Opinion: To grow, students need solutions, not miracles

A retired University of Georgia education professor cites the benefits of urban gardens to kids. Among such gardens in metro Atlanta is Gilliam's Community Garden, a 3-acre urban garden located in Atlanta's Westside neighborhood. It serves as an outdoor educational center for local children, home school families and schools. (Courtesy of Gilliam’s Community Garden)

A retired University of Georgia education professor cites the benefits of urban gardens to kids. Among such gardens in metro Atlanta is Gilliam's Community Garden, a 3-acre urban garden located in Atlanta's Westside neighborhood. It serves as an outdoor educational center for local children, home school families and schools. (Courtesy of Gilliam’s Community Garden)

Peter Smagorinsky is an emeritus professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education. He is the 2023 recipient of the American Educational Research Association Lifetime Contribution to Cultural-Historical Research Award.

In this guest column, Smagorinsky discusses the inevitable failure of reforms that refuse to address the challenges students face in their daily lives outside the classroom.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Educators and policymakers continue to search for the miraculous means by which low standardized test scores are turned into high test scores. The “Texas Miracle” claimed by Houston School Superintendent Rod Paige helped to produce the No Child Left Behind legislation when Paige was appointed by President George W. Bush as secretary of education. The miracle was later exposed to have been based on fraudulent data, suggesting the greatest miracle was the way in which policymakers bought the claims without investigating their verity.

Michelle Rhee claimed a miracle in the Washington, D.C., schools based on a leap in test scores that led her program to be considered a “national model” for all districts to follow. The rise in scores was later revealed to have been achieved through widespread cheating, with improved graduation rates exposed as bogus. After leaving this position, Rhee was appointed to the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro. Irony is not dead after all.

Do you believe in miracles? I don’t. Teaching is hard and not amenable to a wave with a policy magic wand. It’s often hard because kids’ lives are so hard, affected by factors that originate from outside school.

Yet most policy proclamations focus only on what happens in classrooms. They also rely on standardized test scores. Although I am skeptical of their reliability and validity, I’ll refer to them here as the measure of academic achievement, as is done in the policy world.

What forces affect achievement, however measured? I’ll start with an issue from outside school, although it mirrors school safety concerns. Public safety solutions are typically focused on reducing criminal acts, with debate centered on how to do it: Should guns be regulated? Should people be stopped and frisked based on their appearance? Should police forces be expanded and empowered?

Yet those who’ve broadened their vision have found indirect ways of reducing crime. Vacant lots in cities, for instance, are often the site of sensory blight, garbage and the rodents it attracts, criminal activity, and other threats to safety. Simply landscaping them has reduced crime by over 13% in some areas, with gun violence going down by nearly 30%. When these lots are constructed as gardens, crime goes down further. And the cost is minimal.

The newly invigorated spaces are nicer, the food contributes to better health and nutrition in areas where grocery stores are rare, law-abiding people congregate peacefully, and the city is a safer, healthier place, all without attention to crimes themselves. Rather, the environment itself becomes more conducive to community gathering and shared interests, making crime less of an option.

Green spaces and gardens have also been found to make schools more hospitable to learning. A major research review concluded “overwhelmingly that garden-based learning had a positive impact on students’ grades, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.” Cultivating life seems to improve respect for life in school.

There are other places in school where changes in the environment can have an impact on what happens in classrooms. There is compelling evidence that higher reading scores are associated with the presence of a good school library and knowledgeable librarians. Perhaps a robust library managed by a skilled librarian is an indication that students can already read. Perhaps a well-stocked library is most likely to appear in an affluent school and community. That would confirm the well-documented fact that economic status matters in school success.

Meanwhile, the current political climate imperils the contents of school libraries, with criminal charges a threat to librarians who recommend books opposed by a single parent. Politics and ideology, then, can remove from schools a resource associated with high test scores.

Another factor demonstrated to increase students’ test scores is the availability of health care via school nurses. Many schools have overwhelming student-to-nurse ratios, with staffing shortages often linked to school defunding. In the absence of nurses, kids may be absent from school because their health problems go unaddressed. Kids who aren’t in school aren’t going to do well academically. Providing care for students whose families have limited access to doctors would increase the number of healthy kids in classrooms.

Test score improvements are also associated with the provision of free meals that fill the bellies of students who come to school too hungry to learn academic knowledge. Kids with low test scores tend to come from the nation’s least affluent homes. Giving them a square meal at breakfast and lunch can prepare their bodies and minds for academic demands.

Indoor air quality is another key to improving academics. Kids in well-ventilated classrooms tend to score higher on standardized tests than those in poorly ventilated classrooms. Bad air, toxic brown drinking fountain water, open sewage, and other unsanitary environmental conditions plague the schools with the least affluent students and lowest test scores. Making schools safe and sanitary appears to be a fundamental means of promoting academics.

Educational reforms that only look at classroom instruction are often failures, and cover their deficiencies with cheating and fraud. They typically cost fortunes to implement, mountains of rhetoric to justify, and yet more money to pay for the ensuing legal mess.

Interventions such as nurses, libraries, gardens, good ventilation and free meals are much less expensive, enrich school life rather than consultants and corporations would, and have greater demonstrated effects than do miraculous classroom interventions instituted from above. They address the whole child and environment, promoting health and well-being associated with academic achievement. For my money, they make for much better investments than policies aimed at controlling how teachers teach and what students can read.

The evidence consistently supports the idea that looking only in classrooms ignores more likely reasons for why students might struggle in school. Whether or not the public has compassion and the will to address them remains to be seen.