Equity & Diversity Opinion

Seven Essentials for Changing the Odds

By Susan B. Neuman — October 23, 2008 4 min read
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Listening to the 2008 campaign rhetoric, you’d be likely to think that the cure for ailing schools lies in a laundry list of education reforms that includes some combination of charter schools, school choice, performance pay for teachers, and, of course, ridding our schools of bad teachers (always an easy mark, since there’s not much left of their salaries to contribute to campaigns).

What neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has recognized is that there is little evidence any of these efforts will close more than a fraction of the difference in achievement between poor minority children and their middle-class peers. These so-called reforms, like so many others before them, will fail to close this achievement gap, not because of the schools’ failings, but because of the circumstances that have made so many children highly vulnerable.

Nearly one in five children who come to our schools is dirt poor—deprived of the resources, programs, and possibilities that may enable him or her to achieve. Of course, the way things are going, this figure is likely to skyrocket as job prospects for the poor decline while we bail out the rich. Charter schools and other such reforms ring hollow for children who come to school with empty stomachs and bleeding gums.

Rather than help these children beat these odds, we need to change the odds if we’re serious about improving achievement. And this requires a good housecleaning of federal programs.

Charter schools and other such reforms ring hollow for children who come to school with empty stomachs and bleeding gums.

Once considered an emergency safety net for economically disadvantaged children, federal programs have grown exponentially without any evidence of effects. Pet projects such as Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska’s “Exchanges With Historic Whaling and Trading Partners” or his $968,000 earmark for “research on berries” get added to the federal budget at a stunning rate, often based on the electoral vulnerability of the member of Congress.

During my service as assistant U.S. secretary of education for elementary and secondary education in the first years of the Bush administration, from 2001 to 2003, I found that, with all the red tape, it could take one bureaucrat making $120,000 a year to oversee each program. What’s worse, the latest scores on the Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool, better known as PART, show that only five out of nearly 100 programs are even effective.

We now have solid evidence in the behavioral and neurobiological sciences to reduce the tremendous disparities in achievement. We also know how to do it. This information comes at a critical time, when the public is demanding to know whether public funds are accomplishing what they set out to do. Pre-empting more years of tired thinking, short-term reforms, and incremental tinkering with programs that have long failed our children, we need to recast our priorities and fund programs that stake their reputations on their ability to improve the performance of at-risk children.

Programs that work begin with seven essentials. They do the following:
• Actively target the neediest children;
• Begin early;
• Emphasize coordinated health and educational services, particularly for children whose families present multiple risks;
• Focus on boosting academic achievement through compensatory, high-quality instruction;
• Deliver instruction by highly trained professionals, not aides or volunteers;
• Acknowledge that intensity, or dosage, matters, defending against any dilution of program quality as a waste of public resources; and
• Hold themselves accountable for results and for children’s achievement.

When we fund programs on the basis of outcomes, we put in place a set of interventions that have been shown through accumulated trials to benefit families and that give back solid returns over time. And the good news is that there are early-intervention programs that demonstrate how we can begin to reverse the stranglehold of isolation that poverty brings. These include Early Head Start, the Nurse-Family Partnership, and Core Knowledge; community-based programs such as Books Aloud and Reach Out and Read; and after-school programs like those at the Afterschool Corporation, or TASC, that use a distinctly different form of learning.

The same tired debates about charters, or vouchers, small learning communities, or some newfangled configuration—so-called magical programs that have had less than magical results—have stymied our progress toward real reform.

Billions of federal dollars have been spent on useless programs—creating Safe and Drug-Free Communities, for example, despite the evidence now from three national evaluations that these programs have made communities neither safer nor more drug-free.

To his credit, President Bush has tried to put some of these worthless programs out of business, but most of them have come back because those who have entrenched interests care less about achievement and more about distributing funds to the right districts.

Instead, programs that follow the seven essentials differ fundamentally from traditional programs that have met with little success, “fade-out,” or failure.

Programs that follow the seven essentials are realistic about the costs needed to provide the highest quality of services for children. And by following these seven essentials, we put in place a set of programs that have been replicated time and again, changing the outcomes collectively for millions of children at greatest risk.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Seven Essentials for Changing the Odds


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