Despite continued pessimism about the state of American public education, there is reason for hope. Why? Within the past year or so, there appears to be a small but noticeable shift in public discourse towards exploring non-school factors in reform. Generally, the past three decades have brought on a “no excuses” accountability movement, epitomized by NCLB, the expansion of charter schools, and teacher and school evaluations. It was (and still is) thought that schools needed to be tougher in order to overcome the effects of poverty and decrease the achievement gap. However, as scores and the achievement gap remain relatively unchanged, the backlash is starting to herald a holistic approach that involves more than just schools.
This approach is about enlarging the focus to consider non-school factors, such as family and culture, which by certain researchers, account anywhere from 60 percent to 86 percent of student outcomes.
A few days ago Diane Ravitch wrote an op-ed piece in the NYT, Waiting for a School Miracle, which concluded that miraculous school transformation stories like those of PS 33 in the Bronx or Bruce Randolph School in Denver should be met with skepticism. Their sudden high tests scores or graduation rate in the wake of revamped management appear to defy surrounding poverty. In the end, the gains were found to be more a triumph of public relations than actual improvements. I similarly noted that so-called stunning turnarounds were less impressive upon scrutiny in my post Can Schools Overcome Poverty? It takes more than upgrading school leadership, teachers and curricula. Ravitch concludes by asserting:
Families are children’s most important educators. Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool. Of course, schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science.
Education scholar David Kirp has embraced this holistic approach when he designed a visionary policy agenda based on his book Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future. Similar to my perspective, his proposal starts with prenatal education and provides complete support for parents and children through:
1) A system of family support that links all new mothers via parenting programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, Parents as Teachers, and Triple P – Positive Parenting Program; they provide parent training and wraparound social and medical services;
3) Academically rigorous community schools — the crucial word being community — which would work collaboratively with schools to ensure robust medical care, social services, tutoring, after school services and summer camp on top of academics; i.e., real support for the whole child;
5) Providing children with a nest egg to help pay for college or start a career.
The combination of all five initiatives would build social and human capital and form a system of support that allows children to collectively succeed. Of course, scaling up such programs will be the challenge.
(As an aside, the big question regarding Kirp’s comprehensive Kids First agenda, is: Should this be targeted to the disadvantaged only or made universal? There is debate within his book, as targeted services will have lower direct costs, but since voters effectively set the tax level, they will also be less willing to absorb the cost. As Kirp observed, “initiatives aimed at them are less popular with taxpayers and politicians than programs meant for us.” Medicare and Social Security are perfect examples of how universalizing a program has made it essential and therefore untouchable. Though universal systems tend to have higher upfront costs, they also result in long term gains through increased economic productivity for society at large. Despite that, America’s tradition of rugged individualism, deregulation, and local control of education will make it exceedingly difficult to legislate on a national level.)
Other organizations have adopted this holistic approach. According to its mission, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education not only recognizes the centrality of formal schooling, but also the importance of high-quality early childhood and pre-school programs, after-school and summer programs, and programs that develop parents’ capacity to support their children’s education. It seeks to build working relationships between schools and surrounding community institutions.
This broader, bolder approach “pays attention not only to basic academic skills and cognitive growth narrowly defined, but to development of the whole person, including physical health, character, social development, and non-academic skills, from birth through the end of formal schooling. It assigns value to the new knowledge and skills that young people need to become effective participants in a global environment, including citizenship, creativity, and the ability to respect and work with persons from different backgrounds.” This organization has garnered support from prominent voices in the education and social sciences field such as Julian Bond, Gerald Bracey, James Comer, Linda Darling-Hammond, John Goodlad, Christopher Jencks, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Janet Reno, Ted Sizer, William Julius Wilson, and surprisingly, Arne Duncan.
The Harvard Family Research Project similarly promotes a system of Family, School, and Community Engagement (FSCE) as an integral part of education reform to leverage student learning.
The Promise Neighborhoods Act, introduced by Senator Thomas Harkin in May 2011, authorizes grants for partnerships between schools and communities to provide cradle-to-career education, including prenatal education and support for existing parents, high-quality early care and education and meaningful family engagement and support.
Smaller initiatives, like the Parent University created by the Philadelphia School District, provide parents with vital skills to help their child succeed. As reported by CNN, parents have options of learning everything from math refresher courses to life skills like character development and financial literacy.
Despite the hawkish and narrow approach to education reform the past couple decades, comprehensive efforts have been slowly gaining media attention. More people realize that children success depends on family, the community, the culture, and even the government. This is what is meant by creating a culture of education — a collective priority on education as many Asian cultures have. We as educators have the responsibility to write about and promote this holistic approach to child rearing and learning in order to inform public policy more effectively than the dollars spent by venture philanthropists like Gates, Broad, and Walton. This approach in turns fuels programs like Head Start even more. Eventually, it will gain the critical mass needed for policy-makers to make sweeping national improvements. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and doing my part.