Social Welfare Policy and the Practitioner

My driving passion is education reform, specifically as it applies to socioeconomically-disadvantaged students. I was fortunate to attend a private school and achieve an excellent education; many are not as privileged. So much of a child’s education, and later experiences in life, depend on one thing he or she has no control over: to whom he or she was born. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the talented, supportive teachers I had, so I’ve chosen to focus on providing those same resources for all children.

Social welfare policy with regard to education is best described as schizophrenic. Americans want to be world leaders when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), when it comes to innovation and the economy. We pour millions in taxpayer money into initiatives to promote students’ love of science and math, to get computers and iPods into the classroom.

However, education in America is decided most by where someone lives; because schools are funded by local property taxes, a rich city will therefore have access to more resources – teachers, classroom materials, computers, field trips – than a poorer city. A student who attends a poor school is more likely to receive a poor education, which leads to fewer job opportunities and mobility in life. This continues with that person’s own children, perpetuating a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.

Schools aren’t completely dependent on local tax dollars; they also receive money from the federal government, contingent of course on how well the school performs on various state-mandated tests. The government has taken a capitalist approach, treating schools like businesses: If a business isn’t performing well, it will lose costumers and therefore money until it either comes up with a better business plan or closes. Therefore, if a school isn’t performing well, money is withheld until its scores improve.

An obvious flaw with this system is that a public school isn’t a business; it can’t choose its clients, and it must provide a service even when resources are scarce. When a school’s population consists of students facing barriers to success – hunger, abuse, homelessness, uninvolved or absent parents, substance abuse, etc. – the commonsense approach would be to provide more resources to address these problems, not less. Unfortunately, for the most part this is not what is happening. And so social welfare organizations are stepping in to help.

After I finished college, I joined Teach for America, a program that places recent college graduates in low-income, hard-to-staff schools. Recruits are given a five-week crash course in teaching, then thrown into the classroom, with the goal to increase test scores, through unconventional methods that traditionally-trained teachers may not consider.

I was placed in a school an hour north of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. The cities to the south were a bastion of innovation, boasting some of the best schools in the state as well as a culture that generally supported education. The county I taught in, however, was far removed from that attitude. A long history of segregation and enforced integration, coupled with few job opportunities, had culminated in an atmosphere of distrust on both sides of the race line. Black people, proud of their heritage, searched for strings attached to government handouts – and often found them. White people, equally proud of their own history, continued to view blacks as less than equal. I speak in generalities, of course; many people welcomed change and worked to improve their town.

I was thrown into a mess, to put it bluntly. Nepotism was rampant at my high school, and I was given a class no other teachers wanted: remedial reading. My administration implied my task was to babysit my students until they dropped out; there was no expectation that they would learn anything. The curriculum was the same they’d get in English I the following year, a curriculum chosen by a middle-class white woman with little understanding of diversity.

Of course, I too was a middle-class white woman with little real-world understanding of diversity. But as I got to know my students – their strengths and weaknesses, their dreams and fears – my heart broke. My kids had been knocked around by a system that didn’t care, that was too focused on quotas and monetary amounts to put a face to those numbers. I resolved to give my kids a voice, to make their faces known.

While part of the focus of Teach for America is on raising test scores, a larger, less frequently mentioned part is creating a group of people who’ll be advocates for change, from principals and school board members to legislators, from lawyers to social welfare policy analysts. And I have embraced that part of the program. Recent studies have found that the achievement gap between white and black students has closed, but the economic class gap is wider than ever. This is what I want to work to address, and while talented teachers and social workers are needed on the ground to work with the students who are left behind, our education and social welfare policies must be changed if any real progress is to be made.

That’s not to say this will be an easy process. A couple years ago, I worked for an organization whose teachers taught job and life skills to students facing barriers to education similar to those I mentioned above, with the ultimate goal being to graduate employable community leaders. We were governed by a board of directors who were more interested in embellishing their resumes than helping these students; as a result, they often proposed projects that were a poor fit for our students. One fundraiser, for example, involved our students going door-to-door soliciting money.

No specific social welfare policy seemed to guide our organization. Instead, we were tasked with “raising expectations.” Our CEO was often unrealistic in her expectations of what our kids could do. Attendance, for instance, was never to be an excuse, despite students’ lack of transportation. The solutions for all the students’ problems, no matter how bad their home lives, was to “tell them success is expected.” Nothing was done to change school policies to reflect their home lives; nothing was done to raise community awareness that these issues were affecting our students’ school performance and, subsequently, their chances in life.

No education policy seemed to guide the program either. Educators were given two weeks’ training on how to use the computerized reporting software, and one day’s training on lesson planning and classroom management. Many of my coworkers had no teaching experience or background, including the CEO and program manager, and little exposure to the complexities of social welfare policy or the populations they’d be teaching. I suggested we follow the Teach for America model of an intensive training camp, but my idea was ignored.

Unfortunately, many educators in the program were disillusioned. Progress seemed impossible, especially with little knowledge of effective teaching practice or experience working with at-risk youth, and so many resorted to exaggerating their data: attendance and grades went up while behavior incidences went down. Lectures and projects were reported on days movies were shown. The program had one supervisor for thirty specialists across the state of Iowa, and she was unable or unwilling to verify reports.

I personally believe very strongly in the power of statistics. If your raw data is flawed or skewed, there is no way to do accurate research and analysis. If your research and analysis are incorrect, your policy will be as well. The problem won’t be solved or may even worsen. For me, lying about the data was a horrible thing for my coworkers to do.

It went beyond my personal convictions, however. Our program was funded by a mixture of charitable contributions and local school district and state money. If anyone discovered we were making up data, our program would cease. Everything the organization had worked towards for fifteen years would disappear. Most importantly, our chance to help our students achieve, to gain a better life for themselves and their families and future children, would vanish as well.

I raised my concerns with my supervisor and CEO: the lack of transparency with our data; the falsification of grant applications and reports to our funders; the impact that would be felt when all this came to light, especially the impact on our students. I was told not to worry about it, that it was under control. I was ignored. And then, when I persisted, I was fired.

My students had deep trust issues, as many adults in their lives made promises and then left without keeping them. I assured my kids that I would be their teacher until I was fired; I just didn’t expect that to happen after one year. I was frustrated with what happened, but not so much for myself as for my students. I asked my supervisor, “Have you thought about the effect this will have on my kids?” Her response was a shrug.

And so I took another route to help not only my students but the millions of children like them across America, by getting my MSW with a focus on school social work, and later a doctorate in education policy.

Teach for America’s motto is that “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” And so I’m pushing for a reform of education and social welfare policies. I want all students to have teachers – plural, not just one – who care about their success and are pushing for them to achieve. I want all students to be valued when they come to school, not as a number or a filled desk but as an individual. I want all parents to know that their children will have enough to eat, a bed to sleep on, a safe home to call their own, and that someone will make sure it’s all provided if they can’t do it themselves.

After all I’ve been given in life, it’s the least I can do for my students. For all students.