Education Reform Focuses Solely on Schoolteachers: Social Services Determine Student Success

Monica Klein, Opinions Editor

Americans have always excelled at denial: I won’t gain weight if I eat this cheeseburger; my sneakers weren’t made by a child in China; this war in Afghanistan won’t go on for 10 more years. We dismiss the larger, looming reality of underage children sewing together our Nikes, because it is far too difficult to deal with the greater implications, and the possible life changes that we would have to make if we accepted these facts as truth.

Today, the newest form of denial to sweep across America is the belief that schools are not affected by the social environment that surrounds them. In various states, governors, mayors, education chancellors and charter school advocates are perpetuating the myth of the isolated school — unaffected and untarnished by its surrounding community. Focus remains within the schools walls, because to focus on the external world would bring too many social factors into question.

In his infamous documentary Waiting for “Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim explains that “failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools,” and argues throughout his film that the key to educational success lies within the school walls, with successful teachers. One major source of supporting evidence is Geoffrey Canada’s successful educational initiative, the Harlem Children’s Zone, a program that has a 90 percent college-attendance rate for participating students. In an op-ed on his organization’s website, Canada explained that the HCZ charter schools are able to “evaluate teachers, retain the good ones and let go of the worst.”

Nevertheless, Guggenheim denies the more radical, and profoundly effective, aspects of Canada’s program: his cradle-to-college approach. HCZ began in the early 1990s, bringing everything from health services to parenting workshops, asthma prevention initiatives to obesity programs, to a small section of Harlem. Essentially, Canada brought private social workers in.

Canada also set up charter schools, which focused on smaller class size, a longer workday, and union-less teachers. Yet as various studies have found, teachers statistically account for between 10–20 percent of student achievement — the other 80–90 percent is based on external factors such as health care and parental involvement: factors that Canada helped improve with his staff of private social workers.

Canada’s case study could (and should) be lauded as proof of the effect that social services have on student success. Yet somehow, the public has chosen to ignore the social services that Canada so largely relies on, and has focused solely on his reform within the school walls: If you can fire and hire teachers at will and increase the school day, your results will mirror the HCZ. While Guggenheim lauds Canada’s program as a success among many failing inner-city schools, Guggenheim entirely ignores Canada’s role as a private social worker for the many families within the HCZ.

Moreover, both Guggenheim and Canada deny the role that economic support plays in the success of the HCZ and other charter schools. “While the city spends about $14,500 per pupil in traditional public schools,” Canada argues, “we spend about $16,000 on our public charter schools.” Money, he argues, is nearly irrelevant. Yet Canada’s $16,000 accounts only for the amount spent within the school, ignoring the costs of all the health care programs, parenting education and other social services that HCZ also covers. These programs are covered largely through private funding from various corporations and philanthropic foundations across the country.

Many educational reformers argue that funding is not the answer — endless money has been poured into schools, without discernible change in student achievement. Yet this money is being misplaced — linoleum-tiled classrooms and state-of-the-art computers have little effect on a child’s education without the necessary social infrastructure.

President Obama has also lauded Canada’s HCZ program, and is working to replicate the program across the country. Yet a national HCZ replication can take two routes. Obama can replicate Canada’s funding method of relying on private donors, and cross his fingers, hoping that private foundations will donate enough to fund both schools as well as external social service programs. Alternatively, Obama can acknowledge the need for increased funding to public social services, so that U.S. students do not have to rely on the unpredictable charity of private organizations for basic social services.

Ultimately, Obama’s HCZ-inspired programs of the past two years seem to rely more heavily on the first solution. Obama has already awarded 21 neighborhoods $10 million to plan HCZ-based programs in their areas. As Sharon Otterman points out in her Oct. 12 New York Times article, “Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems,” the Department of Education expressed hope that these grants would be combined with private-sector donations, much like Canada’s own program. The Democratic Party seems to be inadvertently supporting a private-sector approach to national education.

The Harlem Children’s Zone has around $200 million in assets, and an operating budget of $84 million for the 2010 year — over eight times the amount granted by the Obama administration this year for 21 schools. Regardless of the myth that individual teachers are to blame for student achievement, educational improvement truly does come down to money. Imitating HCZ’s privately-funded success story on a national scale is impossible without widespread funding for programs like healthcare, food stamps and family planning — funding that is impossible to secure from charities and philanthropic organizations on a national level. If we continue to ignore and cut public programs that offer social support for low-income neighborhoods, our educational system as a whole will continue to suffer.