Don't get me wrong. I think TUSD needs lots more money. To raise salaries. To lower class size. To buy new books, technology and other classroom supplies. To hire nurses, librarians, counselors and people who teach art and music. To fix the schools' crumbling infrastructure. To upgrade school buses.
All that is an important part of improving the education students receive, especially in Arizona's cash-starved schools. But if I were to do one thing to improve student success at TUSD, it wouldn't be boosting the district's budget. It would be improving the standards of living of students whose families are near the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder. Improve their quality of life outside school and school success will improve on its own. Standardized test scores, classroom attentiveness and attendance will rise. Incidents requiring discipline will fall.
It's a simple idea, really. If students' lives improve before they arrive at school in the morning and after they leave in the afternoon, they will come to school more prepared to learn. They'll become better students, even in overfull, undersupplied classrooms.
Reputable educational studies in schools around the world conclude that family income correlates directly with student achievement. As incomes rise, student achievement rises as well. If we raise the overall income of families at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder— by "overall income," I'm referring to a host of goods and services which raise people's standard of living, not just money — their children's success in school will rise as well.
It should be clear by now, I'm not talking only about TUSD. I'm talking about the way the country approaches the task of improving student success in school. Instead of focusing on "failing schools," we need to shift the conversation to the ways society fails our children during the hours they aren't in school.
But there's an obvious problem. It's not easy, or cheap, to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It's a heavy lift. It costs a lot of money, the majority of which will come from the uber-wealthy. Our response to the economic inequality which has grown worse over the past half century will have to change radically. And the automatic privilege granted to whites, especially those with means, will have to be replaced by a more equitable way of dealing with economic and racial disparities.
It's not easy or cheap to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, which is one reason people who are most vested in keeping things as they are turn schools into scapegoats for society's problems. The country's richest and most powerful want to convince the rest of us that it's the schools' fault, that all we have to do is "fix" education by changing the curriculum, or hiring better teachers, or moving kids into charters and private schools, and that will take care of everything. Make Schools Great Again and our children will be so well educated, their lives as adults will be wonderful. If they can convince us it's the schools' fault, the power brokers can avoid dealing with the underlying problems which make it so difficult for some students to succeed in school.
Lately, educators have been focusing on the ways stress and trauma affect children's ability to learn. It's taken a long time for the education community to get there, but it's an easy concept to grasp. If many adults with PTSD are so damaged by the stress and trauma they have suffered, they have trouble functioning in society, then children who deal with stress and trauma in their daily lives due to their living conditions can hardly be expected to be as alert, attentive and well-behaved in school as they need to be to succeed educationally.
How do we lessen the pervasive stress and trauma which are part of growing up in poverty? Universal healthcare, including prenatal and postnatal care for children and parents, is one place to start. Add parental education about the kinds of nutrition and home environment which encourage healthy childhood development. Raise the minimum wage and guarantee a minimum income for every family so parents can afford to do what's right for their children. The availability of good quality, low income housing is essential. So is access to quality early childhood education.
And make our schools more integrated racially and economically, even if it takes new laws and mandatory bussing to get there.
It's a daunting, expensive list. Some of the changes are intrinsic parts of the Democrats' agenda, and they are opposed by Republicans in equal measure. Others, like enforced school integration, are on few people's agenda in either party. Even under the best circumstances, it will take many years and trillions of dollars to accomplish some or all of the items on my list, which I'm sure is incomplete.
In the meantime, let's use schools as a way to lessen the trauma and stress on children. Schools in low income communities need to become community schools which make current health and social programs more readily available to children and their parents. Then add food pantries so children don't have to go hungry when they return home from school. Put in a few washers and dryers so children don't have to be embarrassed about attending school in dirty clothes, and a clothes closet so children have presentable clothes to wear.
Community schools are no substitute for a comprehensive program to improve families' overall standard of living, but they would help. A lot.
And while we're at it, let's not forget, we need to put more money into Arizona's system of education so schools can become better places for children to learn.