School Climate & Safety Opinion

21st-Century Solutions to 21st-Century Problems

By Richard Wong — January 28, 2013 3 min read
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Janine was always a bright, high-performing student, even though she lived in a low-income, single-parent household. Her school counselor noticed Janine’s grades start to decline, and when she talked to Janine, she discovered Janine’s mother was in jail for two months and Janine was currently living with her father. Unfortunately, Janine’s stepmother wants nothing to do with her, so Janine is living in her father’s basement and is forbidden from the main levels of the house.

Tara is an outgoing, energetic seventh-grader, but she recently became distant and irritable. Her mother’s cancer had returned, and the doctors predicted she might not live to the end of the school year. Like Janine, Tara cannot live with her father, so she is dealing not only with the imminent loss of her mother but the uncertainty of where she’ll live afterward.

Stefan clearly has special needs, but he lives with a foster parent who refuses to approve special services. Stefan’s parents live in his native country, where Stefan watched his father get gunned down in the street and where his father has been in and out of prison after he recovered from his wounds.

A school counselor in another school a few years ago told me the school had 13 pregnant ninth-graders that year, some of them with their second or third child.

One of the primary goals of school counseling is to help remove barriers to learning. Janine, Tara, Stefan, dozens of other students in their school, the 13 teenaged mothers and millions of students across the country face unimaginable barriers every day. It shouldn’t be surprising that they’re not focused on school as their highest priority. Yet, the education system lumps them together with the general population and labels them low-achieving or under-performing.

Education reform seems fixated on data and statistics, particularly during the past few decades. Test scores and graduation rates don’t show the faces of the students behind the numbers. But if we’re going to be fixated on numbers, let’s consider these numbers:

  • More than half (55.8 percent) of U.S. students live in poverty; 31 million students receive free or reduced lunch every school day (Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)
  • More than one-third (35 percent) of U.S. students live in single-family homes. This represents 19.4 million students. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • One-third of females in the U.S. are pregnant before the age of 20 (Centers for Disease Control), which amounts to an estimated 750,000 babies born to teenaged mothers in the U.S. each year (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)
  • Each year, 3.3 million incidents of child abuse or neglect are reported to Child Protective Services involving 6 million children. Of course, this doesn’t include unreported cases. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth and Families)
  • Approximately one in 10 (9.5 percent) students between the ages of 12 and 17 use illegal drugs or prescription drugs non-medically. (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

Closing a failing school or firing a principal and 75 percent of the staff will never help those students achieve to the levels of students with both parents in stable middle- to upper-middle income families. Of course we believe every student has the potential to achieve and to learn at high levels, but students in difficult or unusual circumstances need additional support. Without that support, it would be like asking you or me to compete with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

Real education reform must take into account the changes in society and their effects on our students. Janine is living in her father’s basement while her mother is in jail. Tara may be spending her last few months with her mother as she fights for her life. And for Stefan, every day is just another day in a home where he’s not wanted while his parents are thousands of miles away. Our schools are no longer populated by Wally, Beaver and their friends. Students have needs beyond anything that could have been imagined when the educational system was created 100 years ago. The only education reforms that will serve students are social and educational systems that recognize we don’t live in the 1950s anymore. We need to address 21st-century obstacles to learning with 21st-century solutions.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.
The opinions expressed in Transforming Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.