Making Schools Safer in the Wake of Sandy Hook

As policymakers prepare to find the best way to respond to the tragedy in Newtown, educators and parents across the country are left to wonder – what can we do to make our schools safe?

The lessons of Sandy Hook Elementary School can help us answer that question in two ways – one that is uncomfortable, and one that is essential.

The uncomfortable truth of Sandy Hook is that there is nothing we can do to guarantee that our children are safe. Short of placing an iron dome over our school buildings or turning them into police bunkers, the only thing we can do is create spaces for children that are as safe and supportive as possible.  And so while it is encouraging that national policymakers are intent on addressing the larger aspects of American culture that make acts of mass violence like this all too common, the only things individual schools and communities can do are the sorts of things Sandy Hook had already done: establish clear safety protocols, lock their doors once the school day begins, and be vigilant in their efforts to keep children safe.

There is, however, something essential our schools can do to ensure that all children feel safe and supported, and it, too, is something the educators of Sandy Hook were already doing: proactively addressing the full range of each child’s developmental needs, and providing students with the love and support they need to learn and grow.

It was happening the morning of the tragedy: principal Dawn Hochsprung and psychologist Mary Sherlach were in a meeting with the parent of a child who was struggling, and together they were working out a plan to ensure that his needs could be addressed to help get him back on track.

This is becoming a lost art, and a lost practice – most schools, if they have a team of mental health professionals at all, maintain skeleton crews whose daily efforts cannot possibly account for the needs of all the children in their charge. This is especially true in our poorest communities, where budget cuts and conflicting priorities have forced educators to cut back on counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, this cannot continue.

It’s impossible to know if a more robust set of supports could have helped Adam Lanza before he decided to commit mass murder. But it’s undeniable that a more robust set of supports would help current and future generations of students get the help they need, and keep them on track to live happy, productive lives.

For proof, just look to the schools and networks that already operate this way. Consider the School Development Program (SDP), a national network of K-12 schools structured to ensure that every adult – from the teachers to the bus drivers to the custodial staff – is well-versed in the six developmental pathways children must travel down: cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic, ethical, and physical. Or visit any of the more than 200 affiliates of Communities in Schools (CIS), a nationwide network of professionals who work collaboratively to surround students with a range of academic and behavioral support services.

What programs like SDP and CIS recognize is a simple fact about children: unmet social and emotional needs become unmet academic needs. And they recognize what Yale University’s James Comer – the founder of SDP – has observed: “With every interaction in a school, we are either building community or destroying it.”

So let’s keep encouraging our elected officials to push for lasting changes in the way our society is structured. And let’s recognize that in the meantime, and from this day forward, each of us has a vital role to play.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

When it comes to a longer school day, something’s gotta give

Now that five states are planning to add 300 hours of class time in an effort to close the achievement gap and re-imagine the school day, I can only come to one conclusion: Something’s got to give.

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The curious paradox of “Won’t Back Down”

Won’t Back Down, the new Hollywood film about two mothers determined to take over their children’s failing inner city school, represents everything that’s wrong with the present way we talk about school reform – and everything we need to talk about more in the future.

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Why You Should See “Bully” – and What We Should All Do in Response

Bully, the new film that opens today in theaters across the country, begins with the image of a heavy-diapered toddler named Tyler, happily staggering across the wet grass in front of his family’s Oklahoma home.

Moments later, we learn of Tyler’s painful path in the adolescent years that followed – years that were marked by relentless bullying and abuse at school, and years that culminated with his decision to hang himself, in a closet in his family’s home, at the age of 17.

Bully is a must-see film because it makes visible one of the most painful, universally kept secrets of our society and our schools: Every one of us has been bullied, and every one of us has bullied someone else.

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How Much Parent Power is Too Much?

Should parents who are unhappy with their local school have the power to replace the entire staff, turn it into a charter school, or shut it down completely – even if just 51% of the school’s families agree?

It’s an enticing, polarizing proposal – the so-called “parent trigger.” It’s also now a law in four states, and the subject of debate in scores of others. But is it a good idea? In the end, will parent-trigger laws help parents more effectively ensure a high-quality public education for their children, or will they result in a reckless short-circuiting of the democratic process itself?

