04/04/2014 01:19 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Let's Focus on Improving Education for 'At Risk' Students

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed just under 99,000 public schools in the U.S., with about 67,000 of those serving students at the elementary level. This surprisingly low number (at least surprising to me) results, in large part, from the fiscal necessity to consolidate smaller schools and school districts and the rise in privatized education, resulting in a decline in the total number of public schools in the U.S. from about 250,000 in number around 1929-30 to the numbers we have today.

Student educational achievement in these schools, when compared worldwide, ranks 14th in science, 17th in reading, and 25th in mathematics. These data comes from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. This is a worldwide assessment administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. The test was given to a half-million students in 65 countries. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was justifiably disappointed in the results, labeled the "showing" of U.S. students on this test a "picture of educational stagnation." I fully agree. He has subsequently argued for more money for education to catalyze improvements in the public education sector. On this point, I am not sure that the quick fix of "more money" is the solution to our educational conundrum. But, compared to our OECD educational competition group, the U.S. already now spends the most per student. This is not to say that more money would not help, but where and how those dollars might be spent would be of critical importance.

The student populations who took this test provide an important insight into a major "Achilles Heal" in the U.S. educational endeavor. Among the cohort of OECD nations, the U.S. had the most students from the highest poverty levels -- 38 percent --of any of the comparative nations. It is reasonably easy to expect that the U.S. average scores would have been affected by these facts -- and not in a positive way since it is well-known that impoverished students are at significantly educationally disadvantaged.

If education was an Olympic sport, you can bet there would be national outrage about such a relatively "poor showing," and no effort would be spared to find and train "better representatives" in the next international competition to carry our flag.

In my opinion, however, the importance of this information is not at all about how to "build a better team" of students who might score better on the next PISA assessment. Rather, the importance, value and urgency of this information is that it must ring the "alarm" bell and be a catalyst in moving the U.S. educational system forward to address the issue of enhancing the educational experience for our most needy students. This is where our "Olympic-like" fervor and outrage should focus.

The impact of poverty on education is profound. In 2011, over 46 million U.S. families were living in poverty (defined as two adults and two children under 18 with a family income of just about $23,000). In a report summarizing data from the Alliance for Excellent Education, The National Center for Education Statistics, The New York Times, and the U.S. Census Bureau we know that:

1. Children that live below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities than those who don't live in poverty.

2. About 40 percent of children living in poverty aren't prepared for primary schooling.

3. By the end of the fourth grade, low-income students are already two years behind grade level. By the time they reach the 12th grade they are four years behind.

4. Children living in poverty have a high absenteeism and may leave school all together because of a need to work or care for family members.

5. Dropout rates of 16 to 24-year-old students from low-income families are seven times greater than for students from families with higher incomes.

6. The nation's lowest-performing high schools produce 58 percent of all African-American dropouts and 50 percent of all Hispanic dropouts, compared to 22 percent of all Caucasian dropouts.

7. Less than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes enroll in a college. Among that group, less than half graduate.

This is not a surprise. Consistent and enduring findings from decades of research, emanating from a 1966 study of racial disparities in education found that parent and family related factors were among the strongest predictors of academic achievement.

Data shows that a child's family background has a larger bearing on their chances of doing well at the age of 16 or 17 than the effectiveness of teachers. The parental effect on test results is around five times more powerful than the influence of a child's schooling. Parents of students living in a household with income above the poverty level are more likely to be involved in school activities than parents of children living in a household at or below the poverty line on all measures of involvement

Increasing parental involvement in school can be challenging, particularly when the families concerned are economically disadvantaged, or do not have English as their primary language. Even when the intent to be involved is there, low-income parents' involvement in school may be hindered by such things as transportation difficulties, chronic health conditions, a need to care for younger children, conflicts with work schedules, and parents whose primary language is not English may not feel able to participate in school activities, or may belong to a culture where questioning teachers is not a norm.

Schools have employed several strategies to increase parental involvement in school, ranging from events such as "back to school" nights, to school-based cultural events in areas with large immigrant populations. Larger-scale initiatives involving the communities surrounding the school have proven effective as well at increasing participation of parents from disadvantaged families. For example, in Tucson, AZ a joint effort between John B. Wright School Elementary School, which serves a multicultural and economically impoverished, and community members, was initiated by the courage and vision of one individual. This observant and courageous individual saw kids going to school in tattered shoes, and stopped and asked the school principal if it would be appropriate to purchase enough shoes for all students who needed them. This act of kindness and concern for others resulted in her launching an initiative that brought together other concerned citizens, Business People, Scientists, Solar Engineers, Physicians, Local and National Politicians, and even an Astronaut. Collectively, they helped to form strong bonds and trust-relationships within the school and the community that have brought more parental involvement into the school and has subsequently promoted important advancement in student learning, particularly in areas of mathematics and science. In another example, with a different focus, in Nashville, TN the Martha O'Bryan Center provides the education and resources needed for parents to raise healthy families. Parents learn positive parenting skills, tools for making their children better learners, and smart exercise and nutrition strategies to keep kids healthy. These lessons, as simple as immunization and reading to kids at night, can also delve into more substantive issues like child maturation and brain development. Parents learn that their role is not just to put food on the table, but also to act as their child's first teacher, role model, and advocate.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers, also commented about our nation's performance on future versions of PISA test. She noted that "....the countries that out-compete us actually really value, deeply respect, and value public education." And, she emphasized that in countries that outperform the U.S., parents "are really engaged -- not just told what to do but they are really engaged."

I believe it is our moral responsibility to not only enhance the number of, and training for, teachers, but even more importantly create and facilitate initiatives in schools that educate our most "at risk" populations to build networks that bring parents and students together in manner that best synergizes parent-school-student networks across our nation.