Integrating outside community services
and better teaching could lead to success
The on-going struggle to close the glaring gaps in student achievement remains an exercise in frustration. Where student performance is improving, the results are incremental. Where achievement remains low, educators and politicians, parents and students remain highly discouraged.
So what’s to be done?
Is there a better way to raise poor-performing k-12 students to higher levels?
The answer, while promising, must be grounded in caution. While the No Child Left Behind law set standards for student achievement, it is clear that setting education standards alone will not solve the problem.
Good schools offering good teaching of good courses in wholesome environments is a good starting point. Such schools tell students they can learn more and individual effort counts a lot. But for too many students, who come from neighborhoods with high concentration of poverty, poor health, insufficient nutrition, unstable homes and crime-ridden neighborhoods, outside forces beyond their control combine to frustrate if not defeat their attempts to get a good education. What is needed is an approach that improves systemic education reform and addresses children’s other needs simultaneously.
It is not enough for state and school districts to adopt performance standards and enact standardized tests. Teachers must identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and adapt their teaching methods to address each student. Teachers must undergo effective professional development training to target efforts to each child’s learning difficulties.
Fundamental to the success of any worthwhile enterprise is the intelligent allocation and deployment of resources sufficient to achieve the expected results. Too often, however, state and local school finance systems are disconnected from their standards-based reforms and a system of continual instructional improvement.
It is one thing to require teachers and students to meet high standards in reading, math and science. It is quite another to provide them with all the tools (computers, text books, up-to-date teacher training and properly-equipped laboratories) so they can perform and meet such requirements.
Moreover, if the best-paid, most experienced teachers are concentrated in the schools with high-performing students, and the least-experienced, lowest paid teachers are concentrated in the schools with low-performing students, odds are the low-performers will continue to perform below expectations. The point is many low-performing schools may require more resources and dramatically improved classroom instruction. Problems arise because a school district’s resources are not carefully distributed in ways to do the most good.
Even if the policies and practices inside school districts and schools go well, outside influences can work to undermine their best efforts. This is most likely in areas where residents live in fear of crime, have weak parental support, and high unemployment.
The hope may lie in connecting outside services for children and families to classroom instruction in a coordinated and interactive manner. This approach is a combination of community schools and school linked services, and is the basis for some cautious optimism for closing the student achievement gap. But we are just beginning to probe how to leverage out of school initiatives to improve school attainment. A period of intense experimentation is needed. For example, which family and children’s interventions are essential, and is a critical mass needed in different local contexts.
One experiment to start with is to bring state and local social and health services into or near the schools. The purpose is to co-locate and to integrate services (such as tutoring, nutrition, counseling, medical and dental, adult education, childcare) so they serve to reinforce students and parents in enhancing education.
For poor families especially, who often cannot travel to several locations to access various children’s services, combining them in one location at school or in adjacent facilities would be a major step-forward. For many, it may make the difference between seeing a doctor and dentist or not at all. It may mean the chance to have parents help their children with homework, get emergency child care, and afterschool education.
Connecting public and non-profit services with schools will require federal, state and local cooperation in an unprecedented way—for all to often these activities operate independently in “silos”, separate and out of touch with one another. No less important will be for educators and teachers to be integrated into such services delivery. Teachers should know how family needs and strengths affect class performance, and be able to adapt their instruction accordingly.
If the planning and set-up work for connecting outside services to schools requires some initial new funding, it would make sense to use existing program funds such as Medicaid, children’s protective services, in a new school-linked setting. This would eliminate the need to add, say social workers and nurses, to the school payroll. But all these added services will require more school staff to attract and integrate them within schools.
Connecting outside services to schools would also require educators, service providers, political and civic leaders, to park their narrower institutional interests away, and adopt a spirit of collegiality and cooperation. Such a change will require a new definition of professions like education and social work that span several children’s services.
The best way to begin connecting outside services to schools is on a trial basis. The federal and state governments could offer planning and start-up grants for districts and communities willing to organize and conduct experiments connecting outside services and communities to schools. Such experiments should be spread around in rural, urban and suburban settings. Various mixes of services and incentives should be tried ranging from the try it all approach of the Harlem Children’s Zone to paternalistic approaches that rely on improved behavior of children and education of parents.
Closing the achievement gap will not accelerate or get much better if we continue doing the same things in the same way. A hungry child, a kid with bad teeth, youths with single parents struggling to make ends meet, or who are out of work or fighting addictions cannot be expected to perform as well in school as their counterparts from stable living, and good health and nutrition situations.
If school financing were reframed into “children’s financing”, and family services across the spectrum were integrated at or near K-12 education, disadvantaged children would carry fewer handicaps to and inside their schools. This may become a “Rosetta Stone” that enables us to translate low achieving schools into more success.
Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University.
Prepared with support of the School Finance Redesign Project at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington
Labels: academic preparation, Student Success