The Positive Impact Social Work Can Have on Public Education

Social workers aren’t always associated with public education. Their roles in social service delivery, legal arenas, and advocacy are often more readily recognized. However, social workers provide vital support within our education system and contribute meaningfully to helping countless children progress through primary and secondary education in the United States every year.

The Social Worker’s Role within the Education System

Social workers can hold a number of responsibilities within a school setting. They might work one on one with students or work with groups and deliver programming. They may also work in home settings with said students outside school hours to help them with homework or learning. However, their interventions are delivered, social workers are primarily concerned with students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with heightened needs. Social workers support their learning processes and make sure they receive the attention they need to be able to succeed in school.

When underprivileged students face difficulties or danger in their home or personal lives, they are far less likely to perform well in the classroom. Social workers’ responsibilities when working with school children that live in tenuous or unstable circumstances can extend past academic support and include monitoring their safety, the provision of their basic needs, and wellbeing of their caretakers. Social workers that are based in schools or academic settings often tend to needs that extend beyond the classroom. They can help provide comprehensive support for school-aged children to give them the best chance of graduating and having success later in life.

The History of Social Work and Its Purpose

The development of the social worker, and of social work in its current form in the United States, can help inform how social work fits into public education and complements the academic endeavors of the educational system. Social work’s origin was brought about by the unintended side effects of industrialization that resulted in high levels of unemployment, abandoned children, poverty, and chronic physical and mental illnesses.

By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, organized charitable bodies were beginning to oversee social welfare projects and the occupation we know as social work came into existence. Along with hospitals and settlement houses, public schools were one of the primary arenas in which social workers served. From the very beginning, children’s welfare and development has been a primary concern for the social work field.

Since its inception, the realm of social work and services provision has morphed and changed.  Various presidential administrations adjusted Federal funding and support. Large-scale cultural phenomena presented unique challenges at various points over the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. However, social work still adheres to one of its founding priorities – the support of children and especially those who are disadvantaged. Social workers’ role within the public education system is just as important as ever for providing support for countless children as they progress through their educational journeys.

How Social Work in Other Areas Can Also Benefit Public Education

Though some social workers work more directly with school children or within the academic setting than others, the effect of social work on society at large creates substantial benefits for public education. Social workers can be found in a wide variety of settings – from hospitals to homeless shelters, and from rehabilitation centers to nursing homes. Social workers impact people from all walks of life, and some may never come in contact with a school-aged child.

However, people don’t exist in a vacuum. The widespread nature of social work’s reach means that social workers impact individuals who are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers, and more for children within public education. Their influence helps make society as a whole operate more smoothly, and that includes public education.

The impact of social work on our school system is hugely significant. Social workers provide support to countless individuals across the country, whether students in school themselves or those that support, teach, or care for them. Social work is an integral part of making the public education system successful.

How Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Schools Prepares Young People to Thrive in a Multiracial Society

Debates about the value and meaning of public education are not just about report cards and standardized test scores. The hope is that public education will equip youth with what they need to reach their full potential and flourish as the next generation of citizens. To achieve this goal, most people realize that public schools need to teach students to navigate their social environments, contribute positively to their communities, and live and work cooperatively with others in the increasingly complex and diverse society.

But there is growing evidence that the United States is falling far short of this goal. Segregation and racial isolation mark most U.S. public schools. Nationally, most White students attend schools that are more than 70 percent White; and in some regions, nearly half of Black and Latino students attend schools that are more than 90 percent minority and overwhelmingly poor.

The promise of diverse, integrated schools was asserted in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Since then the social science supporting school integration has only become stronger, revealing the many ways in which contact between young people from different racial and ethnic groups can transform attitudes and prepare them to thrive in a multiracial society.

Building Relationships Across Groups Promotes Inclusion & Social Cohesion

Researchers have found many ways to foster inclusive schools:

  • Cross-race friendships are especially powerful because emotional bonds form that transform people’s understandings of social relations and make them more motivated to treat members of their friends’ groups as they would treat people in their own group.
  • Cooperative learning strategies promote both academic success and positive intergroup attitudes. These involve having youth from different groups work together and learn from each other, with support from teachers and school staff.
  • Norms provide youth with important values about cross-group relations. Students often become more willing to engage in contact with other racial groups when they observe others doing so in their classrooms, schools, and communities, as well as in the media.

Why Contact With Other Racial & Ethnic Groups is Important for Youth

Children’s early life experiences can have long-term consequences. Once formed, attitudes and beliefs about other groups may become harder to change as youth grow older.

