Whatever It Takes

This story on Community Schools offers an interesting look at what it takes to overcome the impact of poverty on education. The bottom line: It takes patience and creativity. It requires an investment of resources.

From the story:

Though the Washington Heights principal firmly believes in the idea that students can only learn if their basic needs outside the building are met — a key element of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools — he is also wary of the argument that infusing schools with social services will immediately lead to academic payoffs.

“Turning a kid’s lights back on on doesn’t make their test scores go up,” House said. “It’s the precondition for learning.”

House knows that firsthand. His community school, serving grades 6-12, was built a decade ago, but changes in key metrics like graduation rates and test scores haven’t come quickly. CHAH, which is 92 percent Hispanic and roughly 90 percent poor, has only recently come off the state’s “priority” list of low-performing schools.

The challenge, according to the principal, has not been finding agreement on the importance of addressing student needs:

I think most people probably don’t need to be convinced that access to health care or eyeglasses or mental health supports is a good thing for kids who might otherwise struggle to have access to those things—

I would argue with that though. I think people see that as a common-sense solution, [but] they’re not interested in paying for it.

I think House (the principal) has it right. People generally agree that kids need to have basic needs met as a precondition to learning. Unfortunately, the will do to whatever it takes is lacking.

Instead, we play at the margins. I appreciate the SCORE recommendations on teacher preparation. Improving the way we prepare teachers and providing them with early career support and mentoring is important for teachers and can improve outcomes for students.

I’ve long advocated for better pay for teachers. Not only do they deserve a professional salary, research indicates that better pay can improve outcomes for students.

Some in our state push vouchers while others suggest expanding the presence of charter schools will make a lasting impact.

Here’s the deal: None of these changes matter to a hungry kid who doesn’t have access to healthcare. The child who goes home to a house with no power or who attends seven schools in ten months because they are moved from one temporary housing solution to another or who has never seen a dentist — that child doesn’t care that teacher prep is a little better or that there’s a new way to evaluate teachers or that grading is now “standards-based.” Sure, these ideas may have merit and may provide some improvement to the school climate, but unless basic needs are met, learning will be difficult.

As House notes, there is often broad agreement on that point. What’s missing is the willingness to invest the money.

Here in Tennessee, we are not even adequately funding the number of teachers we need — we’re coming up $400 million short on that score. Instead of thinking of ways to provide critical social services to students, our General Assembly has eliminated the inheritance tax and the Hall Tax — foregoing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue so that those who have can have more.

We currently have around $900 million in a budget surplus from the 2015-16 fiscal year and we’re $140 million above projections for this fiscal year. How much of that will be invested in schools? Of that new investment (if any), how much will go to provide the wrap-around services students require to ensure basic needs are met?

We understand the challenge. We know the need. Will we do whatever it takes?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


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