Education Opinion

The Intersection of School and Community

By Lisbeth B. Schorr — July 12, 2000 14 min read
A whirlwind of exploding pressures and opportunities.

Everyone working today at the many places where schools intersect with community activities, services, and supports is caught up in a whirlwind of exploding pressures and opportunities. Increasing public and philanthropic resources are becoming available to fund a wide array of activities that make use of school facilities, school legitimacy, and school resources. The new funding comes with new demands for accountability. Legislators, business people, taxpayers, boards of foundations, and local agencies from United Ways to settlement houses want to know that their money is being used to achieve results. They are pressing for evidence that their investments have an impact on outcomes.

Yet there is little clarity or consensus about the pathways to improved outcomes, how roles, resources, and responsibilities should be allocated, or even the extent to which new demands for accountability are consistent with achieving social purposes.

From recent experience with community efforts to strengthen and expand support for youngsters and their families, neighborhoods, and schools, I offer five lessons that—while still tentative—seem ready for wider consideration:

We must be willing to be held accountable for results. To obtain the level of public funding warranted for work at the intersection of schools and communities, we must respect the public’s demand for scorekeeping. It hardly matters whether the demands for results arise because a cynical public has decided that when it comes to social programs, good intentions are not enough, or because an enlightened public wants decisionmaking to become more rational. Either way, we must be thinking more rigorously, realistically, and precisely about why we do what we do, what ends we hope to accomplish, and how we can document our successes in achieving those ends. That, in turn, will increase the chances of making our efforts as effective as they can be.

New school achievement standards, and the assessments that accompany them, are focusing attention on how well, or badly, schools are accomplishing their academic mission. They are also driving a lot of school people crazy, especially when these pressures are more test- driven than standards- driven; and when educators know they lack the capacity to produce the outcomes for which they are being held accountable. The willingness of both public and private funders to put money into anything that seems to have the remotest potential to improve school achievement also is persuading some chronically underfunded community groups to promise improved school performance, even when that is not their primary purpose.

Those of us working in the community and in and around schools cannot allow anyone to bully us—or seduce us—into overpromising. If we lack the resources, the personnel, the community connections, or the trained professionals to accomplish agreed-upon purposes, we should resist the temptation to participate in the long-standing conspiracy that obscures the fact that human- service providers and community organizations—and educators, too—are forever being asked to accomplish massive tasks with wholly inadequate resources and tools.

We must also become engaged in the process of finding better ways of measuring interim and long- term outcomes. Only by becoming active participants in the process can we be sure that our experience will contribute to assuring that the most relevant and appropriate measures will be used to document success, to learn from failure, and to assure that we are on track.

• We must take explicit account of the evidence that improved school achievement depends primarily on improved instructional practices. There seem to be no pathways to improved achievement (especially among student populations that have traditionally lagged behind) that do not include significant improvements in teaching and learning. In a nation with an education system in which minority children fall further behind the longer they are in school, and all children fall further behind in international comparisons the longer they are in school, the public’s support for making school success our first priority can hardly be challenged.

If school success is in fact to be the top priority, we will have to re-examine some of our more romantic notions about how better education comes about. We will have to factor in the growing evidence that the key to real school reform lies in profound changes in instructional practice, especially as it affects the children who need good teaching the most.

This kind of change requires intensive, sustained, high-quality staff development that includes the chance to try out new methods and new mind-sets, along with feedback and follow- up supports. It requires that the highest proportion of experienced, well-prepared, and intensely motivated teachers is actually teaching in schools with high proportions of poor or minority children. It requires that schools create a climate that gives teachers the same opportunities and encouragement to learn that we want them to provide for their students. It requires that we assign highest priority to good teaching and good teachers, and make absolutely certain that the children who need the best teachers get the best.

A strong principal and a highly professional and motivated faculty can exploit exceptional circumstances to create significant reforms. But change that will affect large numbers of children in failing schools is more likely to happen when individual schools are not left to their own devices, but get lots of help and encouragement from outside.

Much of the current contentiousness at the intersection of schools and communities revolves around the question of how and to what extent noneducators can provide this help. Community groups can assemble and disseminate data about failing schools, and about groups of students that are failing, in an effort to produce pressure for change. But the information itself does not produce the needed change—not in classrooms, not in school climate, not in teachers’ belief systems.

