Education Opinion

People Are Education’s Biggest Bargain

By Dorothy Rich — September 09, 1992 12 min read
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Go to any major conference of education groups, often attended by thousands of members, and there in a very large exhibit hall is a collection of booths filled with the wares that school budgets buy.

I walk through these regularly, to get some sense of what’s current, what’s happening. As I leave the vast rooms, overflowing with goods of every description, from books to buses, I think, “How can there be any educational problems at all when there are so many things available that promise to take care of just about anything?’' There are booths for special and bilingual education, booths for dropouts and drugs. There are at least 10 products on the market to solve each of the problems.

Why should “ordinary’’ people care about what works in schools and what doesn’t? Isn’t that the province of educationalists? I could answer with a lofty rejoinder that education is everyone’s business. But instead, here is the pragmatic answer.

If you are a taxpayer, you are paying for what goes on in schools. Schooling is the largest item on any locality’s budget. If you are an employer, the future of your enterprise depends on the workforce entering your doors. You have no choice but to care and to help make the spending decisions that determine your own future as well as your children’s.

There’s always been a money argument: Are we spending too much? Are we spending too little? It depends on whose statistics you read. But in any event, what we spend doesn’t seem to be buying what we need.

The fundamental that makes the difference in education is not sold in the stores or on the convention floor. It’s a message that needs to come across to students in the classroom and in the home. This message is not conveyed automatically and it doesn’t come by machine. It comes, even today, the old fashioned way--person to person.

The key to getting this message across is perhaps too simple to be believed. It’s this: To improve education, we have got to find more ways to involve more adults in the lives of children. Some of these ways are free; some cost money. But in any event, putting people to work with children is the best use of educational time and money we will ever find. With all the new gadgets around, with all the pressure to save money, this fact of life can get overlooked: People are education’s biggest bargain.

As generally optimistic Americans, we tend to look for fast, active panaceas. Machines seem to fit the bill and are very appealing, partly because they look so efficient. But are they? Computers are nice; TV in the classroom is nice, but the real breakthrough in education is, I fear, in the toughest place to reach--the heart, the heart of the students.

This does not mean that we should not have fine facilities or up to date materials. I am all for them. But what we need more is what it takes to get to the inner core of the student that says, “I want to read this book, I want to study this material, I believe I can succeed; I know it takes hard work; I believe it’s worth it.’'

This is the educational dream, and it can’t be bottled or boxed. It’s like a current that flows, and it flows not from the computer screen or the text page. It flows from person to person. In a period of limited resources, taxpayer rebellion, and political retreat, it’s more than ever important to use the resources that are at hand. Luckily, the most at-hand resource in education is people. The issue is how to mobilize more of them to help more children learn.

To be sure, most of the money now spent in school budgets goes to pay for people. There are lots of adults in school buildings, well beyond teachers, from secretaries to bus drivers. But how are they being used to connect with kids? The answer is not very well. It hasn’t been in the job description.

I believe, based on 35 years in the field, seeing fads come and go and mostly go, that the most significant step we can take to improve schooling right now is to stock our schools with more adults, for talking to and working with kids. By involving everyone in the school with the work of learning, we build a community of learners, a welcoming place where people care.

One major lesson we’ve learned in recent years is that the biggest bang for our educational dollar is found not in the college years but in the early grades and in preschool. This is where long-term differences are made.

Another lesson we’re learning is that as a society we are suffering today from what the educational researcher James Coleman aptly calls “the loss of social capital.’' By this he means the loss of relationships that children need with adults.

Probably the most-mentioned headline solutions to solving educational problems today are “choice’’ and restructuring. The truth is we really don’t know if these proposed “solutions’’ make a difference. There are lots of unanswered questions.

So, why not start with what we already know?

How do we learn what it takes to succeed? Some of us point to special teachers, special friends, special subjects, a certain job--but most of us, in our heart of hearts, know that much of what we learn and value comes from the home and from the community in which we grow up. It comes from people.

To have a sense of self and the attitudes needed to do well in school and grow up strong, children need adults for attention, involvement, and continuity. Who can argue with this? We know deep down that it is true.

Our children are starved for adult advice, support, and time. Children themselves are saying it. When I ask youngsters across the country what they like about the Home and School Institute programs, in which their parents do activities with them at home, their answer is poignant and revealing. Over and over they say, “This program makes my parents have time for me.’'

Most of my work centers on the responsibilities of parents in their children’s education. I focus more on what goes on outside, rather than inside the school walls. But, I am so struck these days by what is being proposed to fix the schools--the reliance on standards, testing, restructuring, choice--without much, if any, focus on the people in the schools, that I can’t help but speak up about what goes on in the classroom itself. Just as at home, I am convinced that it’s people here, too, that make the difference.

The encouraging smile, the supportive hand, they are the glue that link the adults in a child’s life, a safety net of educational support.

More time spent with adults. How can we provide it? The clock won’t turn back, all moms won’t go home to the kitchen, broken marriages won’t get restored. So, we have to find some new ways to connect kids with adults, and adults with adults.

Without diminishing the ultimate responsibility of parents to do right by their children, to spend time with them, to care and be concerned for them, there is a strong need, especially today, for enabling parents across the socioeconomic spectrum to do their job. Many parents feel lonely, isolated, and frankly they don’t know what to do to help their children learn and do well in school.

