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Martin J. Blank Headshot

Education Is a 'Both-And' Issue

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"We tend to put considerations of family, community, and economy off-limits in education-reform policy... at our peril," a phrase from Paul Barton at Educational Testing Services (ETS), was the first thing that crossed my mind when I read Paul Peterson's recent Education Next piece. Then I saw the faces of the three African-American high school students in Undefeated, the Academy Award winning documentary.

Peterson's attack on the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education suggests that teachers and testing should be our only focus in education. His criticism extends to all of us who believe that there is no silver bullet for educating all our children, but rather that we must work together to develop a comprehensive strategy that reflects both research and common sense.

First the research. Starting in the ETS publication, Facing the Hard Fact of Education Reform, and subsequently with his ETS colleagues in the Parsing the Achievement Gap reports, Barton presents rigorous research showing that both academic and non-academic factors influence student achievement. Yes, teacher preparation and experience matter, but so too do safety, student mobility, reading to young children and other non-school factors.

Charles Basch has shown us that health matters in student achievement. Nobel Laureate James Heckman calls support for high-quality early childhood experiences the smartest public investment for good reason; anyone who looks carefully knows that our nation is not even close to providing all low-income children with the early childhood opportunities they need to thrive and succeed.

Now the story. Undefeated depicts three African-American students from North Memphis who make it through high school and on to college through the support of their coaches and their attachment to their football team. The film starkly depicts their desolate neighborhood and the realities of what it means to grow up in poverty. These young men, and the many other young men and women who face similar challenges, need, and richly deserve more opportunities and more support in addition to effective teachers and a robust curriculum. Their talent must be discovered and nurtured and their personal needs met. To see them only as students who will succeed with a good teacher and years of tests is not just short-sighted, it is disrespectful.

As the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, the research and common sense tell me that both quality teachers, curriculum, and school environment and high-quality early childhood opportunities, school-based health clinics, afterschool programs and other supports that Peterson dismisses as "narrow, niggling, naïve, and negligible" are critical to creating the conditions for learning that all students need.

Indeed, I can't imagine that any middle- or upper-class parents, who provide all of this as a matter of course, would ever stop doing so.

But we cannot wait for the elimination of poverty, for all the opportunities and supports students to be available, or for there to be an effective teacher in every classroom. A generation of students demands that we act together now, using existing resources more strategically even as we advocate for increased investments in our children.

It is time to move beyond the education wars that Peterson seeks to keep alive, and find solutions. Community schools represent that solution.

Several recent reports out of the Center for American Progress, in fact, suggest that the "both-and" approach of community schools -- effective teachers, more opportunity and support -- is a great strategy for helping kids succeed.

Let's not allow narrow positions to cloud our perspective. As Paul Barton advises, "The seriousness of our purpose requires that we learn to rub our bellies and pat our heads at the same time."