Waiting." They view the documentary Waiting for 'Superman' as a chance to build momentum for their solutions to fixing public education. "It's an outdated bureaucratic system," they say, "The special interests that benefit from it, and the politicians who protect it."

This new generation of reformers includes groups that support charter schools, and prominent school leaders who have clashed with teachers unions (such as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee). They've attracted funding from leaders on Wall Street and Silicon Valley who view education as the next great civil rights battle (including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg).

But can we really fix our schools without fixing society? After all, schools don't exist in a vacuum. And -- to be fair -- many members of the new reform movement, such as Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, have acknowledged as much. Canada built a network of pre-school classes and other neighborhood services in Harlem long before he opened his charter schools.

Academics have spent decades exploring why some children succeed and others fail even when they come from similar demographic groups. I came across one especially interesting study when researching my book, Why cant u teach me 2 read? It's about three New York City students with learning disabilities who got all the way to high school without learning to read, and the real challenges in getting all students proficient in reading.

In 1988, researchers in Massachusetts launched a long-term study of low-income students in the Boston area. This home-school study began visiting 83 children and their families when the kids were just 3 years old and followed their literacy skills and class grades all the way through high school. Not every child remained in the study but it was still considered statistically valid. On the whole, the students were doing well enough in elementary school that the researchers expected only about 20 percent of them to encounter academic difficulties later. But that figure ended up being much higher once the kids got older. When the students were located in the year they should have been 12th graders, a whopping 30 percent of them had dropped out of school or had been held back two years or more.

The researchers concluded that reading problems alone weren't to blame, which is why they provocatively titled their book Is Literacy Enough?. Several of the students who suffered academically had family or health problems, and others just weren't engaged in school. A few students with poor grades even managed to get into college while some of the brighter teens dropped out of high school. Dr. Catherine Snow, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, was among the researchers leading the study. Like previous researchers, she also found kindergarten vocabulary -- which reflects how much parents talk and read to their kids -- was an accurate predictor of reading comprehension in high school. But if those students with weak vocabularies had gotten amazing instruction in elementary school, she told me, then vocabulary shouldn't have been such a determining factor of their later success. So maybe the schools couldn't get over that deficit? At least not in every case.

This is not to say that schools cannot do their jobs without the high quality daycare and other social services that can help low-income children get the same strong foundation as their wealthier peers (whose families tend to be more educated). But as the debate continues over Waiting for 'Superman', it's also worth looking at some of the research about what holds students back. It's seldom just one factor.