Tackling Education Challenges Outside Our Schools

The opening of the upcoming school year is upon us. Very soon, all of America’s 100,000 public elementary, middle and high schools will have re-opened their doors to 51 million students.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, we will once again hear all the unresolved debates that have dominated school reform for the last decade. Educators will continue to argue about academic standards, budgets, curriculum, school control, technology, testing, and a range of teacher issues including retention, salaries and training.

We should not minimize the importance of finding effective responses to these challenges. Our economy and democracy, our individual and communal well-being depend on an educated populace. Unfortunately, the data clearly shows that far too few of students are receiving the schooling they need and deserve.

Case in point: the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), America’s “report card,” tells us that fewer than one-third of public high school seniors are proficient in civics, geography, math, science, US history and writing.

This poor academic performance is nothing new. More than three decades ago, the federal government’s A Nation At Risk report launched the modern school reform movement. But progress has been very slow.

Over the last 30 years, average NAEP reading and math scores for high school seniors have changed very little.

One reason for the discouraging results is that the issues and solutions are complicated. Another reason is that partisan politics and ideological differences have created a consistent set of hurdles.

There is a third reason as well.

Too often school improvement debates have been limited to “education” issues. But classrooms do not operate in a vacuum. They reflect all the challenges faced by our children, families and communities.

Here are a three examples.

n Our children are disproportionately poor and unhealthy: 41 percent are low income or poor; 20 percent have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year; 19 percent are obese. In international comparisons, we rank 36th in child safety (“risks caused by poverty, violence and discrimination”) and 37th in poverty.

n Our children are citizens of the digital world: It is estimated that teens spend nine hours a day on electronic devices and 8-12 year olds six hours a day. Serious concerns are being raised about cyber-bullying, internet addiction, inappropriate material, false information and news, and too little time on other activities.

n Our children reflect the nation’s political/cultural divisions and pessimism: A poll of 13-17 year olds tells us that while they are evenly divided ideologically (among Democrats, Republicans, independents and undecided), 80 percent believe the nation is deeply divided on important values and 60 percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction

The idea that educational outcomes are heavily influenced by non-school factors is not new. It was brought to light 50 years ago by the seminal Coleman Report. But simple solutions remain appealing because they are easy to sell. Unfortunately, they lead to ineffective quick fixes like small schools, national standards and more testing.

If our schools are to produce the prepared populace we need, school reform conversations must be expanded to include subjects outside the immediate control of educators. Elected officials, policymakers, researchers, non-profits, students, families, and business leaders have to be held accountable for cooperation and results.

Without a massive and coordinated effort on all our parts, progress in education will continue to elude us.

Gene A. Budig is the former president/chancellor of three major universities. He was also president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.


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