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.