Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Is the Debate Finally Over?

vonzastrowc's picture

Could it be that we're finally laying to rest the false debate between the value of schools and the value of community supports for children? That would be good news, indeed.

Deb Viadero's recent piece on a Harvard study of the Harlem Children's Zone's (HCZ) Promise Academy confirmed my sense that the debate might finally be dead or dying. When it came out almost a year ago, the study sparked a bizarre argument: Had the school alone raised test scores, or should we give credit to all those other services? David Brooks proclaimed the school the winner and implied that all that other stuff was just so much window dressing.

The marvelous Viadero, by contrast, notes that the jury is still out:

What we still don't know, of course, is whether students' improved performance was due to the quality of the schools or the combination of schooling and community supports that the children and their families were also receiving.

The study itself was just as cautious. The authors note that:

The [Academies] provide free medical, dental and mental-health services (students are screened upon entry and receive regular check-ups), student incentives for achievement (money, trips to France, e.g.), high-quality, nutritious, cafeteria meals, support for parents in the form of food baskets, meals, bus fare, and so forth, and less tangible benefits such as the support of a committed staff.

It's a relief that no new debate has (yet) erupted in the blogosphere. After all, as Viadero notes, the study has just won a rare nod of approval from the What Works Clearinghouse. That sort of thing could have inflamed all the old passions.

In fact, Viadero's piece might give the debate more credence than it deserves. After she notes that the study can't resolve the debate, she writes (half-jokingly, I think), "That's fodder for yet another study." While it would surely be very helpful to know just how schools and community supports outside of schools can affect children's learning, we can't allow our lack of scientific certainty to trump common sense.

In other words, we know it in our gut that children need both powerful schooling and powerful support outside of schools. In fact, that gut feeling would make a deeper study of the Harlem Promise Academy all but impossible. What group of children would we select as our comparison group? Which children would we deprive of health care or other supports, just to see how they would fare without them?

The HCZ's star continues to rise, which further confirms my sense that the pitched battles between schools and community supports are coming to an end. The HCZ is the model for the President's proposed Promise Neighborhoods, which enjoy widespread support. HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada is even the star of a long and lyrical TV ad for American Express. You can't get more mainstream than that.

Researchers might not know just how much credit to give all those "wraparound" services," but few would deny the profound impact of problems children face outside of school. Here's what researcher Tony Bryk has to say:

On balance, schools are principally about teaching and learning, not solving all of the social problems of a community. However, when palpable personal and social needs walked through doors every day, school staff can’t be expected to ignore those needs. Our evidence suggests that when the proportion of these needs remains high and pressing, the capacity of a schools’ staff to sustain attention to developing the five essential supports falls by the wayside.

The "five essential supports" are what Bryk and his former colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research call the "ingredients" for school success. (Read about them here.) Schools will struggle to focus on those ingredients as long as social problems go unaddressed. Social or community services aren't, as some people claim, a distraction from schools' larger mission. But the problems that fester in the absence of such services sure are.

So I hope I'm right that the perverse debate between schools and community supports is dying a quiet death. Bryk sums up why:

This dysfunctional discourse advances no common understandings and helps no children and no families.

An excellent piece Claus.

An excellent piece Claus. Imagine the effect of having all kids coming to Kindergarten high levels of background skills, health, and literacy that middle/upper class white kids come with now.

Then imagine we kept pushing all those kids so that when they graduate from high school they are truly college ready.

Doesn't it just make sense that all this works together? Can't we get past the bureaucratic turf wars and pissing matches and acknowledge that these kids need the "conveyor belt" approach to reach escape velocity?

That's whats happening at the HCZ. Rather than gathering stones to toss at the model, we need to be gathering notes on how we can take this approach across the country and end generational poverty and open doors that previously had been shut for decades.

I don't think it's a false

I don't think it's a false debate at all. I don't think schools should offer free meals or any more medical care than the school nurse would provide for injuries on the playground, etc., but I have to wonder that the entire nature of what we expect from government is changing. Another post, perhaps, but I think causing much divide between liberal and conservative camps who (generally) BOTH want what is best for children. :)

That being said, one thing that bothers me about these community services being tied to schools is that people feel obligated to send their children to the schools FOR the services. For example, one charity run through our city had all kinds of goodies, food and Christmas presents for the poor... but to qualify, if you had children, they HAD to be enrolled in a Cityname school. I'm all for being charitable, but government charity (paid for by the taxpayer) ought not be contingent upon where a child attends school, or even IF a child attends school.

I am very grateful NOT to need these services, but don't see where a basket of food and a couple Christmas presents and help with the electric bill, etc. should be reserved for public school families *only*. I didn't give to that charity last year because I felt it was exclusionary and mean-spirited. Could you imagine the mayor of a city offering free food and gifts to private school families *only*? Not right.

Thanks for the kind comment,

Thanks for the kind comment, Jason. It seems to me that the big battle between supporters of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (which said schools couldn't do it alone) and the Education Equality Project (which placed the bulk of responsibility on schools) was, I think, more a product of PR tactics than anything else. HCZ's popularity suggests that people intuitively understand the need for powerful strategies in schools and in communities. (There are other HCZ-like programs that don't get nearly as much attention. One of my favorites is Say Yes To Education, which has very impressive outcomes to show for its efforts.) 

Mrs C.--Well, I guess we can disagree on this one. I don't see why school shouldn't do things like provide health care and other services for students who wouldn't otherwise receive them. Those schools want to be in the business of teaching children. They can't do that as well as they want to if the children are often out sick, don't have glasses, don't have food in the morning, etc. Schools and programs that bring many of these pieces together for kids do better. So people who argue that calls to give children more out-of-school supports amount to "letting schools off the hook" are the ones engaging in a false debate--as are those who would suggest that out-of-school supports are more important than good schooling.

The question of making these school-based supports available to students who don't attend the school is a matter I don't know much about. But I do wonder how many private school families or home-schooled families really need the assistance you describe

I couldn't tell you, Claus,

I couldn't tell you, Claus, but I do know a working single mom who homeschools and is under the poverty line. Why would vision screenings or discounted glasses or whatever for HER children be contingent upon her enrolling her children in public school? It hardly seems fair that many social services get tied in to schools... and I'm speaking as one who doesn't really buy into the idea of these services to start with.

But I DO believe in being equitable. If public schools really are, as you've said before, important in training the whole child and an essential institution in a functioning democracy, what message are these poorer homeschoolers getting about the government entities not taking care of their needs unless their parents respond to that (not so subtle) financial coercion to send them to school? How will it inspire their parents to vote, and what will they teach their children? It furthers the "us vs. them" mentality and fosters an even GREATER distrust of government and government entities than is already present in the homeschool community.

Oh! Nevermind what it does to homeschoolers... here's a wayyyy bigger problem! Social services tied into public education inspires "school-homing!"


What do you think of that? :)

PS. Have a great Easter weekend with your family!! See you next week, God willing, friend.

We need a new, third,

We need a new, third, alternative – one which addresses our society’s need for a new generation of citizens who, individually and collectively, are capable of meeting the major social challenges we face, including those thrown up by our economic circumstances, not to mention sustainability, shifting demographics, and so on.