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Why won't school performance in the United States improve? For more than a decade, reformers, business executives, and school officials have attempted relatively unsuccessfully to reduce the "risk" the nation faces as a result of its troubled schools. Although some marginal gains have been made, on the whole U.S. schools still rank well below those of other nations in their ability to graduate literate and skilled citizens capable of taking part in the global economy. Clearly the task of improving the schools is more difficult than we had first imagined.
There are, of course, numerous school-based reasons why improving school performance is so problematic. No one should take too much of the onus for improvement away from the schools, because ultimately they are responsible for the quality of formal education provided to young people. Much of the need for school reform is very real: there is little doubt that schools need radical restructuring to cultivate an informed citizenry who can contend with today's climate of political shifts, economic turmoil, and global competition.
Less noted in the many critiques of American schools is that many factors well beyond the immediate control of schools significantly influence school performance. It is even less well understood that for schools to do their jobs effectively, other social institutions also must change. Influences on schools range from governmental policies and resources to deteriorating family structures to problems in the education of teachers. Understanding the impact of these influences on schools requires a macro perspective. Such an approach would provide a much richer sense of why schools are troubled than the more unidimensional approach typically offered by those who suggest that singular solutions such as "choice," business involvement or partnerships, or a national test will do the job. The numerous educational experiments of the past decade have demonstrated, if nothing else, that mere add-ons, new programs, and even collaborations between businesses and schools will not cause the necessary reforms.
THE SPIDER'S WEB
Schools can be thought of as existing at the center of a complex spider's web of influences (see the Figure). Reaching outward from the center are the web's strands, which consist of such sectors of influence as educational policymakers, the economic system, teacher organizations (including unions and colleges and universities), social service organizations, governmental agencies, and value shapers. Each of these strands affects school performance from an increasing distance representing a series of nested levels - family, community, state, and national - the center of which is the school.
Children's performance within schools is the central unit of analysis for the macrosystemic perspective provided below - a perspective that explores the influences of the spider's web. Aggregated at the school level, the performance of a school, or, more broadly, of a school system comprising multiple schools, can be defined as the overall performance level of its children. This article will examine first the levels and then the sectors to determine some of the ways in which school performance is influenced.
Levels of Influence
Moving outward from the school's boundaries are four levels of influence that form a network of nested systems in which schools are embedded. The inner nest, the one that most directly (and probably most powerfully) affects school performance, consists of the family system. There is considerable evidence that family structure and stability in the United States have significantly deteriorated within the last 30 years. Given that families are the first educators of children, and probably their most important long-term educators, the stresses of divorce, dual-career families, and single parenthood have exerted great downward pressures on the ability of parents to provide a safe, secure, and educationally appropriate environment for their children.
Statistics lend evidence to these harsh realities. Today nearly 20 percent of American children live in poverty. Approximately 60 percent will live in single-parent households before they reach age 18. The divorce rate hovers at 40 percent; nearly 70 percent of women with young children now work. All these factors contribute to the difficulties that families face in providing nurturing, support, and values to their children, even as we emphasize the importance of education and providing a safe, secure environment in which children can develop and learn. Learning is difficult when children are distracted by more fundamental issues, such as wondering where their next meal will come from or whether anyone will be home when they arrive from school. No wonder that in interviews I conducted about schools, a number of observers commented that, as a nation, "we have abandoned our children."
Abandonment has also happened at the second level of influence on education: the level of community. Derber (1992), commenting on the deterioration of community or common good over the past decade and a half, suggests that the United States has so emphasized its traditional ideology of individualism that we have been engaged in a long-term process of "wilding." This means that individuals are so self-involved, so selfish, that they have become incapable of caring for others. Families reside in communities, such as local neighborhoods, small towns, or very large urban areas. However, in our communities, our sense of common good is in jeopardy. Where once neighbor supported neighbor when someone was ill or in trouble, in today's communities, both urban and suburban, neighbors are so busy with their fragmented lives they barely know each other. As one interviewee commented, "The invisible community has disappeared." That "invisible community" once provided the social fabric that (1) ensured that children had respect for adults; (2) knew when a child was not in school; (3) was there after school if a parent was called away for an emergency; and (4) brought soup when family problems arose.
This invisible community, which consisted primarily of women working in the home, is gone now because of the numbers of women now in the work force. In addition, too many of those at home are coping with poverty …