Fix communities to fix schools

Published 8:36 pm Monday, September 16, 2013

By Joseph Bass

Our public education system has experienced many challenges during the last 50 years. One challenge involves incorrect assumptions about what a school is.

Too often we think a school is a type of factory. I have many years of experience as an organizational consultant dealing with factories and schools, and it is important to know how they differ.

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There are some major differences. A factory produces physical, tangible products; a school’s product is mental and psychological. A factory can control its input of raw materials; a school cannot. A factory can exactly specify the quality of its input materials that will be used to manufacture its products and reject materials that do not meet those specifications. A school must attempt to educate whatever children live within the boundaries of its district, regardless of their readiness to learn when they arrive, and it must continue to attempt to educate children regardless of the community conditions they live in.

Let us consider these last statements. This time of year there is much discussion about SOL test scores and schools being fully accredited. This is an annual drill involving much the same theme. Discussions focus on teachers, administrators, instructional approaches, technology, buildings, equipment, etc.

That is to say, all improvement efforts focus on what can be done to improve schools. All of this assumes SOL scores and accreditation are a result of internal school activities. In this line of reasoning, to improve test scores all an underperforming school division needs to do is create schools and teachers that are exactly the same as the ones that produce high test scores.

This is a false assumption, and steps taken to improve something based on false assumptions usually fail. Low test scores are a symptom of social conditions within the community served by the school. We are not going to improve school test scores until we find effective ways to address community issues.

It should be obvious that 50 years and trillions of dollars spent on such efforts are not working. New approaches are needed to create communities more like the communities that have high test scores.

They say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But no school or government agency can overcome what a village does not produce — children ready to learn, children motivated to strive toward a quality education and children with the social skills needed to effectively function in society.

Joseph L. Bass, Ed.D., is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at