School & District Management Opinion

Building ‘Smart Education Systems’

By Robert Rothman — July 30, 2007 7 min read
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As the unprecedented push to improve American education enters the midpoint of its third decade, reformers can claim some success. Yet no one would argue that the job is done, particularly in the nation’s cities. Even the most successful urban school districts, the winners of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, would acknowledge that they have a long way to go toward ensuring that every child receives an excellent education and develops the knowledge and skills needed for a fulfilling and productive future.

—Nip Rogers


There is no shortage of ideas for improving urban education, and there are efforts under way in nearly every city to improve schooling for urban youths: New schools are proliferating, high schools are being redesigned, new curricula are being developed and implemented, accountability systems are being strengthened, and much more. But there is also a growing recognition that improving schools and school systems, while essential, is not enough. Ensuring that every child becomes proficient and beyond will require the support and active engagement of organizations and agencies outside of schools as well.

The role of out-of-school factors in educational success has sparked heated debate. But the debate over whether in-school or out-of-school factors are more salient in children’s learning—a debate that has raged at least since the 1966 publication of James S. Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity—is in many respects a false one. Both factors are important, and both must be addressed if the nation is to fulfill its 60-year-old promise of equal educational opportunity, and its more recent pledge to ensure that all children learn to high levels.

The experiences of middle-class and affluent children make this proposition clear. To be sure, relatively affluent students tend to have schooling advantages that support higher levels of learning. Numerous studies have documented the disparities in school facilities, teacher quality, and curriculum offerings that favor more-advantaged students.

Less well known, however, are the numerous out-of-school advantages that middle-class and affluent students are more likely than poorer students to have access to. From museum visits to club memberships to internships in professional offices, relatively affluent students routinely take part in activities that enhance their learning and widen the in-school disparities. If we are serious about ensuring that all children learn to high levels, we need to address both the inequities within schools and those outside of schools.

How can this be done? A number of reform efforts have attempted to address both the in-school and out-of-school needs of children and youths, but they have not succeeded in ensuring high levels of learning and development for all students. The reasons they did not succeed are instructive, and point to a solution that might be more effective.

If we are serious about ensuring that all children learn to high levels, we need to address both the inequities within schools and those outside of schools.

One set of reforms attempted to build high-level partnerships among city agencies to integrate services for children, youths, and families. One such effort, New Futures, an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, had some success in creating new relationships across sectors, but less success in developing meaningful changes that improved outcomes for young people.

Another set of reforms attempted to support students and families by grafting a range of services onto schools. For example, the Beacon program in New York City offers recreational, cultural, and family support at 80 locations throughout the city. An evaluation of the initiative by the Academy for Educational Development found that the Beacons had helped youths avoid negative behaviors, but were generally unable to link schools to noneducational services.

There are two main reasons why these and similar initiatives were less successful than they could have been. First, the academic challenges schools face overwhelm their ability to integrate services with other agencies. Second, many of the services and supports children and families need, such as opportunities to engage with professionals in the workplace, are not amenable to being located in school buildings. Community-based organizations succeed, in large part, because of their roots and connections in the community, yet they need the access to resources and power that schools can provide to become even more effective.

What would a system look like that effectively supported children in school and outside of school? The Annenberg Institute for School Reform and its partners have been addressing that question since 2000. We have recognized that such a system must include both a highly functioning and effective school district—what the task force called a “smart district”—as well as a comprehensive and accessible web of supports for children, youths, and families. We refer to such a system as a “smart education system.”

To understand what we mean by “smart education system,” it is helpful to unpack each word in that phrase:

Smart. While the word “smart” has a particular educational connotation, it also has acquired a specialized meaning in the world of technology. In contrast to conventional technologies, which do one thing, over and over again, smart technologies are nimble and are able to learn and adapt to new situations. They are thus more efficient and provide the services that are needed. A smart education system, likewise, is nimble, adaptive, and efficient. It provides differential supports to different young people and families, depending on their needs. It is able to attract new partners to augment its capacity when needed. And it collects and uses data and makes adjustments depending on what is working and what needs to be changed.

Education. The range of services provided in a smart education system is rather broad—everything from after-school activities to cultural enrichment to internships in local businesses, and much in between. In addition, the services also help remove some barriers to learning many young people face. But what distinguishes a smart education system is the focus on educational services. The goal is to ensure that all young people are supported in and out of school in their learning and other areas of development (health, social skills, cultural competence, character, motivation, self-discipline, and more) that support academic achievement.

System. For the most part, the services and supports a smart education system provides already exist in most cities. But they do not constitute a system. Young people and their families must negotiate their own way through the opportunities that are available, and if they make it through at all it is almost by accident rather than design.

A system, by contrast, is aligned to the needs of the community. School districts and their partners in city agencies and private organizations—with community members acting as full partners—locate services and supports where they are needed and in ways the community wants. They coordinate such services to avoid duplication and make it easier for children and families to take advantage of them. They disseminate information about available opportunities widely. They provide transportation and other supports to make access easier. And they are accountable to the community—people know who is in charge and whom they can hold responsible for achieving excellence and equity.

A smart education system is nimble, adaptive, and efficient. It makes adjustments depending on what is working and what needs to be changed.

The kind of smart education system we envision does not yet exist, citywide, in any city in the United States.Yet the conditions for establishing such a system are dramatically better than they were even a decade ago, when previous reform efforts like New Futures got under way. For one thing, the active involvement of mayors in education, even in cities where they lack formal authority over school systems, has helped mobilize resources from civic and private organizations. And the growth of school networks operated by community groups has strengthened links between schools and community-based organizations.

As a result, nascent smart systems have begun to form in some cities. In Chattanooga, Tenn., a long-term effort to redesign the district’s central office to strengthen support for schools has improved public confidence in the district and enhanced partnerships that have broadened postsecondary options for students. In Dallas, a citywide partnership involving the city government, the school district, and the arts and cultural community has provided access to learning opportunities in the arts for all elementary schoolchildren.

In other cities, such as New York, Pittsburgh, and Sacramento, meanwhile, neighborhood groups have created webs of supports and formed links to schools while forging ties to school districts and city agencies.

Strengthening these efforts, and creating new ones in other cities, will require a new kind of infrastructure. Yet funders, both private and governmental, appear willing to address these needs. They, like other educators, municipal leaders, and community leaders, recognize that the traditional divide between in-school and out-of-school supports is no longer tolerable. By breaking down that wall and building a smart system that will function effectively for every child, we can finally address the gaps in opportunities that have produced achievement gaps, and help ensure that all young people do, in fact, learn at high levels.

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