The education problem is not what you think, neither is the solution

Students with astronaut Nancy Currie, PhD

Thirty years of fiddling, and ain’t-it-awfuling, haven’t made a dent in the tragedy of  our children being cheated out of an adequate education. No child left behind’s focus on test scores has left learning behind. When the dismal scores pile up, we typically go after the teachers and the schools, the obvious culprits, right? Central Falls, Rhode Island plans to fire all of its teachers at the end of the year. Forty percent of the children at this school live in poverty, less than half graduate from high school on time and only seven percent of 11th-graders performed grade-level math. This is a travesty.

One thing is certain: if children do not arrive at school ready to learn, teachers cannot teach. To be ready to learn, a child must have had a good dinner, a good nights sleep, a good breakfast and an emotional state that permits concentration. How many children in that community meet those criteria? How many children in this country meet it? Indeed, how many adults do?

Diane Ravitch, education historian observed that dismal education performance is caused by being on the “have not” end of the household income demographic.

The fundamental issue in American education – I say this after 40 years of having read and studied and written about the problems – is one that is demographicPoor children…simply face too many problems outside the classroom. If you don’t buttress whatever happens in school with social and economic changes that give kids a better chance in life and put their families on a more stable footing, then schools alone are not going to solve the problems of poor student performance. There has to be a range of social and economic strategies to support and enhance whatever happens in school.

So, as tempting as it is to blame the teachers and the schools, they can only work with what they are given. Einstein observed that you can’t solve a problem at the same level of mind that created it. We expect schools to pick up the slack for parents who are stretched very thin. Last year, when schools closed during the H1N1 flu scare, it eliminated the only meal that some children would receive that day.

Firing more teachers and creating more charter schools is not going to solve the education problem if the root cause is poverty and dysfunction. If we broaden our scope and begin to think of creative ways to support our communities, and see people and resources everywhere lying fallow, we could think of a new way utilize them. The economic collapse has taken a severe toll on every sector. Tens of thousands of social workers, substance abuse and domestic violence counselors are collecting unemployment.  Can’t we come up with some way to tap the hard won skills that are trapped in their hearts and heads when we need them more than ever?

It is painfully obvious that no government program is about to be hatched that can solve our problems. Therefore, the solution has to come from within our communities. When the Supreme Court reduced Exxon’s penalty for the Valdez oil spill from $5 billion to $507 million, Cordova, Alaska residents, turned to each other. Rikk Ott, PhD said “After our fish runs collapsed, we had nothing more to lose. When you reach that point, it’s very freeing … you have only each other.” When they accepted that help was not coming from the outside, they turned to their community to heal from within, achieving impressive results.

Here is one idea: bolster families by bolstering communities. When communities gather to brainstorm for solutions to our universal and wrenching problems, in an environment where people can talk about what they need, they may discover that someone with the capacity to meet that need lives on the same block. When communities respond appropriately to each other, with genuine care and helpfulness, we will learn that we don’t have to handle everything alone. Families and communities will become strong, resilient and healthy. Children, living in safe, secure environments that nourish their bodies and souls, will soak up knowledge in vibrant, thriving schools.

For more info: New Community Vision is working to spawn a movement to think about our social and housing paradigms in a new context. Community gatherings to address our universal challenges are the fertile soil in which durable solutions take root. Please subscribe to this blog and contact us for more information.

Photo credit: Students with astronaut Nancy Currie

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