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To improve schools, stop treating them like businesses

There’s no question that the push for standards and accountability is critical to progress in our worst-performing schools. But in the barrage of bottom-line-focused reform, we are losing sight of the actual students who make up a failing or flourishing school.

By Laura Pappano / January 4, 2011

New Haven, Conn.

Despite all the talk of “investing in education,” you’d be outraged if Wall Street traders could actually buy and sell stock in your local school. Who wants investors betting for – or against – student performance?

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Absurd as it sounds, we’re headed there. Just as corporations have become their stock prices, public schools are becoming their test scores. The school-as-business model that has gained momentum over the past decade now dominates education reform. In this high-stakes testing world of guts-and-glory races to the top, students are statistics. Without saying that test results don’t matter – they do – the real job at hand is not just turning around schools, but turning around students.

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Just at the moment when we need to rethink our educational goals and are asking students to reassess their effort levels, we are abandoning what makes education great: It’s personal.

Maybe we should think of education more like health care. An ideal health-care system applies cutting-edge scientific advances while valuing personal treatment and care for patients.

There is spreading awareness that personal connections matter, that doctors and nurses must do more than execute procedures; they must engage in “compassionate care.” What’s more, while it was once considered a matter of happenstance to get a doctor with a warm bedside manner, we now know these relationship skills can – and should – be taught.

In schools and sickness, caring counts a lot

The approach also yields results. Last August, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that terminal lung cancer patients who received palliative care at diagnosis rather than in the last weeks of life were happier and, stunningly, lived almost three months longer on average than the group of patients who did not. The palliative care included pain relief but also help addressing worries, and talking with patients to ensure they had help with meals, dressing, and bathing when not in the hospital. Atul Gawandi, a Harvard Medical School surgeon and writer who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times that the results were “amazing.”

There’s obviously a difference between terminal disease and rock-bottom schools. But as we ask poor urban students, many of whom do not know a single person who has attended college or has a salaried job, to hit the books and reach for big careers (“law and government academy,” anyone?), we must provide some – well – care.


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