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'Putting Learning First'

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A report this fall from the Committee for Economic Development, "Putting Learning First: Governing and Managing the Schools for High Achievement," is garnering attention within education and outside of it. The report argues that public education in this country has "lost its sense of priorities" and needs to return to its primary mission: improving student learning and academic achievement. (See Education Week, 09/28/94.) Its authors maintain that while the primary mission of public education has always been to insure that children acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to function productively as citizens and workers, achieving this mission has become increasingly difficult in recent years because schools have had to assume greater responsibility for the health and social needs of children in our society.

The report specifically argues that "schools are not social-service institutions" and that they should not be expected to deliver or pay for health or social services for students. According to Roy Bostock, the chairman of the research and policy committee of the c.e.d. (an independent research and public-policy organization of some 250 U.S. business and education leaders), "teachers should not be devoting time to family counseling or to health-care counseling." Urging schools to limit their goals to the establishment of high academic standards and the development of assessments to measure student performance against these standards, the report encourages educational policymakers to "clear away the extraneous and the secondary and put learning and achievement first."

It is understandable that the c.e.d.'s message might be enthusiastically received by many classroom teachers who struggle daily to find the time to teach. One would be extremely naïve not to recognize that large and growing numbers of today's students come to school "not ready to learn." As the c.e.d. report correctly states, teachers currently are being required to deal with many "competing factors" that interfere with academic learning.

Indefensibly large numbers of our children and youths live in poverty and suffer from all of its attendant consequences (poor nutrition, inadequate health care, inadequate housing, etc.). Other students live in unstable family environments, and they come to school each day angry, frustrated, and confused; still others suffer from alcohol or drug abuse; too many children are victims of abuse and neglect. And the list goes on. Clearly, there is no argument that today's teachers must contend with student characteristics and behavioral patterns that make their primary job of teaching academics extremely difficult, if not impossible.

However, the Committee for Economic Development "solution" to this problem is extremely shortsighted, is likely to exacerbate the problem, and essentially misses the real point. As appealing as its message of "putting learning first" may be to many educators and parents, it fails to recognize that not only have today's students and their families changed, but so, too, must the overall mission of schools.

Of course, schools should not and cannot be expected to solve all of our nation's social and economic ills. Yet, the clear message inherent in the c.e.d. report is that all would be well if only schools would "return to their primary mission: focus exclusively on academics." Yes, the report offers some general recommendations that schools cooperate with other community social-service agencies, and that, in some cases, school buildings may be offered as the site for the delivery of health and social services to children--but only if "someone else delivers and pays for them." There is yet another condition established by the c.e.d. in order for health care and other services to be located in schools: "[A]lthough funding and service delivery should come from outside [other agencies]," the report says, "the school principal should oversee them, and the superintendent should coordinate them in the district."

What the report clearly appears to be suggesting is that: (1) Yes, it is difficult for schools to teach academics because today's students are suffering from increased levels of health, mental-health, and social problems, and these problems need to be addressed--not by educators but by someone else; (2) It may be appropriate, on occasion, to provide space in the school building for these "extraneous services," but when this occurs school administrators must oversee and control the activities (and presumably, the external service providers); and (3) During the school day, teachers are to ignore any of these student problems, certainly make no effort to accommodate them, and to simply focus on "putting learning first."

As simple and as helpful as this advice appears to be, especially for those on the front lines of classroom teaching, it not only is ill-conceived, but also potentially dangerous in the long term to both students and teachers. Furthermore, if it is adhered to, the recommendation more than likely will produce only greater problems for schools and for the nation's most vulnerable young people.

There are three major reasons why the c.e.d. plan misses the real point and will fail to accomplish its intended results:

  • It is based on the erroneous assumption that children and youths can (or should) block out everything that may be interfering with their ability to focus on academics during the typical school day. It may be fine for policymakers to decide that the primary mission of school is to provide students with academic skills. But try convincing some of today's students of the reality of this mission statement--especially those who may not have had a good meal in a few days, those who are worried about getting beaten up or shot at on the way home after school, those who were victims of physical or sexual abuse that same morning, or those who have become so despondent because of family rejection and chaos that suicidal thoughts are competing with mathematics instruction.
  • It perpetuates a very narrow vision of schooling and teaching. To assume that education is exclusively about cognition and learning and that teaching is exclusively about imparting academic skills represents a very narrow view of both learning and teaching. Of course, students need to develop strong academic skills. Students who lack basic skills in core academic areas are at a serious disadvantage. They are far more likely to drop out of school and, more importantly, are more at risk of failing to become self-fulfilled, productive citizens in society. We need to recognize that, as much as we may prefer to return to simpler times, this is not likely to happen.

