What is the future of education reform in the United States? Prominent education specialists gathered at Teachers College on Wednesday night to debate the question, focusing on how public policy can improve schools by targeting community issues instead of schools themselves.
The event, “Beyond the Schoolhouse Doors: Bringing Non-School Factors into Education Policy,” was organized by TC’s Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis and moderated by EPSA Chair Jeffrey Henig. Panelists advised education policymakers to focus on community issues such as poverty, health care, unemployment, and residential segregation.
“We really have created a system where, if you’re in an at-risk community with high poverty, the cycle continues in such a way that it’s extremely difficult to break,” said panelist William Tate, chair of the education department at Washington University in St. Louis.
Panelist Michael Rebell, a TC professor and executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, expressed support for “comprehensive educational opportunities, such as health services, extensive early childhood services, summer and extended day programs.”
“With No Child Left Behind, the idea is all kids can achieve at higher levels,” Rebell said. “Implicit on that is that you have to give them the resources to do so.”
TC President Susan Fuhrman called education reform “an old topic at Teachers College,” but one that has recently re-emerged due to new research on the subject. TC sociology and education professor Aaron Pallas, who was not one of the panelists, said before the event that researchers will continue to seek viable solutions for educational disparities in America, keeping in mind that social issues impact education.
“In the long run, there will be a recognition that combining the resources for schooling with spending on other services for youth will have a synergistic effect,” he said. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, educationally. This is something that does cry out for creative solutions.”
But while the panelists extensively discussed evidence that non-school factors play a crucial role in student achievement, they touched only briefly on how to solve educational problems in practice. Bronx resident Shelly-Ann Bennett said that while the panelists talked about several impediments to education reform, they didn’t say what people who don’t work for think tanks can do to help.
“It was a very interesting seminar, but it lacked in talking about solutions,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot about what we can do.”
Doctoral student and TC Student Senate President Vikash Reddy, on the other hand, said he was pleased to see researchers presenting their findings to the general public.
“There’s this notion that after you publish your research, that’s it,” he said. “But in reality, it has become part of the dialogue and discussion for reform.”
The panelists also broached the issue of political will and the upcoming presidential election. Rebell, a member of the Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, seemed optimistic about the possibility of a more holistic education agenda in Washington.
“You do get conservatives and liberals coming together to move in this direction,” he said. “People are seeing this not as a cost increase, but a cost saver. They’re seeing the advantages of consolidating and engaging various government agencies.”
Panelist Greg Duncan, who co-wrote the book “Whither Opportunity?: Growing Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances,” presented data showing that the U.S. has fallen from first to 19th among Organisation for Economic Co-operating and Development member countries in high school graduation rate.
“This issue really threatens fundamental American values,” he said. “Will the U.S. be a leading economic power in 25 years? Will children who work hard do better than their parents?”