Educating the whole child

Schools need the resources to tackle effects of poverty

IT IS A brave new world for public education in this country as schools become a focal point for ideological battles where policymakers seek to shape the educational environment to one which standardizes the process for all students in an attempt to promote the concept of equity.  However, this system, fixated on standardized assessment and accountability driven data metrics with business model competition and choice initiatives, ignores the underlying reality that pervades our public schools, leading to the following question: What is equity? Equity, like fairness, is not treating every student the same, but rather focuses on giving every student what they need. Educators recognize that what individual students need varies greatly between individuals and is not solely based upon academic considerations.

Today’s schools and educators are being asked to fill a larger and different role than in the system of the past. Schools are increasingly seen as the means to combat poverty, provide equity of opportunity, and serve as a resource for children and families in need. The mantra of the day is that educators must be held accountable if we are to close the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, between those with learning disabilities and those without, and between low-income students and their peers who come from more financially stable households. However, the question that remains unanswered is how can we close the achievement gap without focusing on the underlying conditions that caused the gap in the first place? That is like treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease and then holding that doctor accountable for an ailing patient, while withholding the resources necessary to effect a cure.

It is frustrating that when educators point out this problem, we are often attacked as making excuses or accused of failing to believe that every child can learn. That is far from the truth. As educators we recognize the abilities inherent in all our students and endeavor to assist them in reaching their full potential. We take students as they come to us with all the baggage that might be attached working to inhibit their success. We not only teach them academics, but help them work through any external factors that might be impeding their progress. A good teacher teaches “life” through whatever content they might be responsible for implementing in our schools.

A popular line circulating these days in education circles is, “You can’t do Bloom’s stuff, until you take care of Maslow’s stuff.” Bloom’s stuff refers to the models developed by Benjamin Bloom describing how learning takes place. Maslow’s stuff is the hierarchy of ascending human needs proposed by Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. The truth of this statement is often overlooked by policymakers. If a student is hungry, or scared, or emotionally troubled then they cannot help but struggle academically. This isn’t an excuse. It’s a fact.

Policymakers give lip service to the importance of the socioeconomic and social-emotional needs of our students without providing the resources to correct the problem. Feel-good grants that quickly dry up and/or legislation that creates more exercises in bureaucratic compliance rather than remedy the underlying problem propagate in this system. Lasting systemic change to the manner in which we provide for the emotional and developmental well-being of our children cannot occur without resources dedicated to that task. “One and done” workshops for educators on social-emotional topics are not enough.  If we are truly to meet the needs of today’s children, we must take a more holistic approach to education and educational reform. While it is true that the primary purpose of any school is academics, one cannot get to academics if external factors inhibit that process. Furthermore, we cannot make the necessary changes to our educational system merely by changing what we are teaching, and what test we use to measure progress, without addressing the underlying problems that inhibit many students’ progress.

Schools are increasingly called upon to serve a social service role in our society. We provide programs for behaviorally challenged students, offer counseling services, advise families and provide meals along with a myriad of other services, often without having appropriate training or resources. We need to provide for these services through resources, time, money, personnel and training to meet these needs. We need to strengthen mental and physical health services in our schools. We need to bring those services to our students rather than expect our students and families to go to them. The social-emotional needs of our student populations are being neglected through the incessant push for higher test scores. Educators recognize and prioritize the need, but lack the resources and time to effectively implement appropriate interventions.

One idea to help in providing necessary services to children and families would be to embed workers from the state Department of Children and Families in each school district. Schools and educators have the most information on those families that are struggling and in need of support. However, often due to poor communication, high caseloads or lack of follow through our concerns go unheeded. Placing DCF workers in the districts would bring them to where the difficulties truly manifest themselves and work to strengthen the relationships between the two organizations (schools and DCF) that provide vital services for our children. This solution would involve a financial commitment by the state, but in the end the results could potentially be dramatic.

The time to act is now. It is time to stop giving lip service to the social-emotional needs of our students. If we are going to make the schools serve as the social services center of the community, we need to give them the resources to effectively fulfill that role. It is time to recognize that the one thing standardized test scores are truly effective at measuring is the relative affluence of any given community. It is time to break through that barrier, and more of the same strategies will not lead to closing those gaps.

Meet the Author

Todd Gazda

Superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools
If we are serious about closing achievement gaps we must give schools the resources, staff and training necessary to achieve that goal. Teachers struggle daily to take care of the needs of our students. We shouldn’t have to do it alone and without the resources to accomplish that task. The time for words is past and it’s time that social-emotional well-being of our students is treated as more than simply another buzzword.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow public schools.