Build a support system to help students learn

Educational reform involves much more than better textbooks, improved teaching methods and smaller classes.

Something more fundamental but often overlooked must be included in the equation — making sure students are ready to learn.

No educational reform will be effective if children are not ready to learn when they enter the classroom.

No system of holding teachers accountable will be just if some have classrooms of students who don’t speak English, are educationally disabled, undernourished or in poor mental or physical health.

No economy will flourish if frustrated students drop out in droves before graduating.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also called No Child Left Behind, had a number of flaws that must be addressed when it is reauthorized.  

It did, however, do one very important thing: It revealed that too many of our students are not prepared to learn, are falling behind and need additional help to succeed.

Addressing this problem should be a priority in the reauthorization of ESEA, and the best way to do it is to increase investment in wraparound support services at or near schools. Such services can include early childhood education, before- and after-school care, mental health services and counseling, medical care, meals, tutoring and family literacy classes.

Schools that struggle the most must be first in line for this funding.

It needs to be a community effort. Parents, teachers and school leaders need to be an integral part of creating such services and involved in determining the needs of the students and families at an individual school or school district so that the appropriate services can be provided.

Wraparound services not only improve academic achievement, they also keep families and communities together. Rather than sending a student for help away from his or her family and community, they make it convenient and accessible for him or her to stay in the local school.

Wraparound services also address a growing epidemic in education — high school dropouts. Only about 70 percent of entering high school freshmen go on to graduate. The problem affects the underserved, African-Americans and Latinos, at particularly high rates. 

A growing body of evidence suggests that efforts to reduce the dropout rate need to begin long before children enter high school, and when wraparound services are involved, the graduation success rate improves.

One study found that maternal health and the availability of prenatal care influence children’s birth weights, which in turn affect children’s likelihood of dropping out. Students who weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth are about 33 percent more likely to drop out of school.

Another study found that students who took part in high-quality preschool programs had higher educational attainment up to age 20, stayed in school longer and were more likely to graduate.

Providing support systems at schools will help more students cross the graduation finish line.

In previous Congresses, I introduced the Coordinate to Educate Act, which would have provided grants to local education authorities for wraparound services. 

Even in our current, more difficult economic situation, such funding must be found as we reauthorize ESEA and address the need for necessary services.

In the long run, it will pay for itself by keeping more children in school. 

Cutting the dropout rate in half would yield $45 billion annually in new federal tax revenues or cost savings, according to a recent report by Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College.

As Bob Wise, president of Alliance for Excellent Education and the former governor of West Virginia, put it: “The ultimate stimulus package is a diploma.”

Secretary Arne Duncan of the Department of Education has committed to support for wraparound services in the ESEA reauthorization. 

I tell you what I told him: “It’s all talk until it’s not.” 

Rep. Woolsey is a senior member on the  Education and Labor Committee, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and president of Americans for Democratic Action.