Friday, May 28, 2010

All things are connected

All things are connected

Policymakers, understandably, like to focus on discrete problems. You can only solve one problem at a time they believe. But what if problems are interconnected in complex ways?

The current official wisdom about problems in our schools is that the teachers are at fault and need to be punished. Teachers in under performing schools lose their jobs. It is one more example of the pervasive tendency to respond to problems by identifying a guilty parties and punishing them.

I wrote in in my blog of May 12 that efforts to improve schools must begin with consulting all parties involved, not only teachers and principals, but also parents and students in the schools. Who knows the problems of their school more intimately than the students? I was therefore pleased to see an interview with an honors student at a Boston high school. He is quoted as saying “what really got me, though, was that no one in this whole process bothered to ask us, what we thought. You would think that when it comes to deciding who's a good teacher and was not a good teacher, the students might have some good ideas. We know who stays late, we know who calls home, talks to our parents, makes sure we're doing the work. We know who cares about us.”

This student was very critical of the current policy of firing teachers at under-performing schools. He said “a lot of the kids who have problems at school have problems at home.” The problems in school begin outside the school and thus solutions that stay within the school building are bound to have limited effects.

We know what problems students have at home. Parents may suffer from drug addiction, be ill, unemployed, or may never home because their wages are so low that they need to work more than one job. They may be uneducated or undocumented.

If we really want to address the problems in our schools we need to address the problems of our students' parents. We need, for instance, to address the problems of drugs and addictions. As I wrote in a previous blog doing so by blaming some people and then jailing them has proved to be completely counterproductive.

In my blog of May 10 about immigration I wrote that the most obvious solution is to raise the minimum wage to a level where everyone has a decent income. That means that people have to work only one job and are able to be home when the kids come home from school to make sure that they are attended to, that they do their homework and don't hang out on the street corner getting into trouble.

But the education of parents is also important. The government of Venezuela has put considerable resources in recent years into education for the poor. More than 1 million illiterates can now read and write. Many among them went on to get a high school education. One of these new high school graduates, the mother of three boys, said,: “I am doing this for my children's future. If I study may be they'll follow my example.”

Thoughts in different of my recent blogs come back into focus when we reflect about problems of education. The problem of failing schools connects to the problem of poverty, of low wages, of addiction, of undocumented workers, of parents with minimal education. All things are connected. Focusing only on the school does not promise to resolve their problems. We must address the problems of parents if we want our children to do well in school. We must stop trying to penalize persons with problems and, instead, try to help them to improve their lives.