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Can’t Have One Without The Other

In his regular Monday education column, Jay Mathews takes a look at one DC-area high school senior’s experience with the mix of education and social services.

And relates her story to the larger issue of improving the American education system.

We are in the midst of a national debate, its outcome uncertain, over what should be the emphasis of efforts to fix public schools. Some say the focus should be on improving teaching. Only in the classroom, they say, is there a chance to give students — particularly those in poverty — the tools they need to succeed. Others say teachers cannot reach those children until their family lives, shaken by parental joblessness or mental or physical illness, are straightened out by government action.

Why do those two approaches have to be mutually exclusive?

One of the biggest problems in the education reform debate is that way too many politicians and “experts” focus their proposals almost completely on the institution of school.

They want us to believe the classroom can be divorced from the poverty, crime, and illness that too many students face in the outside world.

In a growing number of districts (including some a short distance from here), it is hopeless trying to improve student learning without at the same time seriously addressing the societal problems the kids and their families live with.


  1. Alistair

    I’m sorry, but this seems like a very generic post. Of course we need better teachers, better classes. And of course we need to address the societal problems (outside of school) that affect our students’ classroom performance. I negotiate this on a daily basis — all good teachers do. It makes my heart hurt a little to think that this would pass as some kind of revelation in the policy world. To me, this just reminds me that real innovation will never come from that world, or from the academics and pundits who are currently participating in the education reform debate. It needs to come from the ground.

  2. kimberly jean

    I agree the two issues don’t have to be mutually exclusive, however, keep in mind the government wheel moves slow. If we were to set standards about teacher performance that would be one thing. But, to think we couldn’t achieve a full reform until any and all societal problems were addressed with government aid, why, we’d be waiting quite a long time.

    I think Alistair is right, its obvious both issues contribute to student achievement, any teacher would agree. I do think, however, that it’s folly and an enormous waste of time and debate to think the government could achieve a “perfect” out of school environment. We have to realize this is an impossibility and start to move towards steps we *can* change.

    Extra school resources or counselors, for example. KIPP shows us that longer school hours in these populations help tremendously. Maybe experimentation with a Big Brother/Sister program for high school and elementary pairs of students. The goal being to take these kids out of a toxic environment for the longest amount of time. My point is, we shouldn’t wait for the government to erase the realities of poverty stricken life, rather, we should off-set them as best we can. This could be all the reform a school needs and it can come from within the institution instead of without.

  3. Kathryn

    And yet, your overly large school district is cutting out guidance counselors in Academy programs, which are the primary delivery method for teaching truly marketable skills to kids who may be thinking of options besides four-year college. Seems reasonable to assume that some of these kids are living in high-risk environments and could benefit from more support, not less.

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