For the record, yes, poverty and ill health and similar problems do make it harder for kids to learn. But the issue is not whether poverty or ill health is a bad thing. Everyone agrees that if we have an effective way to reduce these social problems, we should do it — and not only because it will help kids learn more in school.
The issue isn’t even whether another big new expansion of the welfare state can be expected to alleviate these problems any better than all the previous big expansions of the welfare state have done. Some of us may well be skeptical. But even if we had some reason to think that this big expansion of the welfare state would be different from all the previous ones, the proposal still wouldn’t make any sense.
And the issue isn’t even whether schools are capable of providing social services effectively, although that isn’t their core mission and they’re currently failing to perform even their core mission (that’s education, in case you forgot) effectively. Even if we had some reason to believe schools could effectively perform these services, the proposal would still be a loser.
The issue is, are schools the best institutions for providing these services? Even if schools could provide them, it still makes no sense to provide them through schools if other institutions could provide the same services better. Like, say, institutions whose core mission is to provide those services.
Even if we stipulate everything the unions might ask us to stipulate — that these services are needed, and that they can be provided effectively by a big new spending program, and that schools can provide them effectively — the idea that a bunch of non-educational services should be handed over to schools makes no sense. Unless, of course, the real goal is to build up the government school bureaucracy and its attendant gravy train — such as the unions who are making this proposal.
The really funny thing is, we’ve tried bringing social services into schools before. Fifty years ago, schools didn’t serve breakfast and provide teams of guidance counselors. Providing these and other social services in schools was originally justified on grounds that the kids needed these services to do well in school. How has that worked out?
Well, after all the empirical research that’s been done on schools, there’s no serious evidence that educational outcomes have improved as a result of these services. When the unions were challenged to come up with some evidence, they responded that “teachers know” these policies work.
But if the real purpose of providing these services in schools was to enlarge the government education blob, mission accomplished.
On the other hand, a large body of empirical evidence demonstrates that changes in education policy can make a difference. Vouchers, accountability testing, and other programs have an empirically proven track record in producing better teaching (yes, even with kids who have high levels of poverty, etc.). Other policies, like merit pay, haven’t been tried much, but based on what we do know they’re much more promising than yet another big spending program.
If we want better learning, we should try better teaching. Just a thought.