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Making reform work: Teachers can’t do it alone

• Neil Ruddock

happy kids with teacher in school classroom

“We can’t solve education until we solve poverty.”

“Education is what empowers students to escape the grips of poverty.”

I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever one education wonk says in the statehouse bounces off me and sticks to you.

A couple years ago, now-Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan sparked an important conversation about poverty.  And during a time of heightened polarization, there appear to be some ways forward that attract bipartisan support. Fresh thinking about poverty is long overdue as an enrichment to (rather than detraction from) the education reform discussion.

The strains and struggles in everyday teachers’ voices regarding student poverty are sincere. Reformers must treat these concerns with care, because doing so is not only good politics but also (more importantly) good policy. The recently passed federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will spark new conversations in states and within communities and place a premium on state and local-driven innovations. Opportunities will abound, but federal muscle to force change will not. So reformers will need to step up their game.

This was driven home for me when I spent a recent Saturday afternoon with a third-grade teacher in a small Midwest town. This teacher is politically conservative, teaches at the highest-poverty school and readily admits that social promotion of struggling students is not only commonplace but expected by district leadership. One of her fellow teachers recently left, mid-year, to take a job with an insurance company because of how long it would take the seniority-based system to offer a competitive salary (or a decent return on her contributions to a back-loaded pension system).

My friend’s classroom has walls decorated with materials reflecting the state’s new, more rigorous English Language Arts standards. She takes her craft seriously, sees the students as her own and is largely agnostic to the policy reform wars taking place in state capitols.

I asked if she will continue teaching. She said she is simply trying to get to the end of the school year.

The teacher’s lounge was recently broken into, the thieves absconding with the change from the vending machine. She recently dropped off some homework to one of her absent students only to find that the child was in a home with the barest of necessities and two poorly-contained pit bulls. The only constant in her class roster is change.

This teacher’s story could be echoed across the country. And acknowledging her challenges does nothing to undercut the need for reforms like comprehensive third-grade reading policies or giving principals flexibility to structure compensation packages to attract the best and brightest educators. Or the need for dollars to follow students to schools—including private ones—where parent buy-in is required for students to remain enrolled.

Even the best educators cannot do it alone, though. Whatever one may think of specifics from the Ryan report, its theme of linking work requirements to benefits echoes the practical lessons of life. My day with this teacher got me wondering about a lot of what-ifs.

What if the work requirements for benefit programs were developed to a point where local social service agencies could direct qualified adults to volunteer at cash-strapped, high-poverty schools—filling roles as crossing guards, assistant coaches for sports teams or other extra-curriculars that the school could not otherwise afford?

And what if the work requirements allowed local agencies to identify skill sets in the community that they never knew existed, like a flash-mob of craftsmen that could help repair broken windows or fix up a playground where low-income students go after school?

Beyond these practical examples are the political questions: What if education reforms groups and the teachers union agreed on some basic, cost-neutral innovations around poverty and its impact on the classroom? Where exactly could K-12 reform opponents hide after that?

My colleague Dr. Matthew Ladner has written about the issues America is facing as age-dependency ratio reduces the number of working-age adults supporting a retiring baby boom generation and growing K-12 students. States need to start thinking outside the box to meet the needs of growing student populations at a cost taxpayers will be able to afford.

The high-wage, low-skill jobs of yesteryear are disappearing. Single-parent households have more than tripled over the past 50 years while the expectations of our K-12 system increase. Until recently, the labor force participation rate was at historical lows.

The K-12 system can and must do more to address these societal challenges. And I think the system will do more, faster, if reformers can show the third-grade teacher above that we do not expect her to do it alone. It is most certainly all about the kids. But I know there are more adults who can help too.



About the author

Neil Ruddock

Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at