Two recent Broad + Liberty articles detailed issues in the Upper Darby School District at both the middle schools and the high school. Only 30.2 percent of Upper Darby high school students are proficient in Literature and only 7.3 percent in Algebra. 

I am a member of Upper Darby High School’s Class of 1961. I served on the Upper Darby School Board in the 1980’s and 1990’s. My wife subsequently served on the board as well. I have a deep personal connection to the district and community. Such results are staggering and they make my heart heavy. And, they raise the basic question: why are they so bad? 

Does the fault simply lie with the curriculum, the administration, the unions, or some combination thereof? After decades of significant spending increases, is the answer really more money, or are there other factors at work that are beyond the teachers’ and administrators’ control? Does the solution lie elsewhere, at least partially?

Politicians, the public, parents, and academicians have all weighed in on the crisis facing not only Upper Darby’s public schools, but our nation’s public schools. Many, if not all, of the solutions that have been put forward may have some validity, but we believe that it’s time to look beyond the schools and back to the communities that they serve. 

Our research has led us to question the mantra that “more money is the answer.” 

We have identified middle-class school districts that spend less than Upper Darby or Philadelphia and have outcomes that rival or surpass those of the wealthiest districts. Our research brings into question the notion that the difference between good, or even exceptional, student performance and poor outcomes is the amount of money spent on each student. 

For example, Springfield School District (Delaware County) spends less per student than Philadelphia or Upper Darby and has student outcomes, as measured by state exams, that exceed or equal the county’s most affluent district, Radnor. They do this despite spending $10,000 dollars less per student. As you can see from the chart below the relationship between amount spent per student and student outcomes is tenuous at best. 

How can this be? The answer may, at least partially, lie outside the school. We began looking for answers in the larger community and found that there seems to be a direct relationship between family structure and student success. Money spent on our schools can’t overcome one of the most essential factors of school success. Family is the most critical input in the potential of success in life and outcomes in school. It is impossible to adequately evaluate a school district’s performance without evaluating the community they serve. Perhaps this explains why charter schools can often succeed in a neighborhood where regular public schools fail. They require a certain level of parental involvement.

We are not suggesting that the public education bureaucracy does not need to do a better job: plainly stated, it does. However, to make meaningful, sustainable improvements, they need assistance. We believe that school districts cannot do this alone, as they are a function of the community that they serve, they need the community to provide an environment conducive to the development of successful children.

Family matters

As a part of our analysis, we compared outcomes from several local school districts and found that the results underscore the notion that the education of our children is not only dependent on our schools but also on our culture. This hypothesis is explained in greater detail in a book written last year by economist Melissa S. Kearney. In The Two-Parent Privilege, she explains the relationship between outcomes for children who live with two parents versus those who live with only one parent. Chapter One, entitled The Elephant in the Room, provides a useful framework for the theory:

“There is no doubt that marriage can be a terrible prison for some, and the argument of this book is not that such marriages should be maintained. But over the past 40-plus years, American society has engaged in a vast experiment of reshaping the most fundamental of social institutions — the family — and the resulting generations of data tell us in no uncertain terms how that has played out for children. 

The data present some uncomfortable realities:

  • Two-parent families are beneficial for children.
  • The class divide in marriage and family structure has exacerbated inequality and class gaps.
  • Places that have more two-parent families have higher rates of upward mobility.
  • Not talking about these facts is counterproductive. (p. 15)

The chart below underscores the validity of the book’s findings.

As the chart shows, when looking at a representative group of school districts, the correlation between two-parent families and student outcomes is striking. The data might have made an even more compelling argument had we been able to be more granular in our analysis. For instance, in Upper Darby a very significant fraction of the children attend parochial schools. It is possible that many of those children were products of two-parent families, reducing even further the percentage of children in the public school living in two-parent homes.

The education bureaucracy, we believe, is aware of the impact imploded culture has on the children it is responsible for educating. Politically, they can’t say it. The poor outcomes and the violence are, to some degree, not within their ability to control. They can’t bring themselves to tell the simple truth: family matters. 

Their answer, almost always, is to demand more money. 

However, some administrators come close. Upper Darby School District continues to struggle with low academic achievement, and their superintendent, Daniel McGarry has repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that more support is needed from home. An excerpt from a recent email to parents explains the importance of parental involvement.

“I recognize that when I have asked for help from the community in the past, my message may have been misunderstood. My intention is not about assigning blame or establishing shame; instead, I am asking for everyone to please talk to your student. I hope we can all agree that we are not going to condone physical aggression in our schools or on the way to and from our schools. Please encourage them to make good decisions and to seek out adults and the support(s) we have in our schools when they need help.”

We must ask why Springfield School District can rival the outcomes of Radnor School District despite spending $10,000 less per student. Perhaps more importantly, why are Springfield’s students excelling while Upper Darby’s students are struggling despite virtually equal spending? It’s time to have an honest discussion. 

