Alexander Russo

Should schools tackle poverty?Yeah, let's add that between recess and lunch.

By Alexander Russo



Don’t be surprised if you hear a lot more from teachers and board members about “out of school” social issues and programs this year. Chatter about more daring and wider-ranging approaches to school improvement is all the rage right now, as part of a longer-term pushback against accountability-based reform like NCLB.

Jumping into efforts to reach children in their home lives, however, may stretch schools’ abilities to make a real difference—and may take you and your team’s eyes off quality classroom instruction and academic improvement.

Over the past few months, there has been a slew of ideas and proposals to move beyond reform efforts that are primarily school-based. Just as the Democratic primary was wrapping up, a coalition of educators put out a call for a “broader, bolder” approach to education reform. Later in the summer, aft president-elect Randi Weingarten called for “community schools” that would provide social services as well as education. Early in the fall, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama began touting a proposal to create “Promise Neighborhoods” around the country, in which low-income children and their parents would receive a comprehensive set of medical and social services in addition to a quality education. About a third of states have recently embarked on new antipoverty programs, according to .

This shift in attention makes sense, given the bad press surrounding nclb and the struggles families face in the wake of this current economic downturn. To be sure, there’s much work to be done in communities. But we must keep in mind, we haven’t yet mastered school improvement. If we shift attention away from our classrooms, we open the door for some enormous problems:

• Previous efforts to create large-scale social service programs for families and children have suffered from inadequate funding, low quality, and weak effects. Think Head Start or Upward Bound. Less costly types of service coordination efforts, such as Communities in Schools, can sometimes make a difference, but often aren’t beefy enough to create fundamental changes in students’ lives.
• A broadened focus for school reform brings with it all sorts of distracting and problematic issues of race, class, and culture—not to speak of marriage, sexuality, and attitudes toward work. It’s the welfare reform debate all over again, this time in schools. Fun.
• Paying for new programs would create new competition for scarce education funding. Higher ed is already clamoring for a bigger piece of the pie, and preschool advocates have been making the case for universal preschool. Does K–12 education really need that?
• Six years into NCLB many schools and districts have made impressive strides. The next challenges we face are figuring out how to fix the relatively few schools that haven’t turned the corner, tailoring instruction to reduce achievement gaps, and addressing noncognitive behaviors that may be key to school success. Now is not the time to abandon these efforts.

There’s no doubt that students’ home lives play an important role in their school success. The question is whether schools are really the best vehicle through which to address deeper social issues such as poverty, lack of childcare or health insurance, inadequate access to transportation, and adult illiteracy. My view is that they’re not.

Let schools try and do what they are supposed to do. If more is needed—few argue that it isn’t—let’s address those problems separately and head-on, rather than making them something schools have to do. Schools can’t fix poverty. And that’s OK.

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