Of course, youth must have opportunities to get to know and interact with members of other racial groups for such meaningful cross-race bonds to develop – and diverse schools offer more of these opportunities. Studies of youth in integrated school environments show that those who learn in such schools report greater interest in living and working in racially and ethnically diverse environments when they become adults, and are more likely actually to do so as adults. By contrast, racially isolated schools may limit opportunities for youth to challenge skewed perceptions and assumptions about people from other racial groups.

Connecting Intergroup Relations to Education Policy

Providing opportunities for interracial contact in integrated schools and classrooms is critical for youth development and efforts to foster a just and vibrant nation. With insights from social science, racially integrated schools and classrooms have important roles to play, if the following principles are followed:

  • Ensure that practices make integrated classrooms and high-quality intergroup contact easier to achieve. Many structures reinforce segregation between communities, schools, and classrooms, limiting both the frequency and quality of intergroup contact students can experience. At the federal, state and district levels, these structures can include school zone and district boundaries, narrow definitions of school quality, and limited interventions to support racial integration. Inside schools, practices like tracking that separate students into different classes based on test performance can lead to racial isolation. Viewing education policies and practices through the lens of maximizing intergroup contact may lead to reforms in how school enrollments and class assignments are designed.
  • Prioritize racially integrated classrooms and high-quality intergroup contact. Clearly, dismantling the effects of segregation cannot be solely the purview of schools. Yet by recognizing the value of racially integrated classrooms as part of the learning environment, schools can support cross-racial contact and engage families and communities as active partners in building inclusive educational environments. Educators, communities, and students can work together to develop a shared vision of racially integrated schools and advocate for the resources and school conditions needed to support that vision.

As the nation faces rapidly shifting demographics amid rising social tensions, public schools remain one of the few social institutions that have the potential to bring young people together across racial and ethnic lines. Guided by scientific research and civic imperatives, policymakers and other civic leaders can make use the public education system to build bridges and knock down barriers that divide youth from diverse backgrounds in classrooms and schools across the country. By helping children and youth from diverse backgrounds build positive ties with one another, diverse schools can lead the way toward a more successful national future.

Why America Should Have Universal Early Education for Young Children

Many Americans with young children want to prioritize both their family and their work. But childcare and preschool can be expensive. For families with incomes below $18,000 who pay for out-of-home care, the average cost amounts to 40% of their household income. For those with incomes between $18,000 and $36,000, the average is 20% of their income. Faced with such unaffordable expenses, some parents settle for care that is mediocre or poor. In other families, the mother may simply forgo employment.

We can do better. The solution is universal early education for kids aged one to four.

The employment rate for U.S. mothers whose youngest child is six to sixteen years old is comparable to the rate for such mothers in Denmark and Sweden. But for mothers with a child younger than six, the U.S. employment rate is 15 percent lower. Affordable, good-quality early education isn’t available to many American families with very young children, but it is available to all Danish and Swedish families at early education centers. In Denmark and Sweden, early education teachers get training and pay comparable to elementary school teachers, so the quality of early education tends to be high, and the cost to parents is capped at less than 10% of a household’s income.

Early education has another benefit: it helps to equalize opportunity by improving the capabilities of children from less advantaged homes. Researchers have not yet defined exactly how large this equalizing effect is, but even if it turns out to be small, early education programs still offer the vital benefit of enabling working parents to better handle and balance their obligations at work and in the family.

If the United States decides to institute early childhood education, what form should the effort take? To contain costs, some recommend that public funding for such programs be focused on children from households with low incomes. But a universal system – like America’s universal public school system – would have several important advantages. First, it isn’t just low-income parents who struggle to find good-quality care that’s affordable. Middle-class parents do too. Second, children can be disadvantaged in life by features of family structure or parental behavior that do not occur just among low-income people. If early education programs target only low-income households, many children who need help will be left out. Third, researchers know that children develop cognitively and learn social skills through interaction, and children from economically disadvantaged homes gain by mixing with kids from middle-class homes. Chances for many valuable interactions would be lost if early education was set up only for the poor.

Universal early education doesn’t have to be accomplished by a government monopoly. Providers of early education can be a mix of public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private groups. Parents could be given a voucher and allowed to choose among providers that meet quality standards. Some advocates prefer exclusively public provision, but Denmark and Sweden allow private providers, and the United States allows private charter schools to participate in publicly-funded elementary and secondary education. Similarly, in U.S. Medicare and Medicaid programs, public funds are used to pay for provision by private companies that meet certain standards and to buy services from private doctors and hospitals.

Can the United States afford to expand education this much? A good-quality universal early education system for one-to-four-year-olds would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This assumes that three-quarters of children would be enrolled and the cost would be about $12,000 per child, roughly what we spend on schools for kindergarten through twelfth grade. Denmark and Sweden spend about 1.5% of their Gross Domestic Products, but the U.S. economy is larger per person, so we wouldn’t need to spend quite as much of it to support a similarly good system.