Similarly, pressure from community organizations may succeed in getting educators to become more interested in lower-achieving students, to care more about the success of these students, and to see them more sensitively in the context of their developmental stages and their families and neighborhoods. But educators are unlikely to be successful in increasing these youngsters’ academic mastery unless they are fundamentally competent and able to strengthen their instructional practices.

An engaged public can support the policies that would put more resources into efforts to make schools into learning communities and that would attract talented, competent, and well-trained people into the teaching profession, especially into the schools whose students need excellent teaching the most. An engaged and informed public also can support the development of new public schools, including charter schools, that could provide an alternative to the schools that seem currently incapable of educating poor and minority children at high levels.

Certainly, noneducators can play a crucial role in removing the nonacademic barriers to student achievement. But their claims will not gain legitimacy by being inflated. Community contributions may, especially in the most disrupted schools and neighborhoods, be a necessary condition of improved school achievement. But the most effective community contributions will be based on the recognition that the removal of nonacademic barriers to achievement is probably never a sufficient condition.

We must acknowledge that efforts to make better use of nonschool time, school facilities, school legitimacy, and school resources are worth undertaking and will be supported by the public even if they cannot demonstrate their value in the currency of higher student achievement.

We should be able to say, loud and clear, that providing opportunities for expanded out-of-school experiences are worth doing because they enrich children’s lives. Keeping children safe, mobilizing needed services, and providing young people with opportunities for constructive use of free time are likely to be highly valued by parents and other citizens even if their impact on school achievement cannot, at least in the short run, be proven. We take for granted that middle-class children growing up in resource-rich neighborhoods will be exposed to opportunities for experiential learning, travel, recreation, experiencing the arts and other domains in which they can taste pleasure and mastery. Deliberate and concerted efforts are required if similar opportunities are to be enjoyed by poor children in the inner city.

But we don’t have to be sentimental about it. We should be willing to be held accountable for delivering. We should be willing to document that the kids do in fact come, that when they come they are safe and engaged, and even that more of the highest-risk children are coming every year. We should also be willing to document the involvement of parents and the community in the life of the school.

We should also be identifying our specific contributions to removing nonacademic barriers to school achievement. These may come in the form of prompt and effective responses to the child who comes to school hungry or sick or abused or in need of eyeglasses. They may also come in the form of efforts to produce the “relational trust” between schools and families that have to precede other reforms in the most alienated communities. And they may take the form of activities that allow children and youths to become engaged and to succeed in learning, recreational, or arts activities that neither their schools nor their families can provide.

But even the supports and connections that are emblematic of the best “community schools”—those that may make children more ready to learn, may reduce absenteeism, and may lessen behavior problems—are unlikely to result in improved school achievement unless there are also changes in the classroom.

Those involved in community initiatives will be better off committing themselves to deliver on the promises they know they can keep than in trying to tie the test of their accomplishments to school achievement. They certainly don’t want to seem to be failing when they are, in fact, succeeding. They should be insisting on being held accountable for the valued purposes that they can accomplish. • We must strengthen our capacity to learn from current efforts. While solutions crafted centrally and imposed from outside are unlikely to work, local communities should not have to act as though there were no generalizable wisdom based on past research and experience. This requires the field to become much clearer about the pathways that will get us to the outcomes we seek, and to strengthen our capacity to learn from the rich array of activities now under way.

By building on multiple ways of knowing, we will be able to draw on a far broader spectrum of information about past and current experience than is conventionally considered to constitute credible knowledge. To inform both program design and implementation decisions, we must extract lessons from a broad accumulation of credible evidence, including practitioner experience.

We would focus less on individual projects, programs, and even best practices, and more on building the pathways that link the crucial elements to one another. We would take the grab bag of implicit hypotheses that underlie our current efforts, and organize them into testable propositions, to be systematically confirmed, modified, or refuted.

Our new processes of knowledge building and dissemination must acknowledge the pre-eminence of local decisionmaking and encourage local initiative and adaptation, while not dismissing the existence of centrally available expert knowledge that could inform local action and nudge the field in promising directions. The expertise has to flow both ways: The wisdom from the community has to interact with the wisdom from outside. And the dissemination of what we know must be quicker, more interactive, and user-friendly.