Today's and tomorrow's schools must have a broader vision and mission. Like it or not, today's and tomorrow's teachers are (or will be) in a very real (if not credentialed) sense social workers, mental-health workers, and health workers. And, despite the understandable protests by many teachers in this regard, it is my impression that much of their discontent reflects their feelings of lacking administrative support and of technical inadequacy relative to their involvement in traditionally nonacademic areas. It is not primarily a matter of their unwillingness to assume greater responsibility for these tasks.

Classroom teachers usually receive very mixed messages on their expected involvement in nonacademic domains. Many teachers intuitively view their role and responsibilities as being much broader than instructing within the academic domain. Most classroom teachers, especially those at the elementary level, generally view their students in a much more holistic sense. How many times have we heard teachers express their feelings of frustration and helplessness about the perceived "lack of real impact that they have on children's lives"--given the horrific family and community conditions in which many of these children find themselves every day and every night?

Yet, while classroom teachers may be "encouraged" by their supervisors (and likely have received the same "encouragement" from former university educators) to develop a broad understanding of individual student needs and how they can affect learning, how is their actual effectiveness as teachers usually measured? Not by the number of students they may have helped emotionally or socially through their "counseling" or "social work," but almost always by the scores their students make on standardized achievement tests.

No wonder, then, that many teachers become so angry, frustrated, and confused about what their real role and responsibilities are. The messages they receive from their supervisors, as well as their own intuition, about what is really important often are contradictory. They result in both cognitive and emotional dissonance.

Let me be very clear. I agree that all students need high academic standards. We also need to have valid and reliable methods of assessing progress toward meeting these standards. All students, including those most often referred to as being "at risk," need to be academically challenged. We must have high expectations for them, and we must provide them with comprehensive and intensive instructional programs. Most of the programs for at-risk students which have been widely recognized as being among the most successful (for example, the Success for All program sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and the Stanford University-sponsored Accelerated Schools Project) embody these principles.

But we also have learned a great many other things about "successful programs" for at-risk youths. Two of the most important are: (1) that the problems of vulnerable children almost always are interconnected with those of their families, that we generally cannot help (teach) children unless we also involve their families, and that, at times, we may need to help the child's family first before we can help the child; and (2) that because children who "hurt" tend to "hurt all over," programs which do not attempt to accommodate the overall developmental, emotional, and social needs of at-risk children usually fail.

  • The c.e.d plan VIOLATES ONE OF THE MOST BASIC PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COLLABORATION. The school-restructuring model advocated by the c.e.d. consistently employs the term collaboration, suggesting specifically that schools should arrange for other social-service and health agencies to become involved in the delivery and financing of services. However, it discourages any real ownership of the problem or participation in the problem-solving process by the schools themselves.

This suggestion is contrary to almost all current thinking regarding effective collaboration. It represents a lack of willingness on the part of schools to truly participate in the overall process, to share resources, and to make a solid commitment to solving the problem. What is most disturbing about the suggested model is that despite its plea for schools not to become active participants in the solution to the problem, it insists that schools seek control of the process (the suggested roles of principals and superintendents as overseers and coordinators).

This is not collaboration. It is little more than an effort to exert control. It simply will not work. In fact, the suggested role that schools should assume in their relationship with health and social-service agencies is in direct contradiction with some of the c.e.d.'s own recommendations contained in other parts of the same report--for example, the development of a more flexible governance and management structure which gives more authority and accountability to teachers, parents, and students themselves.

"Putting Learning First" contains many positive suggestions for improving the overall quality of education in our nation's public schools. But its position that schools are not social-service institutions and that they must make an effort not to become involved in any direct delivery of health and social services to students and their families who may need them is a shortsighted, irresponsible, and dangerous idea. It more than likely will be eagerly accepted by some educators and parents as welcome news, giving support to their feeling that "it's about time we got back to doing what we're supposed to be doing."

Yet, maybe this is the larger and more important question we all need to ask ourselves: "What are we supposed to be doing in our schools anyway?" I submit that more than a few of today's students and their parents (as well as many teachers) would have a difficult time advocating "putting learning first," if that meant that the availability of health, mental-health, and social services for children and young people who require them would be curtailed or eliminated during the typical school day because such services were viewed as"extraneous."

Yes--today's schools and teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the learning and academic-achievement needs of large and growing numbers of students because of the complex health and social problems many of these children and youths have. But the real solution to this dilemma is not, as "Putting Learning First" suggests, for schools to seek to absolve themselves of any real responsibility for children's health and social well-being. The real solution may lie in reassessing what the number-one mission of schools should actually be.

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