The answer, of course, is “it depends,” and what it depends on is the way parents and communities go about evaluating the quality of their neighborhood schools – and, when necessary, deciding on the most constructive path forward.

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When did teacher bashing become the new national pastime?

With spring training under way, fantasy baseball owners across the country are hard at work readying their draft boards and preparing to select their championship rosters. As they do, I have a modest proposal to make that will simplify the whole process: Let’s stop getting weighed down by multiple data points, and start looking at just one number instead – the number of doubles a player hit the previous season.

Too simplistic a way to evaluate something as complex as a player’s overall value to your team?  Hogwash. For example, look at last year’s stats and you’ll see that the Kansas City Royals’ Jeff Francoeur smacked almost 50 two-baggers. By contrast, some guy named Albert Pujols hit half as many. By my calculations, then, Francoeur must be twice as good.

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NYC Teacher Data Reports: A Good or a Bad Idea?

This morning, I appeared on CNN to debate whether the recent release of data linking individual NYC public school teachers to the test scores of their students was a good or a bad idea. On Tuesday, will run an accompanying article in which I provide a little more context for my opinion, and suggest a better alternative. In the meantime, here’s the segment.

Other People’s Children

Last week, CNN reported on recent events in Garfield Heights, Ohio, where austerity measures have led local school officials to shorten the schoolday to five hours, get rid of subjects like art, music, and PE — and send kids home before lunch.

What didn’t come out during the piece was that these drastic decisions were fueled in part by the community’s refusal, over a 20 year period, to pass a levy that would help support the schools. Like many places across the country, Garfield Heights’ residents were getting older, its younger people were moving away, and those that remained didn’t see sufficient value in a measure that would be used to support the education of other people’s children.

In this way, the events in Garfield Heights are a poignant window into a larger issue about what we value, and don’t value, in modern American society. And the reality is that despite our historic commitments to both liberty and equality, American education policy reflects our willingness to honor liberty at the expense of equality.

It wasn’t that long ago that four U.S. Supreme Court justices believed the way we finance public education in this country was unconstitutional. Five of their colleagues disagreed, however, leading Justice Thurgood Marshall to speak forcefully in dissent. “The majority’s holding,” he wrote, “can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens.”

Marshall and his colleagues had been asked to rule on the funding policy of Texas, in which, like so many other places, the wealthier the community was, the more resources it had to provide for its schools. A group of poor Texas parents brought suit, claiming that the policy of relying on property taxes to fund schools was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Speaking for the narrow majority, Justice Potter Stewart disagreed, despite conceding that the Texas school system “can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust. . . . [But] it does not follow,” Potter continued, “that this system violates the Constitution.”

Marshall was incredulous. “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed,” he wrote, even though “no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well being.”

Marshall’s central point was simple: without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn’t work. “Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights,” he explained. “Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.”

Indeed, public education is our surest form of “national security.” It provides the most likely path out of poverty, helps prepare young people to be successful workers and citizens, and reminds us all of who, on our best days, we aspire to be. And yet the reality is we continue to tolerate a system in which your zip code determines your access to the American Dream, and in which communities refuse to fund their schools because “their” children no longer go there.

We can do better. But first we need to correct the error the Court made in 1973. We need to admit that the way we fund public education in this country is unconstitutional, and we need to craft a new system that funds schools equitably.

Is it time to redesign the report card?

This week, parents and guardians of schoolchildren across the country will receive their first report card of the 2011-2012 school year. For some, the occasion will provide welcome confirmation of a young person’s superior effort. Others will open their mail to find an uncomfortable wake up call. Yet for too many families, the report cards will offer little more than confusion – about how their child is actually behaving, what he or she has actually learned, and whether any meaningful progress has actually been made. “I have a masters degree in education,” said Devon Bartlett, a parent whose children are in first and fourth grade, “and even I can’t make sense of what my child’s report card is trying to tell me. Clearly, we can do better.”

Given how uninformed so many parents feel, and considering how differently the nation’s 100,000+ schools choose to track student growth, is it time to give the school report card an extreme makeover, and dress it up for the 21st century?

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