Of Reading, Writing -- and Raising Kids

By Noel Epstein
Sunday, November 27, 2005

It's time to put an end to all the headlines about achievement problems in our schools -- a far easier chore than most people imagine. All we need to do is two things: First, stop calling those establishments simply schools, when they're really hybrid institutions that are raising many of our children, not just educating them. Then ensure that those who deliver family-like services there are devoted exclusively to those tasks, so that the educators can focus fully on academics.

Few people recognize the extent of what's happened, but as I discovered while doing research for a book, the public schools have clearly evolved into public child-rearing institutions, something closer in that respect to the Israeli kibbutz, or commune.

They not only provide before-school programs, breakfasts, lunches, after-school care, afternoon snacks and sometimes dinners (as well as summertime meals). They also instruct children about sex and, in many places, teach them to drive. They face growing pressure to take tots as early as age 3 in pre-kindergarten programs. They share responsibility for keeping children off drugs, making sure they don't carry weapons, instilling ethical behavior, curbing AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, battling alcohol abuse, preventing student suicides, discouraging cigarette smoking, tackling child obesity, heading off gang fights, providing a refuge for homeless children, ensuring that students are vaccinated, boarding some pupils, tending to toddlers of teenage mothers and otherwise acting in loco parentis in ways not anticipated a generation ago.

Though critics bemoan this trend, there's little chance of fundamentally altering it, for several reasons. Chief among them is that schools generally are reacting to what the public wants. Many people seem to think that adults' worries about schools center mainly on student achievement. That's wrong. While test scores certainly keep business, political, media and other elites up nights, they are not what most trouble the wider citizenry, as polls have long shown.

According to a Public Agenda analysis of opinion surveys, for example, Americans in 1999 said that the top three problems facing public schools were lack of parental involvement, drug use and undisciplined students. Academic standards came in seventh. Similarly, that year's annual Gallup education poll found far more concern about violence, gangs and other student behavior than about academics, which trailed in ninth place. By last year, when Gallup ranked the public's top five school concerns, academics were not cited at all (inadequate funding led the list), and this year's poll showed again that student achievement wasn't among the public's main worries.

Another common belief is that the school's enlarged family role is an inner-city phenomenon. That's wrong, too. Columbine and other school shootings (and the anti-violence programs they've spawned) aren't a function of inner-city problems, just as school strategies to deal with early childhood care, drunk driving, drug abuse and the estimated 3.75 million teens with sexually transmitted diseases know no geographic, class or racial boundaries.

Still others think the communal child-rearing trend is part of some grand plan hatched by the left. Wrong again. It's more a grand hodgepodge, created by those on the left, the right and in between. Conservatives, for example, push character education, sexual abstinence classes and random student drug testing. Liberals focus on issues such as school condom distribution, substance-abuse counseling and tolerance toward gay students. The Committee for Economic Development, a major business voice on policy matters, calls on schools to provide pre-kindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Some of the family functions that schools have taken on are American traditions, traceable to the early days of the republic or periods like the 1890-1920 Progressive Era. The development of student character has been a classroom responsibility since the beginning of U.S. schools, and early childhood care and education were not invented for today's working parents. Schools in early America enrolled children as young as 2, freeing mothers to toil on farms. "Infant schools" for toddlers as young as 18 months were created in the 1820s and 1830s, chiefly for poorer working mothers, though more well-off women soon began using them as well.

Sex education and student meals have also been around for a century or more and are not about to be discontinued. Both initially were opposed by cultural conservatives, who worried about making children "wards of the state." Yet while there are still lively debates about what should be included in (or omitted from) sex education or school lunches, they are now widely accepted as school programs.

It's only reasonable, of course, for some family-like school services to be challenged, especially if they fail to meet goals. While almost nobody was watching, for example, the federal government last year completed a three-year experiment to determine whether all elementary school students, rich or poor, should be eligible for free breakfasts. A subsequent study, however, found that the program had "no noteworthy effects" on daily classroom functioning or on standardized achievement tests, two of its aims.

Similarly, an evaluation completed this year of the main federal after-school initiative -- the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program -- showed that the $1 billion-a-year effort didn't reduce the number of "latchkey" children (there are about 8 million, from 5- to 14-years-old) or produce academic improvements, two of that program's goals.

Disappointing results like these, though, don't mean that critics will be able to shrink or kill such programs. President Bush discovered this in 2003 when he tried to slash $400 million from federal after-school funds. The Republican-controlled Congress balked, particularly after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who soon would announce his California gubernatorial bid, came out in their defense.

Political careers aren't helped by cutting funds for anti-drug programs, for ensuring that children don't carry weapons, for dealing with student depression and suicide, or for discouraging drunk driving. In short, it's simply exceedingly popular to heap family roles on schools.

The chief question, then, is how to manage these hybrid institutions so that both non-academic and academic programs get a fair shake. For answers, it's useful to look at what are most often called "community schools" but also are known as family resource centers, settlement-houses-in-schools, full-service schools or simply community centers.

Typically, the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 such centers in the country are open year-round, usually until 9 p.m. and commonly on weekends and holidays as well. They are essentially one-stop academic, medical-care, mental-health, drug-education, homework-help, pregnancy-prevention, crisis-intervention, tutoring, violence-reduction, adult-education and anything-else-that's-needed institutions. One elementary school in Portland, Ore., for example, houses more than 130 programs. Although these institutions mainly target the poor, some serve affluent families as well. That's the case, for example, with Schools of the 21st Century, the brainchild of Yale University professor Edward Zigler, an architect of the Head Start program.

In community schools, non-academic services mostly are provided by outside partners, not educators. Many centers, for instance, have health clinics where nurse practitioners, social workers, physicians and others minister to students' physical and mental needs, reducing demands on school staff. As the Coalition for Community Schools puts it, "Teachers in community schools teach. They are not expected to be social workers, mental health counselors and police officers."

In addition, local governments often initiate school-community collaborations, especially to reorganize city services while using the school as the hub, and they (along with other government and foundation programs) also play an important part in funding them. Mayor David Cicilline of Providence, R.I., was a driving force in bringing community schools to that city. Similarly, the SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) centers in Portland, Ore., and surrounding Multnomah County were spearheaded by a city commissioner and the chairman of the county council.

The question of who then controls family-like programs in schools can, of course, raise sensitive questions. For example, New York City's Beacon centers, created by that city's Department of Youth and Community Development as a drug-free after-school refuge, had to overcome "battles over control, turf and ideology," as the journal Education Week observed.

It also can be argued that the need to coordinate multiple public services -- youth and family aid, recreation, health, police and other services -- bolsters the case for mayors to be in overall charge of the schools, as they are now in a handful of cities, such as Boston, Chicago and New York, and as Mayor Anthony A. Williams has long sought for the District of Columbia.

However power is distributed, though, the foremost requirement is to ensure that others tend to the many non-academic responsibilities of the communal child-rearing institutions while school superintendents, principals and teachers concentrate on imparting academic skills. That's the only way we'll have a fighting chance of improving student achievement while also working to improve children's lives.

Author's e-mail: anepstein@msn.com

Noel Epstein, a former Post education writer, is the editor of the book "Who's in Charge Here?: The Tangled Web of School Governance and Policy" (Brookings) and the author of the chapter "The American Kibbutz," from which this article is adapted.

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