Atlantic / February 4, 2016
How do you fix a school? For more than a decade, test scores have ruled the day—and the idea that if students didn’t perform well, teachers and schools should be held accountable. Shut down the schools with low scores, the thinking went, and start over somewhere else or as charter schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, brought a more market-oriented approach to K-12 education—the idea that rewarding good schools and weeding out the bad ones would drive achievement higher. The law, replaced in December with a new education bill that largely moves oversight to the states, brought advances in keeping schools accountable for students’ performance. But it did little to address root causes of struggling schools—notably, poverty and a lack of support at home. A student from a low-income household faces an uphill battle to succeed in school, and even a talented teacher can do only so much.

The ideal solution: End poverty. That’s out of a school district’s hands, of course. But schools have found ways to help their students’ lives outside of the classroom, or at least adjust to them, by finding partners in the rest of society—businesses, nonprofit groups, foundations, public libraries, parent groups—that have an interest in a strengthened system of education. In a world of limited resources for schools (and for other public endeavors), the schools have come to depend on the kindness of outside partners.

John King, the acting secretary of education, believes outside partnerships are critical to surmounting obstacles that students face today. He should know. King, who lost both of his parents to illnesses by the time he was 12 years old, credits New York City public schools with providing him hope during a challenging time. “There’s no question that what happens inside of the classroom—the work of teachers and principals—can shape the course of students’ lives,” King said in a telephone interview. “But it’s also true that schools are embedded in communities, and if we want to ensure that all of our schools are successful, we need good partnerships.” …

Some of the most effective partnerships are concerned less with pedagogy than with removing impediments to a child’s education. Clintondale found a way to provide services that students might not get at home—a helping hand with homework. Other schools attend to students’ physical well-being. In Lower Price Hill, a mostly white, working-class neighborhood of Cincinnati, Oyler School makes sure students have access to adequate health care. The school has medical and dental clinics on site as well as a vision center where students can get free eye exams. Also, children can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school and bring food home for the weekends.

A student with an empty stomach or a toothache won’t learn as well as one who is healthy. “All kids can learn, and they can learn at high levels, but it’s very conditional on kids having the right opportunities,” said Elaine Weiss, an education expert at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “Those opportunities to learn tend to be extremely disparate, based in particular on social class and also, to a large extent, on race.”

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