Though tax revenues would have to be increased, for most Americans the impact would be small. If the distribution of the required new tax payments were the same as for existing tax payments, households in the bottom fifth of incomes would pay $133 more per year, those in the lower-middle fifth $333, those in the middle fifth $666, those in the upper-middle fifth $1,266, and those in the top fifth $4,200. In practice, the actual new costs would be a bit smaller, because U.S. governments already spend some public money on early education. The federal government funds Head Start, some special education services, and tax breaks for childcare; and some state governments fund preschool for four-year-olds and subsidize childcare for poor families.

Moreover, some of the needed revenue can come from user fees. Early education is different from police protection and health care, the kinds of services that almost no one opts to go without. Even if good early education programs were readily available, some families would choose not to use them because they prefer to provide stay-at-home parental care for their young children. And of course, some American adults have no children. This set of realities argues for having parents who do want to use early education pay something – even parents with low incomes. Here too the Nordic approach is sensible; in Denmark and Sweden programs charge on a sliding scale, with the fee rising in proportion to family income, but never going above 10%.

In the United States, getting to universal early education is likely to be a long and tricky political slog, just as earlier breakthroughs to eventually popular and taken-for-granted social programs have been. The most likely route runs through the states and cities. Places as diverse as Oklahoma and New York City have already moved to provide programs for four-year-olds, and as other states and cities follow suit, the pressure will mount for the federal government to get involved, so that Americans, wherever they may live, can gain access to good-quality early education programs that promise valuable benefits for children, parents, and the entire U.S. economy.

My Journey as a Teacher and the Future of Education

I was never a good student. I didn’t get along with many of my teachers and didn’t take the majority of my education that seriously until I was in my early to mid-twenties when I decided to become a teacher. My experience as a youth who struggled academically is what motivated me to become a teacher and hopefully add to and push the profession into a place that would be more accommodating and inclusive of students needs.

Dan Scratch-Alberta Canada School Teacher

It is the memory of resisting teachers and struggling in school that informs my perspective of how and why I teach. I come from a school of thought that believes that the purpose of public education is for social and political action. It’s the idea that we should equip students with the tools to participate in democratic life and be active citizens within their worlds.

This is the reason I teach. It’s what motivates me to work with youth to hopefully empower them to create a more democratic and just world for themselves.

As I began my career in teaching, I started my practicum at a school in my home town. I was extremely excited to finally learn the craft that I was so passionate about. Unfortunately, my mentor teacher had a different idea. She believed that it was her job to mold me into a teacher that was very undemocratic.

She made me line students up outside the classroom and demand their silence before they could enter the room. She taught me that it was unacceptable to allow students to challenge my ideas in the classroom and worst of all, she taught me that teaching was about how well you can control student behaviour.

I fundamentally disagreed with these practices and any time I didn’t follow her policy she would punish me. She told me I was a terrible teacher, she reported my “bad teaching” to my university and even publicly evaluated my teaching in the lunch room in front of other teachers.

This experience left me shattered and insecure about my future in education. I allowed her words to infiltrate my own purpose and drive for education. I loved teaching so much but did not want to be a bad teacher within the educational system. I had two choices. I felt I should either quit and find another profession, or fight for what I loved and work on my skills as a teacher.

I decided to fight and struggle. I spent the next two years unemployed looking for someone to take a chance on me. I know I didn’t come off as a traditional teacher and I’m sure my lack of confidence and insecurity came out in the few times I even had the chance at an interview. I was lost within a profession that I loved and felt that there wasn’t a place for me within it.

After getting my foot in the door with a few teaching experiences it wasn’t until 2011, with a chance move to Edmonton, that my first authentic opportunity finally came. I was hired at a school for at-risk youth in inner city Edmonton. When I entered the classroom, I saw a room full of students who felt as shattered and insecure as I did when I was a student and how I felt as a teacher at that time.

Together, my students and I worked to build our confidence as learners. As we worked on our skills, my students made me feel that I was actually helping them. My confidence began to grow and I started believing in my abilities as a teacher. Over the past three years I have had the utter privilege of learning alongside my extremely resilient and intelligent students. I just hope that I have been able to give them close to the experience that they have given me.

This brings me to the point of why I am telling my story.  If you’re a teacher reading this, I want to you think about why we teach. What is the purpose of us standing up in front of a group of youth each day? Is it to teach them how to get a job? Or, do we want them to learn the value of justice and citizenship? Whatever the reason was that we chose to become teachers, I would bet that at some point we chose this profession because we felt we could make a difference in young people’s lives.

When we dreamed of becoming teachers, I’m sure that almost every signal one of us did not imagine ourselves teaching the values, skills, and ethics that were determined by corporations. I’m sure that we dreamed of a school that was a hub for the community where parents, teachers, students, and community members worked to give the best education possible to our youth.

