What Education Reform Can’t Fix

I recently read an op-ed in the New York Times that got me thinking about school reform.  However, when I finished reading I felt different than usual –more helpless than inspired.

Joe Nocera discussed 13-year-old Saquan Townsend.  Saquan had the opportunity to attend M.S. 223 in the Bronx, a school that is experiencing success atypical of New York City public schools.  Principal Ramon Gonzalez has avoided having teachers imposed on him on the basis of seniority, created his own curriculums, micromanaged his students’ days and spent his budget on the personnel, programs and materials he believes most likely to help his kids.

Not only was Saquan fortunate to be in of the few successful public city schools with a strong leader, but he was also taken under the wing of a very determined and dedicated teacher, Emily Dodd.

Dodd pushed through Saquan’s disruptive nature and discovered that he was “unusually intelligent.”  From then on, Dodd went above and beyond her job description, doing everything a school reformer could hope for.  She sent him text messages every morning, urging him to come to school and gave him special help at every turn.

Despite these efforts, and the successful infrastructure of his school, there were too many outside forces working against Saquan. 

With his busy mother working nights, she seemed indifferent to his education.  Through her hard work, she was able to move her family out of their homeless shelter in the Bronx, back to Brooklyn.  Nevertheless, this meant Saquan had a 2 hour commute to school.  His attendance and effort slipped, and despite Dodd’s efforts, Saquan transferred to a school in Brooklyn.

Situations like this make Principal Gonzalez a skeptic of the public school reform movement.  By and large, the reform movement claims that with a great teacher in the classroom and innovative, enhanced teaching methods, student performance will improve.  However, as Saquan’s story shows, it takes a lot more than that.  There are many difficult social truths that the reform movement does not address.

Working at an inner-city school in the Bronx, I see the same struggles as Mr. Gonzalez.  Each year there is significant turnover at our school.  Most of our students who transfer do so because their family is moving.  Our parents are working two, possibly three jobs to move their children into a better neighborhood.  This means that not only are our children constantly changing schools, but they have little guidance and stability at home.  

Despite incentives, parents cannot make it to parent association meetings, and students fall so behind during the summer because most often, they do not read at home.  Further, low income children often face more stress and illness than middle and upper class children.  

Principal Gonzalez lamented about health factors that prevent his students from succeeding.  “I can guarantee you right now that at least 20 percent of our kids need glasses,” he said.  “They’re in their classrooms right now, staring at blackboards with no idea what they’re looking at.  You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum and the greatest after-school programs in the world, but if your kids can’t see, what does it matter?”

So, my point is, good teaching is critical, but it is not the sole answer to overcoming the many obstacles that low income students face in school.  The school reform movement cannot continue to ignore these other factors.  I strongly believe that education can overcome poverty, but at the same time, poverty can inhibit the effects of a good education. 

We can strive to make our schools better through improving pedagogy and firing bad teachers.  However, even with the best schools, we have a lot to work on.  Some low income students can and will succeed despite the factors against them, yet some will fail.  We cannot blame these failures on teachers and administrators when in fact reforming the education system takes a lot more than fixing schools.


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Photo credit: Flickr - JyoNah 8/27/2010



Jacobo V.
jacobo Van6 years ago

Splendid opportunity for a targeted outreach program to catch a few just before they slip beyond the safety net. I believe the Principal Gonzalez with a few extra devoted resources with Ms Dodd of course could develop this online program and thke the resources to the students.
Saquan's job is to share the pipeline with others nearby to give Mayor Bloomberg a meaningful feather to ad to his worthy cap.

Deanna R.
Deanna R6 years ago

Yes, the school systems need fixing! Like get rid of the "No Child Left Behind" policy that leaves poor children behind. Go back to "old school" teaching methods that empowers teachers to help all children. And let poor kids get a free healthy lunch. It may be the only real food the child gets in the day.

