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Rebuilding the Village: What Our Schools, and Our Society, Need Now

How can we we improve our public schools? By rebuilding the rest of our society.

Photo Credit: Tom Wang via


"It takes a village to raise a child.”  -- African proverb

As a teacher turned education advocate, I often wonder what America would be like if we actually took our responsibility to the future seriously; if we embraced the idea of being a “village” that collectively supports its children, and each other.

In that America, I see communities full of healthy children supported by secure families, because the adults in their lives are paid fair salaries and benefits for their contributions to the community, and work in humane circumstances that allow enough time off-the-clock to care for their kids and replenish themselves. Because they and their families breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat actual food, and live in safe surroundings, these kids usually develop as they’re supposed to, and don’t experience undue stress or pain. And when these children arrive at school (fully staffed, of course), they’re alert and ready to learn -- which means their teachers can focus exclusively on teaching and learning, using their knowledge and expertise to develop each student’s full potential.

Unfortunately, for most American communities, such a world is pure imagination. Instead, our reality is one of a physical infrastructure in decay, as roads and bridges crumble and public utilities rust and erode from neglect. Under- and unemployment are rampant, as are the parallel trends of over-work and job insecurity, and most families’ real income and wealth have barely budged for over thirty years. Food insecurity and homelessness, especially among families, are on the rise. I could list more -- but I’m sure I don’t need to.

In our schools, these trends have two major (and myriad minor) impacts: first, when schools are forced to sacrifice staff, programs and more because of budget cuts, and again as students come to school burdened by more unmet needs than ever -- the direct result of the strife they and their families experience beyond the schoolhouse doors. Doing more with less becomes the expectation, to the detriment of under-served students and over-worked educators alike.

As the situation continues to spiral downwards, the powers that be-- public officials, thought leaders and others who prop up the status quo-- repeatedly say that we must (continue) to do even more with even less. They allege that "nothing can be done" about poverty or the related social ills affecting our students, so educators must be more "accountable"-- as though it’s fair or even possible to be held accountable for things one cannot control.

And because an endless supply of distorted data hide the hard work, dedication and quality of most of our schools and educators, the public frequently accepts these allegations and jumps on the school-bashing bandwagon. This, instead of asking what is (or should be) an obvious question: How is it possible that the wealthiest nation on earth has to gut its school budgets, and skimp on everything else we associate with a civilized society?

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common.
But leaves the greater felon loose,
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The short answer to that last question is that it’s a lie: we can indeed afford these things if we invest our common wealth in our common well-being instead of letting a few people hoard it all for themselves. People, especially folks outside the education reform world, often ask me what they can do to help schools. My answer is this: as educators continue working to improve the profession, everyone should be helping rebuild the rest of society. Here are some thoughts on how we can do that.