Unfortunately, we are faced with a reality where corporate involvement in education is becoming more pervasive. Corporations are influencing our schools, curriculum, and even they way teachers teach. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think corporations have the same interests for our students as we do. We want our students to become intelligent and ethical people who care about the world they live in.

Corporations on the other hand are legally obligated to be focused on maximizing profit and ensuring there are workers for them. And as we know as educators,  education is not a business. Preparing students for the life of work is just one aspect of our role as teachers. More importantly, we work to ensure that students have the opportunity to pursue their passions and become the people that will create a better world.

In our past, teachers, parents, students and community members came together to ensure a strong public education that would work for all students. We still have a long way to go to fulfill that dream, but if we understand that ordinary people can have just as much power as the powerful, then we can ensure that education remains a public good.

And in order to do that, we have to continue our history of parents, teachers, students, and community members working together to create the best public education possible. It’s important to do this because if we don’t act, corporate involvement in our education system can drastically change the type of people our students will become. Our students are more than workers and consumers. They are intelligent, creative and resourceful youth who can be a force for good in the world.

If we don’t act to stop corporate influence in our education system, we will cease to engage our students in an actual education. Corporate education will reduce teaching and education to training students how to get jobs. The art of teaching will be lost as we become a cog in the wheel of transferring knowledge and skills from a textbook, computer, or ’21st Century” gadget to students.

So, right now, I’m asking you to join me in an effort to resist corporate involvement in public education in Alberta (and hopefully across Canada and the globe too). Let’s take a stand for our students to make sure they have the opportunity for a healthy, democratic, and equitable education. If you can, please take a few moments of your time and complete this form to join us.

Reform Models not Reforming our Public Education System

Our public education system is under fire, and it’s been under fire for some time now. The powers that be have introduced reform model after reform model the latest being the Common Core State Standards. Each promised to be the chosen one with none thus far-reaching their purported potential. Instead, they threaten students with failure to advance while teachers and administrators are threatened with job loss for students not achieving their specific standards. They don’t address other well documented problems contributing to low educational achievement such as poverty or health problems.

imagesThey are often financed, researched, and developed by corporations, academics, assessment experts, and politicians rather than current classroom teachers, administrators, parents, and the youth they directly impact. The list of concerns could be endless. However, my primary concern regarding standardized education is simpler than some of these more complex debates. Standards leave little room for diversity in learning and intelligence or for children to be children and learn through their natural play, curiosity, and imagination.

In theory, standards appear to be a positive thing, a measurement by which achievement and room for growth can be determined. However, in reality educational standards in this country are quite narrow in their focus, primarily measuring English and Mathematics skills. This immediately excludes English language learners and those with learning disabilities in the verbal–linguistic and logical–mathematical intelligences. It also discounts the rest of Gardner’s multiple intelligences: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and the later proposed existential and moral intelligence.

I’m not advocating for the creation of standards to include all forms of intelligence. There are many issues with the attempt to objectively measure subjective intelligence and then cast judgment. What’s more important, being able to easily solve Calculus problems, run a fast 40 meter dash, or sing pitch perfect opera? It depends on the situation. All forms of intelligence are vital to our society and should be fostered in all youth.

Youth who are not allowed to fully explore their interests and natural gifts often lose interest in school and don’t live up to their potential. Whereas, individuals who are given the opportunity to fully explore their passions and natural abilities develop lifelong curiosity, creativity, enthusiasm, and commitment amongst other factors that contribute to success. Also, this apparent quest to develop obedient drones will create a one-dimensional rather than well-rounded society, which is necessary for growth and advancement.

Standardization of education also frequently disregards the importance of play, which research has shown not only to be crucial to child development but also beneficial throughout the entire lifespan. Due to educational standards children are rarely allowed to play at school anymore. Gym, art, and music classes are usually the first to go with budget cuts. Even recess has been nixed in some schools.

Using standardized curriculum which sometimes require teachers to use scripted lesson plans, often makes creative lesson planning and youth-driven play more of a challenge. It is the single most effective tool to increase intelligence, skill development, and passion for lifelong learning, yet it also appears to be the least valued. This is particularly evident when examining curriculum standards and state exams.

That’s not to say those who have created these standards and exams are in the wrong. I think everyone on either side of the debate can agree that students should be encouraged to achieve to their greatest ability. However, when all evidence is pointing toward failure to accomplish that, there needs to be a closer and more unbiased examination of the current methods. We need to recognize what youth actually need to learn and succeed rather than blindly push an agenda that doesn’t produce. It may not always be easily quantified and it might even contain a little bit of fun but the benefits are obvious and necessary.

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