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

It has to be a group effort, and follow the rule of "it takes a village to raise a child"... We need to get and keep good teachers, get parents involved, and if need be partner up with a church or other civic group that can help with tutoring and/or other after school activities.

john s.
john s6 years ago

Yes, the blame game. Government pays for obese people on welfare to get stomach surgery but not glasses? who are you kidding?
The overwhelming problem is the HOME then community then these "moral social religious leaders" pointing the finger at everyone but themselves.
How come I NEVER hear from the black community
regarding illegal immigration and how it drains funds, services and jobs from what should be going to citizens in poorer communities?
Because the attitude is let government pay for everything and when nothing changes blame the government again.

Cheryl H.
Cheryl H.6 years ago

The City newspaper in Rochester, NY had an article a month or so ago about school reform in the city and the author said we needed to deal with poverty because nothing's going to work in the schools until it is. I totally agree. How are kids supposed to study and do homework and care about education if they're hungry, homeless, surrounded by gangs and drugs, and/or having to take care of themselves at home because their parent(s) isn't there?

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

@Josephine M
"That's if govt really wants a well educated population that can read, research and think critically. Do They?????"

Uh, no. Because who would vote for them? If they could do all that stuff, Americans wouldn't be as easy to fool, um I mean convince with campaign ads.

Josephine M.

A thoughtful article Fiona. Here's another thought. You can't just keep blaming the parents; many of whom have less that wonderful memories of their own schooling. Parents need to be educated in their role in their child's education and I don't mean just how to provide a quiet desk and reading to them. There is so much more parents can do to foster a good learning environment without lots of money and time.

Why can't the govt run seminars for parents, one a year for each year of their child's education, held in the evening and on weekends. They could teach role modelling, supportive positive attitudes and language, organisational skills etc.

That's if govt really wants a well educated population that can read, research and think critically. Do They?????

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

Because firing teachers doesn't solve THIS stuff:

"My little man go to bed so hungry
Get up, go to school with his nose runny,
come home with his nose bloody
His sister laughin, he like "What's so funny~?"
'Til she drowned out by the sounds
of hunger pains in his tummy
Nuttin in the freezer, nuttin in the fridge
Couple of 40 ounces but nuttin for the kids
Little man know to eat to live but he don't wanna leave the crib
The kid who punched him in his face house right down the street from his
He went anyway, more scared to face his mom
She'll beat him soon as she flip out, seein his face scarred
Walkin past the dope fiends
with they smoke to the place of God
Hopes and dreams pourin out the holes in they face and arms
Little man in the face of harm if he don't eat
He need energy so when he go to school he can compete
And keep up, all he got is bodegas
But hey he only got enough a for quart of water
and a Now & Later
Anyway, grandma say Jesus'll be here any day
Good - cause with nuttin to eat it's gettin hard to pray...pray..."

(lyrics from "Eat To Live" by Talib Kweli)

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

@leanne mcivor
"most could care less about the kids, they just care about their unions and protecting their tenure - google "waiting for superman"!"

It's easy to take the "waiting for superman" tack, a pet project of Mega-rich Bill Gates. See, if you blame teachers, and fire off all the teachers, even great ones, because of that, you as a wealthy American or elected official can concretely PROVE they are "doing something about it" which serves their immediate needs of profits or votes. These people will never admit that parent involvement or lack thereof is a part of the problem for the simple fact that they can't FIRE parents.

Yes, some parents are working multiple jobs, so they can't make it to meetings or supervise homework. But more common is the parents had these kids in their teens, never graduated themselves, and couldn't help with homework if they wanted to because they don't know HOW to do the homework. And some have money for their drugs, etc, but not for food or decent clothes for their kids. Some come to IEP meetings and they are high, or flirt with the school boys.

It could well be we are ACTUALLY waiting for superMOM. It takes a village, but right now, the only "villager" doing a damn thing seems to be teachers. They are sure the only ones being blamed.

Students are apathetic.
Parents are too busy.
Administration isn't going to cut their own jobs.
Politicians are clueless about classroom reality.
Taxpayers don't want to "pay twice".

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers6 years ago

Education should meet the needs of the individual, not general criteria.