President Clinton wants a non-partisan commitment to education as "one of the critical national security issues" of our future. But higher standards, more choice, and better teacher training may not be enough to ensure that our children will learn.
With every new survey, the conclusion becomes clearer: The school reform movement has not succeeded in meeting the needs of poor urban children - children who come to school hungry or sick, who live in violent neighborhoods, in overcrowded apartments, with over- stressed families.
Why, then, in all the "post-game analysis" of these reports, do we hear only more calls for raising standards, reforming curriculum, changing governance structures, developing new test instruments, training teachers differently, or holding schools more accountable - as if the problem is strictly within the school, and has nothing to do with children's lives outside it?
It doesn't take an expert to know that education doesn't exist in isolation from all of the other areas of a child's life. Yet we continue to treat it as a separate component. We see educational achievement as the route to greater socio-economic opportunity, yet fail to see how current socio-economic conditions hamper achievement in the first place. We view schools as a cure-all for our social ills but don't equip them to deal with the social ills they face daily.
Partisanship is not the problem; our view of education is. Until we take a more comprehensive view, even the best reforms will fail. We need to change our concept of what school reform entails - to create models that enhance academic performance by recognizing the realities that keep children from learning.
This is the strategy behind a "community schools" project that the Children's Aid Society implemented five years ago, in partnership with the New York City Board of Education, in four public schools in Washington Heights. These schools offer the full range of programs and services that children and families need, including on-site health care, counseling, tutoring, recreation, adult education, and cultural programs. Before- and after-school programs tie directly to the children's classroom experience. In the summer, the schools become camps for community children of all ages. Some of the schools offer Head Start programs, early childhood classes, and day care. All of the schools are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week, 12 months a year.
Academic achievement has improved in these schools, despite the fact that fully half of these children are Limited English Proficient and all qualify for the federal free school lunch. At P.S. 5, a grade school that opened in 1993, third-graders who were reading at grade level increased from 10 percent in grade 3 to 16 percent in grade 4 to 35 percent in grade 5. At I.S. 218, a middle school that opened in 1992, math performance rose from 37 percent at grade level in 1994 to 44 percent in 1995 and 51 percent in 1996.
Scores still aren't as high as in schools with a selected student body or in high-income areas, yet performance is improving each year and the general needs of youth and families are being met.
This is only one model. Other "full service" schools are opening in rural, suburban, and urban areas, finding advantages - including cost efficiencies - in providing critical supports through the school. In New York, the model costs about $850 per youngster per year - a small increment when taxpayers are paying almost $7,000 per youngster now for schools that are not performing. And much of this cost could be covered by existing funding - Medicaid, drug-free schools, Goals 2000, or others - if we consolidated those funds in the public school. It's the location of services in the school - and the coordination among them - that is the biggest change, and challenge.
To espouse full-service or community schools doesn't mean we turn our backs on school reform, only that we broaden our definition of it. By bringing a panoply of new resources into a school, lightening the burden of teachers and students, we create an environment in which the best reforms have every chance at success - and, more important, so do the children.
* Philip Coltoff is executive director of the Children's Aid Society in New York.