We must identify what we need to do together, what we can best do separately, what the trade- offs are, and what our priorities should be.

We all know that the most important results we are pursuing cannot be achieved by single, narrowly circumscribed interventions. Most desired outcomes cannot be realized in the absence of multiple inputs from multiple sources over a sustained period of time. But this does not mean that we will work most effectively by doing everything together. As Charles Deutsch, the director of the National Committee on Partnerships for Children’s Health, has pointed out, partnerships and collaborations are not inherently virtuous. They are sometimes essential and sometimes a waste of time and a diversion. They must not be allowed to become an end in themselves.

The world we work in today is one in which we think in circumscribed pieces. We fund in circumscribed pieces, maintain accountability in circumscribed pieces, consider credible only those evaluations that evaluate circumscribed pieces. And, of course, we provide services as though children, families, and neighborhoods came in circumscribed pieces. So it’s tempting to look to collaboration and integration as the answer.

But collaboration and integration may not be the best answer in all circumstances. Clearly, both instructional practices and community supports must improve radically if all children are to succeed at school and in life. In an era of scarce resources, the trade-offs around alternative strategies to act on that belief become important.

First comes the problem of allocating limited time and attention. As we explore how teachers might expand their capacity to spot problems and mobilize help and to how schools can make services for children and their families more appropriate and accessible, we should do so in the realization that educators may legitimately insist that their responsibility for these concerns must be made compatible with their need to find better ways of teaching children to read, write, do arithmetic, and think.

The superintendent who is reluctant to see school leaders and teachers spend time attending meetings of community collaboratives or learning to recognize signs of abuse or depression is not necessarily evil. The superintendent’s “educentrism” may be appropriate to his mission. While some educators who resist making unbounded commitments to community collaborations may be motivated by narrow turf-protective or bureaucratic concerns, the reluctance of others may arise from their belief that they can accomplish more for children by sticking to their academic knitting.

A second trade-off issue arises around how advocacy addressing nonacademic issues affects public and even practitioner beliefs about the routes to a better educational world for children.

Many of us were dismayed to see The New York Times Magazine earlier this year pronounce in huge letters on its cover that “Schools Are Not the Answer.” James Traub’s article did a brilliant job documenting the difficulties of improving the life chances of children facing an array of formidable barriers to success in school and in life. But he left his readers unnecessarily discouraged about the prospects for reform by neglecting the evidence showing that we can substantially improve outcomes by substantially improving schools, that we can get beyond the retail level that depends on teaching wizards like Jaime Escalante and miracle- working principals to create effective classrooms.

Mr. Traub argues persuasively that, having “fiddled with practically everything you could think to fiddle with, we have done almost nothing to raise the trajectory of ghetto children.” But he fails to tell the story of the schools and districts that stopped fiddling and started using a coordinated combination of effective strategies all aimed at improving instruction. These schools and districts did succeed in breaking the link between inner-city poverty and school achievement—and on a scale large enough to matter.

I worry that our emphasis on nonacademic barriers has inadvertently become a cop-out for the educators who say, “We can’t teach those kids,” and a public that finds it more congenial to seek changes at the periphery than at the core of schooling—a public that has never really been convinced that all children can learn.

My bottom-line plea, then, is that we be more precise about what we are trying to achieve, and shrink what Paul Hill has called our Zones of Wishful Thinking. The task of reforming and expanding services may indeed be competitive with academic tasks and may not best be addressed by schools. By contrast, evidence that schools in depleted neighborhoods are most likely to succeed when they emphasize rigorous academic expectations, and convey to students a sense of being known and cared for, should stimulate new work to find ways of making action on both of those fronts compatible and not competitive.

Let us acknowledge that seeing children as the whole and complex beings they are does not imply that we mechanically blend all our efforts together into an indistinguishable mass. The entire panoply of needs must be met. But our actions must be based on a clear understanding of who can best take responsibility and be held accountable for each of the many interrelated tasks and strategies that could accomplish our common purposes.

Lisbeth Schorr is the director of the Project on Effective Interventions at Harvard University and the co-chair of the Harvard Children’s Initiative’s boundaries task force. This essay is adapted from her remarks in April to a national invitational conference sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Temple University.