To do well as a parent today, even parents need help from other adults. Here are three modest proposals about how to put more adults into the lives of children and their parents:

  • The Family Corps. Every teacher needs what I call a Family Aide, a person who has the responsibility of making the vital connection between the school and the home, of calling parents, of making home visits, of befriending the family. Call it mentoring, call it advocacy, the family aide need not be a professional but a person who acts professionally.

Where family aides are in place in schools, mostly funded through the compensatory-education programs, they perform vital services. We need more of them, and we need them to focus on the relationship of the school with the home.

This is a Family Corps; it could be a Grandparents Corps. These people are not therapists, not social workers or teachers. They are school, family, and child friends.

Not everything about this corps will cost money. Many corps members can be volunteers. We have a growing number of senior citizens, healthy and vigorous, with time on their hands. Here is a way for their time to be put to use. Money is still needed to service the program. To have a coordinator, to keep schedules in place, to make sure people are where they need to be, to provide support and encouragement to the adults who will be taking on this challenging assignment.

  • The Others Who Teach. Schools are peopled by many folks. There are bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors. What can these people teach? A lot.

When we move kids around town to schools of choice or non-choice, there are bus drivers and bus-maintenance workers. When we serve breakfast and lunch, there are food and cafeteria staff. When we provide health screening, there are health-care workers. These numbers add up.

When it comes to education, they could add up better. Can we envision a school in which all the workers in that school, including the teaching staff and the janitorial staff and the food workers, are engaged in the process of helping educate children?

What we are doing is helping more people become part of the schooling process. The bus driver has the almost superhuman task of getting kids in and out of the bus, of making sure they are in their seats. But, what if ... the bus ride itself could be turned into an educational experience--with older kids reading to younger ones, with parents coming aboard to read or to play a musical instrument?

And, the bus itself is an educational tool: Alongside maintenance staff, children can look under the hood. Then there’s the adventure of changing a bus tire!

From cafeteria workers, kids can learn how food is cooked and served in bulk. These are lessons in cooking and in cleaning up--and in real life.

The janitorial staff makes the building work and can show children how it works. For young children, just looking at the plumbing pipes in the basement is eye-opening. For older youngsters, there are engineering questions: How does the boiler work? What are the safety hazards? This is the stuff of science; janitors know it and they can help teach it. In Japan, by the way, students help keep the school clean with assigned jobs.

Going to the basement, to the cafeteria--these are field trips. They are exciting, they save money and they build camaraderie.

  • The Multiplier Effect. Beyond teachers, there are other professionals in the school who can have a multiplier effect for gathering in adults to work with children.

These are the pupil-personnel workers, guidance counselors, and social workers. Right now, this staff, when they do exist in the school setting, most often work one-on-one with children and their families, for truancy and discipline problems and, at the high-school level, for vocational and college counseling. But they have even greater potential. A more far-reaching use for this staff is their ability to mobilize other adults in the community to come to the aid of schooling and children.

Counselors can provide guidance to a corps of community adults who come together to learn how to work with children. To ensure safety and security for both children and adult, references should be checked and meetings can occur within the larger group. This corps can have picnics together, go on field trips, and in general, build a wider social and educational support system for children. The goal is to put an adult at the side of every child.

A few years ago, the Home and School Institute, under a demonstration grant from the U.S. Education Department, designed a program called Senior Corps, to involve senior citizens as that special adult with children (grades 5-8) and their parents in Washington, D.C. The seniors, found at nearby senior centers where they sat watching TV most of the day, were delighted to be called upon to be active. They received training, along with teachers, on using a home-based academic curriculum. The seniors taught subjects through home-learning activities, including discounts to teach math, newspapers to teach reading; nutrition to build good health habits. Health was included as a subject because of its vital interest to the seniors themselves.

The center van took the seniors to the classrooms, where they worked with the children in small groups. Seniors got on the phone to talk with parents in the evening. Many of these elderly, by the way, were learning math and reading skills right along with the kids. They were not professional tutors; they didn’t intimidate the children or their parents. Learning was taking place all around.

So, what happened? The demonstration was successful. But like most demonstrations, the program ended, with no ongoing carry over to the school system. Some who know schools well say there is a difference between successful and unsuccessful demonstration projects: The successful ones, if they are lucky, last three years; the unsuccessful ones last for five. There is a strange tendency in education to reinforce a lot of things that are not working. It’s one of those behavior patterns that is remarkably hard to change.

If we believe that people make the difference, then we have to put people in place to do the job. Right now, the first items cut from the school budgets are reinforcements for people, such as in-service training for teachers. It’s considered a frill.

Then, there are those other items, considered frills, that are the first to go, such as art and music teachers and anyone employed to reach out to the community, such as parent-involvement workers or family aides.

Where did we ever get the idea that these people are frills? Who says so? The research doesn’t. It says the opposite. It says that kids have different intelligences and different ways to learn. Arts and music help provide for this. It says that the home needs to be involved as a partner in children’s education, and it takes people and time to reach out to parents at home.

There has been a dream, a fond hope that somehow there is a quick fix in education--if only we could find it. There’s been a tendency to have faith in machines, in re-tooling the system rather than in re-tooling people.

Alas, there is no quick fix, and the best investment, if we’re aiming at the hearts of our students, is not in the gadgets, but in the people who can make the real difference in their lives. When the first machine can raise a warm hand to greet a child in the morning, or phone home without using a pre-recorded message, I’ll be glad to re-think my investment in caring adults.

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