by Sarah Winchell Lenhoff on November 2,2022
Abraham Maslow wrote “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In the United States, public education is our hammer, and every social problem looks like a nail. From poverty and racism to poor nutrition and child neglect, public schools are asked to identify and solve virtually every social ill we have created and let fester.
When we view schools as the (only) answer to social problems, we design policy solutions that very rarely transform the underlying inequality that led to them. Education researchers and policy makers can disrupt this pattern by thinking ecologically and working across social system silos to design coordinated interventions that support students and their families, improving conditions for learning along the way.
As the director of the Detroit Partnership for Education Equity & Research, my team and I have worked closely with public school systems and community organizations in Detroit, Michigan, to study high rates of absenteeism and student enrollment instability. Over the last six years, we have found that the structural and environmental conditions of US cities, such as poverty, segregation, health, and crime, are associated with absenteeism. These conditions also shape families’ experiences accessing transportation to get to school and work.
In our article in Harvard Educational Review, “Beyond the Bus: Reconceptualizing School Transportation for Mobility Justice,” we show how deeply understanding the ecological experiences of families and students reveals the complexities of “getting to school.” While many parents cite transportation problems as a key reason for absenteeism, and school bus eligibility can increase attendance, our research demonstrates that increasing school bus access is not, on its own, likely to dramatically transform school enrollment and attendance patterns in deeply unequal cities with widespread school choice.
Instead, school transportation policies should be paired with other social policies to increase wages, decrease housing instability, and strengthen social relations among communities. To achieve mobility justice, policy makers should look to students and their families as experts who have both the knowledge and right to be involved in decisions about how they will access educational opportunities.
As education researchers, we can contribute to this effort by establishing interdisciplinary teams to help design and study the educational impact of non-school policies, and by working with our school partners to ask and help answer: “Are schools the right tool to solve this problem?”
About the Author
Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Ph.D., is the Leonard Kaplan Endowed Professor and an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at Wayne State University. She is the faculty director of the Detroit Partnership for Education Equity & Research. Her research examines how education policy shapes access to educational opportunity in urban public schools. Her work has been published in American Educational Research Journal, Educational Policy, Journal of Education Policy, and Teachers College Record, among others. She is a co-author of “Beyond the Bus: Reconceptualizing School Transportation for Mobility Justice” in the Fall 2022 issue of Harvard Educational Review.