Federal Opinion

Meeting Students’ Nonacademic Needs

By Lisa Walker & Cheryl Smithgall — July 30, 2010 3 min read
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The Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant competition does not award points to states for improving systems to respond to students’ nonacademic needs. Why, then, did a state that leads the country in student performance, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, opt to make students’ nonacademic needs one of two priorities in its round one Race to the Top application?

With 17 years of education reform experience behind it, Massachusetts said that “raising standards and conducting assessments” was not enough. It has raised overall achievement, but still has substantial achievement gaps on its hands. What else needs to be done? The answer for Massachusetts is to focus on the students—to individualize instruction and meet their nonacademic needs, so they can benefit from instruction.

Research done at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, an independent child- and family-policy research center, helps makes the case for the importance of concerted state-level efforts to support students educationally, particularly vulnerable student populations. We have examined the educational experiences of vulnerable students in Chicago by linking and analyzing administrative data from diverse public-service systems. Vulnerable children and youths are those who experience crises or disruptions in their home lives, possibly accompanied by parental absence or inability to meet their needs. They are abused and neglected, in foster care, homeless, and/or involved with the juvenile-court system.

Our research suggests that the life experiences of vulnerable children can distract their attention from learning, and, in more serious cases, lead to cognitive or physical impairment. This affects their educational trajectories. A pattern of being behind academically and old for grade emerges in 1st grade among vulnerable children. Over time, these students learn more slowly than their peers and show higher rates of serious school disciplinary offenses. They are more likely than other students, starting in 1st grade, to be placed in special education, and less likely to ever exit. If they are classified as having an emotional disturbance, just as many of these students will go to jail as will graduate from high school.

We should be concerned about these vulnerable students not only because they are at high risk of school failure, but also because of their impact on other students.

Our analyses show that vulnerable students make up a small percentage of the total public student population. But because not all vulnerable children become involved with public-service systems, the actual numbers are likely to be higher than public records reveal. Further, they are not distributed evenly across schools in the system, but are concentrated in some neighborhood schools.

From a policy perspective, we should be concerned about these vulnerable students not only because they are at high risk of school failure, but also because of their impact on other students. When several such students are present in a single classroom, they can influence the opportunities of their peers to benefit from instruction. When several are present in every classroom, they may negatively influence school climate and achievement throughout that school. The point is not to blame the children, but to mobilize policy and practice to intervene.

Any comprehensive and systemic agenda for instructional improvement must take students into account if it is to succeed. Currently, service supports for students tend to be fragmented and implemented at the margins of the education system rather than systemically. This explains our interest in Massachusetts. It proposes to build partnerships among all public agencies that serve children in the state. It will establish regional Readiness Centers to serve as hubs for service collaboration and support; develop a Readiness Passport to integrate data concerning a child across agencies; identify and provide the social, emotional, and health supports students and their families need for school readiness and learning; attract strong teachers to low-performing schools and provide them with the tools and training to succeed in these schools; and take responsibility at the state level for building district capacity to support low-achieving schools in improving outcomes.

Improving educational outcomes is hard work and takes time. Massachusetts has made headway, so let’s pay attention to where it’s been and where it says it needs to go next.


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