Wally Nunn is the former Chairman of Delaware County Council.

11 thoughts on “Wally Nunn: The achievement gap is coming from outside the classroom”

  1. Thank you, brian liberty for being truthful, and keeping the American public informed! The outside press doesn’t do that anymore, because they have an agenda that is completely different than yours, you are only interested in truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! Thank you

  2. It would be enlightening to see an actual assessment of this hypothesis: families from Philadelphia that are motivated enough to game the system and have their children attend Upper Darby School District, those students of those families, I bet they perform better than the average Upper Darby School District student and they raise the overall result of students. At the corner of Lawerence Lane and West Chester Pike – often – I see parents pull up in their cars and those students get out and then get on Haverford School district buses. I bet those kids are going to be doctors, and engineers, and other leaders.
    Thomas Sowell emphasized the positive impact of two-parent households on reducing poverty and fostering stronger communities. His quotes underscore the significance of family structure in shaping the well-being of children and society as a whole. School boards are more focused on insisting on useless mask policy. They are far-Left tyrants and scum.

  3. Thanks for writing about school funding and student needs. I live in the Harrisburg Region, which has many very good public school districts. Unfortunately, the Harrisburg School District is not one of them. I don’t blame the teachers, administrators or school board. The challenge for students is the environment outside of the schools, which also creeps into the schools. Where do the students go between the time they are dismissed from school and their parent(s) gets home from work? What’s for dinner? Even, where am I going to sleep tonight? I’m involved with a local organization that provides pre-school, kindergarten, after-school and a summer program. We also use EITC to provide scholarships to private schools and have staff members in those schools to help kids in our program. It’s not about money to schools for education, many of the Commonwealth’s low performing (test scores, graduation rate, etc) districts are among the highest funded on a per student basis. Perhaps it worth looking into support from a child’s human services need – a safe place to learn, to live, building support networks outside of school to augment their home environment. The fight at our State Capitol for the last 10 years has been focused on school funding, while the problems (as noted) facing students are more about issues beyond the walls school, family situations, community environment. We can do better.

  4. Thank you for a very interesting article. I have no doubt that family support is critical to a student’s success.

    I wouldn’t be so quick though to condemn “the left.” I know many people on the left, and they do not have an agenda that they seek to impose on society. Rather, I think the Left sees changes that are happening in our society, for whatever reasons, and they want to accommodate the children who live with those changes, including single parenthood. The children have to live in these households — they have no choice and they often don’t know anything else — and the so-called Left just tries to make things more comfortable for these children. What’s wrong with that?

    Other things, like sexualized material in the library, I think is exaggerated. I deplore it as much as you do, but I think conservatives exaggerate it, for political gain.

    1. I did not mean to, nor do I think I did, condemn the left. I wanted to present facts that should be considered.

    2. I’m gonna have to disagree, Pat.

      The left that has taken over Upper Darby who are not even from here absolutely have an agenda and are implementing it with no regard whatsoever for the community.

  5. And these are the “family values” that modern Republicans believe make you worthy of becoming president of the united states:

    1) sexually assaulting a woman in a department store (as determined by a jury in a court of law)

    2) bragging about “grabbing women by their p***y” and getting away with it because you’re a celebrity elite.

    3) laundering campaign contributions to pay hush money to the porn star you cheated on one of your 3 wives with

    🤡🤡🤡Family values 😅🤣😂 please. Spare us the condescending virtue signalling.

    1. Ignoratio elenchi: being Cicero you certainly understand the meaning of this term. In case you don’t, “An irrelevant conclusion, also known as ignoratio elenchi (Latin for ‘ignoring refutation’) or missing the point, is the informal fallacy of presenting an argument that may or may not be logically valid and sound, but (whose conclusion) fails to address the issue in question.”(Wikipedia).

      Donald Trump was not mentioned in the article implicitly or explicitly. The article was meant to bring to the attention of the reader that there can be little doubt about the connection to student outcomes and the culture those students are a product of. Yet you ,in your wisdom, decided to undermine the article by retreating to ignoratio elenchi. In your “comments” you mentioned some issues relating to Trump, in fact they are valid criticisms of Trump, but have absolutely nothing to do with the article. Not once did you attempt address the thesis of article, is that because it fell under the definition of “inconvenient truth”.

      My presumption is that you checked the articles facts (you did do that didn’t you) and saw that they were correct. You then did what many do when the facts are inconvenient, though I can’t believe Cicero would stoop to this level.

      If you ever need to find employment you might consider the Inquirer. They seem to have the same reverence for legitimate dialogue that you do, not to mention reporting.

      You’re not the Cicero I remember.


  6. As a lifelong resident of this township, kick rocks Cicero.

    Push your politics elsewhere. This is about OUR communities, not your politics.

  7. Thank you for this excellent write up on what is happening to our beloved township, Wally.

    We need to bring back politics and especially schools driven by local interests and genuine community rather than the national politics being forced us on by people who aren’t even from here.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *