Interagency coordination should extend beyond the war on terrorism.
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush proposed the creation of a federal Department of Homeland Security that would improve coordination among law-enforcement agencies and provide a means of sharing confidential information gathered by each agency. Congress has now passed legislation giving this newly created department the tools it needs to provide the kind of comprehensive planning required to ensure our country’s safety.
Nearly two decades earlier, however, the nation dealt with a different kind of threat much differently. The following, from 1983, is a presidentially appointed commission’s sobering assessment of our educational peril, delivered in the now-familiar report A Nation at Risk:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.
The nation’s response to this “attack from within” focused completely on public schools, overlooking the fact that schools are not the sole providers of services to children. After years of struggling to address the concerns raised by A Nation at Risk, educational leaders might now consider proposing an “Education Homeland Security Act.” Such a bill would be written to improve coordination among the agencies that provide services to at-risk children and to provide a means for those agencies to share confidential information.
Public schools have worked for years to see that no child is left behind, and teachers and administrators know that many—if not most—of the children who are being left behind are already identified and already receiving services from other agencies. Unfortunately, these services are uncoordinated because of turf battles among the agencies and issues of confidentiality. Two cases from my career as a superintendent of schools serve to illustrate how this lack of coordination and communication plays out in schools.
In the mid-1990s, one of my assistant high school principals informed me that a parent in his school advised him that a recently enrolled transfer student had moved to our district after being charged with murder in another community. The parent, a state trooper, had knowledge of these charges from his work and thought the school system should know. He gave us a means of confirming the information through public sources. We thus learned that even though the information was readily available through freedom-of-information requests, because of confidentiality issues the district had not been advised of this student’s pending charge when he enrolled.
This is an extreme situation, but it is in no way unusual. Confidentiality laws and agency regulations often keep schools unaware of students’ criminal activities in the community. Students on probation for crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault are enrolled in schools without the knowledge of school administrators. Lacking such objective information, administrators are forced to rely on hearsay or community gossip to keep abreast of students’ out-of-school activities. Moreover, because of confidentiality issues and heavy caseloads for probation officers, schools are often unaware of the conditions of probation set by judges—conditions that often require regular school attendance and/or passing grades.
Sadly, this lack of coordinated services results in a lost opportunity for meaningful intervention, an opportunity for child-welfare workers to demonstrate to at- risk young people that the adults in the community care about them and are united in efforts to improve their quality of life.
Lack of coordinated services results in a lost opportunity for meaningful intervention.
My second example involves another parent in the same district who was adopting an at-risk child with disabilities. The child came from another, inner-city school district. The new parent was shocked to find that none of the five caseworkers representing two different counties at the meeting held to complete the adoption process had communicated with either of the school districts involved. The only way a district would be informed of any of the efforts of any of these agencies, it seemed, was if the district initiated contact independently after the child encountered problems in school. This, too, is typical of communication between child-welfare agencies and public schools. Districts often have no idea about problems a student is having at home, or services the student is receiving from child-welfare workers that are designed to support the child’s efforts at school.
This lack of agency coordination brings to mind the fable of the five blind men touching an elephant and independently describing its appearance. Each blind man, based on feeling one specific area of the creature—the tail, the legs, the trunk, the ears, the body—developed a wildly different picture of what the animal looked like. Independent agencies that are isolated from one another are similar to those five blind men: They cannot develop a clear picture of the child they serve unless they share information. Without this pool of shared knowledge, it is impossible for any agency to develop a coherent strategy for providing coordinated services.
As with law-enforcement agencies, the lack of coordination among the various agencies serving children can only be addressed through legislation, legislation that is based on meeting the individual needs of the child at risk. Like the recently enacted homeland-security bill, an Education Homeland Security Act would need to address two hot-button issues: confidentiality and territoriality.
The public’s consensus to allow information-sharing among law-enforcement agencies is predicated on two articles of faith. First, the public believes the sharing of each agency’s confidential information regarding suspected terrorists is needed to ensure public safety. Second, the public trusts that the databank on suspected terrorists will be established in accordance with the legislation and used only for the purpose set forth in the legislation.
The notion of assembling a database on at-risk students, like the notion of assembling a database of potential terrorists, is frightening. The benefits of sharing the confidential information among service providers, however, are far- reaching and essential to ensuring that no at-risk child is left behind. Because success in school is the basis for success in life, and the basis for defining each child’s self-image, service providers would benefit from knowing about a child’s performance in school. And because children typically spend only one-fourth of their time in school, schools would benefit from knowing about the problems they are encountering at home or in the community.
Without a pool of shared knowledge, it is impossible for any agency to develop a coherent strategy for providing coordinated services.
In sharing information, each party would learn more about individual children and be able to motivate each child more effectively. Both the service providers and the educators have a common goal for every at-risk child: They want him or her to be a successful learner and to have an improved quality of life. This overarching goal ought to compel cooperation among child-welfare agencies in the same way that the overarching goal of community safety is compelling cooperation among law-enforcement agencies.
The issue of expanding the sharing of confidential information inevitably raises the specter of misuse of this information. Implicit in this concern is a mistrust of the government or of workers in “the other agencies” who might disclose confidential information inappropriately. Yet child-welfare workers—whether they are social workers, counselors, probation officers, or teachers—are already adhering to the confidentiality guidelines established by their places of work. The fact that this information is not being shared among agencies may be the best evidence that they can be trusted to follow confidentiality guidelines. The public operates under the assumption that child-welfare workers are following confidentiality guidelines within their agencies, and all evidence indicates that this trust is justified. Why would the public believe that these workers would operate differently if their respective agencies’ confidential information were shared with other child- welfare workers who also adhere to confidentiality guidelines?
Interagency cooperation exists in many states, but federal confidentiality guidelines and agency confidentiality guidelines often preclude the free exchange of information among caseworkers trying to achieve a common goal. Public schools and child-welfare workers need to share information and coordinate services if we want schools that truly leave no child behind.
To achieve that goal, the public needs to place the same faith in our schools and child-welfare agencies that we have placed in our law-enforcement authorities. An Education Homeland Security Act would signal that kind of trust.
Wayne Gersen is a freelance writer with 22 years’ experience as a public school superintendent in New York and several other states. He now lives in Vermont.