Offering a 'Womb to Dorm Room' Approach to Education

A colleague of mine posted a lament to Facebook after just the second day of school, stating that he had never been “this beaten, this dejected, this stressed, felt this hopeless, and been this exhausted in the 10 years I’ve been teaching.” This refrain is common among new teachers and veterans alike. It’s easy to see why. After more than a decade of reforms, starting with No Child Left Behind in 2001 through Race to the Top today, we have not seen improved classroom results but rather a relentless and demoralizing assault on teachers.

The hue and cry of the education reform movement has been “Education is broken! We have to do something!” Despite implementing failed or unproven programs such as merit pay, the “death penalty” for poor performing schools, non-stop test prep and testing, for-profit charter schools, the Common Core, longer schools days, and tying teacher tenure (and even employment) to test results, there has been little improvement. The question is: Can we find a better way?

Diane Ravitch, in her compelling new book called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, says yes, there is a better way.

As the title implies, much of the book focuses on the motives of school reformers, and while that is an eye-opening read in and of itself, perhaps of greater interest to the classroom teacher is the final third of the book, in which Ravitch proposes her own solutions to the problems that plague America’s schools.

Ravitch advocates what I’d call a “Womb to Dorm Room” approach, starting with helping women get adequate prenatal care, to ensuring that college is affordable. While she acknowledges that this is a costly endeavor, she asserts that it would be “not nearly as expensive as the social and economic costs of crime, illness, violence, despair, and wasted human talent.”

The book advocates changes to both the societal and pedagogical issues facing education today. So how might her solutions affect the average classroom and teacher?

On the societal side, Ravitch starts with pre-natal care, so that we can produce a generation of healthy children with fewer disabilities. She also asserts the need to invest in early childhood education as a means of staving off the achievement gap before it begins. Finally, she calls for adequate wraparound services for disadvantaged children to provide them with needed health care, enrichment programs for both after school and in the summer, and parental education services to get parents more involved in their children’s lives and education.

As a teacher, I can only imagine the benefits that would accrue from such a system. Envision yourself teaching a class brimming with healthy, well fed students who receive all the support they need at home and in the community—students who, when they do fall short academically, are bolstered by additional academic supports. 

Of course, Ravitch also offers her vision of the pedagogical side of this equation. She devotes eight chapters to these solutions, beginning with advocating for reduced class sizes, which study after study has shown improves achievement. As a teacher with thirty three students in every class, I can’t overstate the benefit reduced class sizes would bring. Better behavior, more individualized attention and instruction, and stronger student/teacher interaction can only boost academic success.

Among the other ideas she proposes are: a rich, diverse curriculum, including the arts, foreign language, and physical education; eliminating high stakes testing, as they have done in high performing countries such as Finland, and using tests as a measuring stick rather than a sledge hammer; strengthening the teaching profession by raising standards for teachers and administrators; and making charter schools not-for-profit so that they can work in collaboration with public schools rather than competing with them for scarce resources.

I don’t know about you, but I long for a public school system like this. Imagine a system in which students are healthy and start out on a level playing field. Imagine teaching reasonably sized classes in a school that emphasizes a rich curriculum over endless test prep. Imagine being respected rather than scapegoated, and working in an environment of professionalism and collaboration. Imagine being more concerned with the progress of your students than the points you’ve earned on the Danielson rubric.

Imagine coming home on the second day of school and posting to Facebook how much you love your job and how you look forward to each and every day.

It can happen, but it will take the vision of people like Diane Ravitch and the courage of politicians, union leaders, and other stakeholders to make it a reality.