Education Opinion

Bolder, Broader Action: Strategies for Closing the Poverty Gap

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — May 27, 2011 9 min read
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By Secretary Paul Reville

My post earlier this week framed the piece that Jeff Henig and I contributed to Ed Week’s print edition and laid out the need for education reformers to review the evidence and admit that closing achievement gaps is not as simple as adopting a set of standards, accountability and instructional improvement strategies. While these strategies are necessary, the data on student achievement in Massachusetts, after nearly two decades of reform, makes it readily apparent that schooling solutions alone are not sufficient to achieve our aspiration of getting all students to proficiency. We have set the nation’s highest standards, been tough on accountability and invested billions in building school capacity, yet we still see a very strong correlation between socioeconomic background and educational achievement and attainment. It is now clear that unless and until we make a more active effort to mitigate the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty, we will still be faced with large numbers of children who are either unable to come to school or so distracted as not to be able to be attentive and supply effort when they get there. In other words, we must create a healthy platform in the lives of all of our children if we expect them to show the learning gains expected to result from optimized instructional strategies.

The post generated a robust dialogue about the topic, a lot of interesting philosophical debate. However, the challenge now is to translate our analysis into action by implementing a series of strategies, coupled with measurable outcomes, to ensure success.

In June of 2008, Governor Patrick, in announcing his Readiness Project, identified twin strategies for closing the achievement gaps in Massachusetts, the nation’s leading state on most measures of student learning. He said we needed to improve the quality of instruction in each and every classroom in Massachusetts from early education through the university. At the same time, he articulated a second and more radical strategy by demanding that we guarantee that each child come to school on a healthy platform with the kind of services and support that would enable him/her to attend regularly, be attentive and supply motivated effort. Since the release of the Readiness Project report, the Patrick Administration has sought to bring these strategies to life.

In January 2010, the Governor signed a law triggering the most sweeping change to education in Massachusetts since the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 laid the ground work for immediate and aggressive action to transform our lowest performing schools, dramatically raised the cap for the state’s highest performing charter schools and authorized promising, new Innovation Schools, allowing districts to internally charter their own exceptional schools.

One of the most powerful provisions of the Act requires the state’s lowest performing schools to explicitly address, in their school turnaround plans, the health and social-emotional well-being of all students. Now, each of our thirty-five chronically underperforming schools is committed to addressing “out-of-school factors” in their improvement strategies and in their budgets. Some schools have been making provision for counselors or community engagement specialists to be employed full time to connect needy students and their families with supportive services designed to address out-of-school issues that threaten and disrupt student learning. In a related development, the Secretary of Health and Human Services recently announced that each of these schools would receive a liaison from her department, a regular presence in the school, to form the connective tissue between the school, students, and families, and the services provided by the state’s many health and human service agencies.

We also wrote into our nation-leading Race to the Top (RTTT) application provisions scaling up what we are modeling in these turnaround schools. We invited city school systems to compete for grants to establish “wraparound zones,” the infrastructure to connect education and social services throughout the city. These new service switchboards will be funded by our RTTT funds.

Through an executive order two years ago, the Governor established the Child and Youth Readiness Cabinet, which I co-chair with Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Judy Ann Bigby. This interagency coordinating council is comprised of the secretaries of Housing and Economic Development, Labor and Workforce Development, Public Safety and Security, Administration and Finance, and the Child Advocate. The Cabinet has chosen to focus on underperforming schools, designing an initiative to build new communication and information sharing networks and foster interagency collaboration between education, health, housing, and safety professionals with the goal of increasing children’s success both in and out of school. Collaboration is far easier to talk about than to do, but the Readiness Cabinet is hard at work in developing plan for these turnaround partnerships, which will become active in the coming months.

Massachusetts is also a major contender in the federal Promise Neighborhoods competition, another approach to addressing out-of-school needs. The Commonwealth is home to three exciting, new partnerships selected among just twenty-one such partnerships nationwide for initial planning grants from the U.S. Department of Education. These pioneering partnerships, cousins of the famous Harlem Children’s Zone, will help Massachusetts scale up community-wide services to its neediest children. As they contemplate diverse supports from prenatal care and parental education all the way to assistance for students attending college, these diverse partners are attempting to institutionalize the kind of wraparound attention that middle class children take for granted. In our view, that’s what it’s going to take to close achievement gaps.

There are dozens of examples of our robust non-profit community providing extraordinary supports to educators and government agencies in the quest to serve our neediest children better. One of our most successful programs, called City Connects, began by providing staff to oversee the inclusion of wraparound services from several local health and human service agencies into a small number of targeted Boston public schools. Now, the program is expanding statewide. At the same time, we are home to many Full-Service Schools which have been engaged in this work for years blazing a path and providing perspective on our current work. The state’s nationally renowned experiment with expanded learning time is reaping outstanding results while after school programs are flourishing and many of these directly address the unmet needs of children battling the challenges of poverty.

We are also exploring better ways and means of sharing data on the health, well-being, and academic success of our students. While respectful of privacy concerns, we must do much better at providing educators the background on children and their families so that we can tailor an approach to meet the needs of each child. To this end, we are proposing the creation of a “Readiness Passport” which will be similar to a running, medical record including information on which services students have received, which issues are current, which treatments have worked, and which impediments may be preventing them from attending school and being attentive in class. With such information, educators will be better prepared to tailor educational strategies designed to overcome barriers and advance student learning.

To measure our success at this work, we will have to identify a set of leading indicators attached to some clear goals. This is very much a work in progress. A simple example is school attendance. Obviously, students can’t learn if they’re not in school. If we measure attendance and hold schools responsible for improving it, then they will, of necessity, begin to focus on the out-of-school factors impeding student attendance. Eliminating these barriers should result in increased student learning.

I recently witnessed this work in action. Governor Patrick and I visited the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Boston. Orchard Gardens is really a perfect example of many of our initiatives at work. First, they were identified under the Achievement Gap Act as a school in need of immediate improvement. The superintendent utilized the changes made possible in the law to bring on an inspiring, new principal who in turn utilized the changes made possible by the law to make major changes to the staff and the structure of the school day. Additionally, again using the law, the superintendent empowered the principal to partner with various community organizations to provide services to students and families. One such partner is City Year whose young workers bring energy and a sharp focus to the challenges of student attendance at the school. Orchard Gardens began working with City Year Boston to specifically target issues with attendance. Each day, City Year corps members get a list from teachers of students who are not in school and call home, call cell phones, call families, and sometimes make visits all toward the goal of increasing attendance. The City Year professionals then become case workers with students and families guiding solutions to attendance problems. This allows teachers and administrators to focus on teaching while making sure that students are in school to enjoy the benefits of improved instruction. It’s a bit early to look at results, but the principal reports that the effort is already paying dividends and substantial learning gains are in the offing. This school is just one example of the kind of comprehensive work we must take to scale if we intend to close our most persistent achievement gaps.

The inclusion of wraparound services is pragmatic approach to long unaddressed problems in the lives of children, problems that routinely interfere with learning. It’s high time that we, as educators, recognize these problems and begin to get more active in working with others to solve them as they constitute such a threat to our achieving our educational aspirations. We must maintain our commitment to high expectations, regular assessments, and accountability. However, we must face up to those factors which are undermining our best instructional intentions.

S. Paul Reville is the Massachusetts secretary of education, and, in that role, directs the executive office of education and works closely with the commonwealth’s education agencies and the University of Massachusetts system while serving as a voting member of the governing board of all four state education agencies. He is the governor’s top adviser on education and helps shape the state’s education reform agenda, including the recent Achievement Gap Act of 2010.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.