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.