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One of the most frustrating things about the school reform movement in the United States for more than 15 years has been the narrow way it has been defined by those promoting it. The focus and money has largely been on (often faulty) academic interventions, not by looking broadly at what gets in the way of a child’s achievement at school and trying to address the most severe impediments.

The post below was written by a school reformer, who writes:

Sometimes it seems like education reformers, present company included, spend much of their time discussing the obvious — that good teaching matters, that learning to read by grade 3 is important, that early childhood learning is very valuable. But we also can be accused of ignoring or side-stepping the obvious, like the fact that a healthy child is a better learner, that poverty usually constitutes a serious impediment to learning, and that what children do during the 80 percent of waking hours they are not in school can mean the difference between thriving and failing.

The author is Paul Reville, who served as the secretary of education of Massachusetts for nearly five years, leaving the position in 2013. He serves as the director of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Policy and Administration. His newest book, written with Elaine Weiss, is titled “Broader, Bolder, Better: How Schools and Communities Help Students Overcome the Disadvantages of Poverty.”

During his time as education secretary, Reville oversaw the state’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards and a teacher evaluation system that used standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness. Both initiatives became highly controversial.

Earlier, he played a key role in the development of the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993, which injected a great deal of money into poor neighborhood schools, helped increase standardized test scores and narrow the achievement gap between black and white students. Budget cuts, the Great Recession and a 2010 state education law that did not provide adequate funding combined to halt the progress in Massachusetts.

By 2018, Reville appeared at an education equity summit in his state and said, “We failed.” An article on the Mass Live website quotes him as saying: ““The question is what do we do now? … We’re lacking vision and leadership.”

Here Reville talks about how important it is for schools and policymakers to prioritize efforts that keep children healthy. Yes, it seems like a no-brainer, yet, somehow, both Republican and Democratic policymakers ignored it. This first appeared on the website of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and I was given permission to publish it.

By Paul Reville

Sometimes it seems like education reformers, present company included, spend much of their time discussing the obvious — that good teaching matters, that learning to read by grade 3 is important, that early childhood learning is very valuable. But we also can be accused of ignoring or sidestepping the obvious, like the fact that a healthy child is a better learner, that poverty usually constitutes a serious impediment to learning, and that what children do during the 80 percent of waking hours they are not in school can mean the difference between thriving and failing.

Let’s focus on just one area: health.

Any teacher of disadvantaged children will have lots of stories about health care issues, from toothaches to anxiety, to the need for eye glasses, to the challenges of asthma that get in the way of students being able to concentrate and learn at high levels. Some schools tackle these problems head-on by setting up a health care clinic or developing a partnership with a neighborhood health center, but others simply don’t have the resources and time to address these fundamental impediments to learning.

In other words, we don’t have a system that guarantees children’s health and well-being. Our approach is hit or miss — unless you’re from a privileged family, and then you can count on getting wraparound health care, mental health services, and regular dental care. Is it any wonder then, that children from these families routinely learn at higher levels, on average, than children who lack adequate access to health care?

Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab is dedicated to working with communities in building systems of support and opportunity that put disadvantaged children on a level playing field with their more affluent peers. Our theory of action is that only by working toward equity of systemic services, supports, and opportunities can we break America’s iron-law correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement and life outcomes. We believe that a “schools only” approach to achieving equity is a proven failure and that school reform, narrowly conceived, is destined to continue falling short.

Some communities are hard at work at the business of building more robust child development systems by, for example, linking health care supports with education to address the health issues that impede their students from coming to school ready to learn. Through the Partnership for Resilience, practitioners from medicine and education are working together in impressive ways to provide quality health care supports for students in the Southland communities near Chicago, and their work is making a difference.

In one participating district, the partnership created school-based access to vision and dental care for students. Among students participating in vision screenings, 60 percent needed and received eye glasses, and among students identified as needing restorative dental care, 85 percent completed the necessary treatment. That district has seen behavior referrals decrease by 72 percent, detentions by 87 percent, suspensions by 79 percent and expulsions by 100 percent. Students also experienced English and math gains across all grades (K-8) during this time.

In California’s Alameda County, the Oakland Unified School District began to implement a community school approach in 2012, which includes health and wellness, expanded learning opportunities, and family engagement. A Stanford report found that students in Oakland’s community schools are more likely to participate in out-of-school time programs, which in turn has a positive impact on school attendance. The Alameda County Center for Healthy Schools and Communities, which has invested in over 23 school-based health centers, has found that the clinics improved students’ access to health care and was associated with improved behavioral health and perceived positive effects on students’ academic outcomes.

We need to take a holistic approach to eliminating the barriers preventing children from coming to school and being attentive when they get there; food security, health, mental health, social support, housing stability, and a sense of safety all contribute to or limit a child’s ability to thrive.

But schools can’t solve these problems by themselves. Communities must step forward to create systems of opportunity and support in which teachers, upon identifying a nonschool problem in the life of a child, can pick up a telephone and connect with someone in the community who can actually do something about the issue.

We need more “connective tissue” between our schools and our family-serving organizations, so family support is not so fragmented, disarrayed, and difficult to access. Service silos don’t work.

What we really need is a new social compact between our communities and our families, one that guarantees all children — and all means all — can expect to receive the supports and opportunities they need to go to school each-and-every-day fully ready to learn.

More than half of U.S. students are now economically disadvantaged, many of them living in deep poverty. At the same time, students of color are now a majority of the children in U.S. public schools. These students are disproportionately afflicted by challenges outside of school and to date, we haven’t been very successful in educating high proportions of these students to proficiency.

It is vital to bear in mind that their success will determine our success as a country, an economy, and a democracy.