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For good schools, it takes a village

By Christopher Paslay I recently attended a community screening of the education documentary American Teacher at School of the Future in West Philadelphia.

By Christopher Paslay

I recently attended a community screening of the education documentary American Teacher at School of the Future in West Philadelphia.

The film, narrated by Matt Damon, chronicles the stories of four teachers from rural and urban areas of the country, and examines how these dedicated educators, despite loving their students and jobs, were often forced to rethink their careers because of low pay. After the screening, a panel of local education leaders, including Philadelphia School District Superintendent Leroy Nunery and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, reflected on the film and the state of education in America.

As I watched the film and listened to the panelists' conversations afterward, I couldn't help thinking about what Neil Genzlinger wrote about American Teacher in the New York Times. Genzlinger noted that, in the film, pay is treated "as if it's the only factor in educational dysfunction; not a word is said about no-show students, uninvolved parents, or other issues."

Although teachers are the single most important factor inside the classroom when it comes to learning, education is not limited to schools. Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington has concluded that about 60 percent of student achievement is attributed to nonschool factors, such as socioeconomic status.

Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch agrees. She wrote that "teacher quality accounts for about 7.5-10 percent of student test score gains" and that "teachers statistically account for around 10-20 percent of achievement outcomes."

So while a teacher's value is not disputed inside school, an educator's influence cannot make up for other variables such as home environment. The Educational Testing Service has found that factors such as reading at home, watching television, parent employment, nutrition, and out-of-wedlock birth significantly affect a student's education. It also said not much had been done in the past 25 years to include the family in education reform.

In my recently published book The Village Proposal, I argue that reformers must take a holistic approach to education. For schools to work, we need dedicated teachers and sound instruction, but we also need the support of parents; principals who maintain an orderly school culture; and public policy genuinely aimed at improving learning.

Community leaders must make sure neighborhoods are safe and welcoming, while professors must strive to stay connected to the real issues inside public school classrooms. Research organizations must continue to ask the hard questions - some of which might run counter to educational trends and political correctness - and the media must hold to a standard that promotes solution-oriented stories over sensationalized half-truths that only entertain the masses.

As a nation, we all must make education a priority.

Unfortunately, I've been accused by some of making excuses. But as a dedicated Philadelphia public-school teacher who has helped raise my high school's reading scores, I understand first-hand the difference a teacher can make. At the same time, I realize teachers, no matter how talented, cannot do it alone.