Anti-Social Studies

Forget common core and standardized testing, fix schools by making them havens for students.

Five universities will start UTeach programs in the fall of 2014 to simultaneously award undergraduates STEM degrees and teaching credentials.

If children feel welcome in school, they'll be in a better mindset to learn.

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Educators and, now, many parents are getting increasingly aggravated over the standardized testing used to evaluate schools and teachers (the students, less so), and the value of the Common Core curriculum, including the speed at which it is being implemented.

[Read Nina Rees on Common Core and other key school issues for 2014.]

These are valid concerns and questions, and should be discussed by educators, parents and lawmakers. But what can be done to solve a basic cluelessness and even cruelty on the part of school employees.

There was the Utah school which last month took away the school lunches of kids whose cafeteria accounts were supposedly in the red. They were $2 lunches. The children had already collected their meals and then cafeteria workers snatched the food trays away from the kids and threw the food away, since it could not be resold. It’s unfathomable how anyone could be so bone-headed and just mean – what was the point of taking food away for unpaid balances, when it couldn’t be resold anyway? But the message sent to those children, and to the school kids as a whole, is menacing.

More recently, the Carondelet High School for Girls, a private Christian school in Concord, Calif., decided to celebrate Black History Month with a special cafeteria offering. The menu? Fried chicken, watermelon and cornbread. What’s next – recreation of slave quarters in shop class? The school has apologized, but the episode exposes a more serious problem, and that is the environment students face when they come to school.

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Schools and teachers tend to get blamed when students are not performing well (and performance is tied to standardized test scores, which surely do not tell the whole story of what kind of an education a child is getting). Anyone who has really studied the numbers can tell you that the biggest indicator of a child’s performance in school is economics. Kids in poor homes tend not to do as well, and it’s no surprise. Children who are in stressful situations at home, or who didn’t have breakfast before coming to class, are simply not ready to learn.

Schools can’t fix that, but nor should they give up on those children. The academic element is central, but there is an equally important factor: school should be a place where kids – even kids whose parents are poor or drug-addicted, or who live in dangerous neighborhoods – feel safe and accepted. It should be a haven from troubled home lives, a place where there is structure and discipline, but a lack of judgment. If a child feels welcome in school, he or she will see it as an oasis, and be in a better mindset to learn. Demonizing students whose parents are behind on their cafeteria accounts (never mind actually taking food out of their mouths) is not a way to make children feel safe and cared for. Advancing an offensive stereotype – with the added insult of justifying it with Black History Month – is no way to make African-American children, or indeed any children, feel accepted.

Improving schools isn’t just about testing students and ranking teachers. It has to start with the culture.