To fix a school, it takes a village

These schools have made remarkable gains, but they have done so by mustering every ounce of ingenuity and collective will.

It would be difficult to read this week’s cover story about turnaround schools without being mightily impressed.

The story tracks three public schools – one in Ohio, one in Oklahoma, and one in urban Illinois – that have managed to wring progress from the most trying circumstances. Amid gang violence and poverty, they have embodied innovation – in some cases completely reinventing themselves – in order to offer some measure of hope to communities that had come to expect little. They are testaments to what is possible.

Yet, as the story progresses, it also becomes apparent that this success involves an extraordinarily high degree of difficulty. Yes, these schools have made remarkable gains, but they have done so by mustering every ounce of ingenuity and collective will.

This is the general state of public education for disadvantaged communities in the United States today: Its quality depends largely on individual circumstances. Where women and men of vision and commitment are involved, they can to some significant degree overcome the challenges that face them. Where those ingredients are not present, schools founder. Put simply, in the places where public education is most needed, it mainly succeeds only when administrators and teachers perform amazing feats.

The deeper question here is this: What are we expecting from public schools? 

One of the most obvious answers is that they are seen as perhaps the primary accelerant of the American dream. When President Lyndon B. Johnson historically recast public education in 1965, vastly expanding the federal government’s role, he said: “As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.”

But there’s an increasing conviction that that is not enough. Education alone cannot overcome all the social factors that surround it. “These are kids whose out-of-school challenges are so great that if you don’t solve them, it doesn’t matter how good the school is...,” says one expert in the cover story.

This is the challenge American public education faces today: Designed in the early 20th century as a pipeline for factory workers, it is now being asked to bear the weight of incubating social change. Income inequality has broadened the distance between America’s haves and have-nots, upping the degree of difficulty for that L.B.J.-like vault from poverty to prosperity. Middle- and upper-class families are paying for the things that really fuel opportunity today, from preschool to college-prep courses. Others are just trying to make ends meet. That’s what educators are struggling to solve.

The good news, however, is that those of vision and commitment are solving it. You can see it in the cover story. Educators unafraid of blowing up old molds are investing schools once thought hopeless with a sense of energy and purpose. Public education for disadvantaged communities can work, even as trends conspire against it.

The broader need is for a shift in thought, author Robert Putnam suggests in an interview with The Atlantic. “This is just going back to basic American values: worrying about everybody’s kids. Let’s get off this recent kick of just worrying about our own.”

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