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Follow-Up: Improving Schools by Building Strong Communities


Ryan Kinser

I promised concrete steps for the president's second-term education agenda in my first post, confident that my classroom experiences with both high-needs and affluent students make for a unique vantage point. But I realized I need to answer a big question first.

What role should the federal government play in education?

According to the Department of Education itself, the answer is, as "a kind of 'emergency response system,' a means of filling gaps in State and local support for education when critical national needs arise." By that rationale, I don't think standardized testing, arbitrary accountability systems, and competitive grants apply.

In my first post, I suggested President Obama's administration should focus instead on the root causes of poor academic outcomes. If we don't build strong communities out of this economic recession, our schools will not improve.

Paul Tough suggests as much in his recent New York Times Magazine article, "What Does Obama Really Believe In?" In the course of the article, he quotes the president's comments during a speech in Anacostia, a high-needs neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where, ironically, I started my teaching career.

If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.
Good point, Mr. President. What happened to that idea? Well, it's not gone entirely. Poring through the Obama Administration's proposed 2013 education budget, specifically the items under "Serving the Needs of Disadvantaged Students," I hit upon one potential way President Obama can make good on his statement. This item in the budget stopped me cold:
$100 million for Promise Neighborhoods, an increase of $40 million from fiscal year 2012. This program will continue to support projects that significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth by providing a birth-to-career continuum of rigorous and comprehensive education reforms, effective community services, and strong systems of family and community support - with high quality schools at the center.
Why is this item buried beneath so many bigger-ticket spending ideas that seem less important? Lost in the misguided competition for Race to the Top funding is the embryo of a good idea aptly containing the word "Promise."

Instead of proposing $534 million for School Turnaround Grants that will not succeed until communities like Anacostia or South Chicago's Roseland improve from the inside, might I propose that the administration and Congress put the dollars where they make sense—in Promise Neighborhoods or programs with similar objectives?

Ryan Kinser is a Teacherpreneur at the Center for Teaching Quality and teaches English at Walker Middle Magnet School for International Studies in Tampa, Fla.


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