RAND Study Affirms the Importance of Ameliorating Family Poverty as a School Reform Strategy

New research from the RAND Corporation confirms that Community Schools—schools with wraparound social, medical, and enrichment services right in the school building—support children’s well being and enhance their engagement and progress at school.

The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler describes RAND’s new study of New York City’s extremely ambitious expansion of full service Community Schools: “The Community Schools program…. seeks to use the school as a community gathering place where children can get counseling, eyeglasses or dental care; where after-school programs help with homework and keep kids engaged; and where parents can get involved with schools, take a class or pick up extra groceries… The program costs about $200 million a year and is funded with federal, state and city dollars… Studies have generally found modestly positive effects. But the idea has never been tried—or evaluated—on the scale found in New York, where some 135,000 students attend a Community School. Over three years, RAND studied 113 New York schools and measured their results against similar schools not in the program. The program found several statistically significant improvements and no areas where things got worse.”

The RAND report itself describes the program in NYC: “There is a growing body of research suggesting that Community School interventions are a promising strategy to improve student outcomes through coordinated services and collaborative leadership practices… The Community School strategy entails an integrated focus on academics, youth development, family support, health and social services and community development with strategic partnerships among the school and local organizations and community members… To date, the largest implementation of the Community School strategy occurred in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 designated $52 million to create 45 Community Schools just after taking office. By the 2018-2019 school year, the New York City Community Schools Initiative… expanded to include more than 200 Community Schools with a total budget of $295 million… The NYC-CS builds on the existing framework of the Community Schools model, which includes the four core evidence-based features—(1) collaborative leadership and practices, (2) family and community engagement, (3) expanded learning time and opportunities, and (4) integrated student supports… The initiative has adapted those features to meet the unique needs of New York City students, families, and communities at a scale that is unprecedented in the United States thus far.”

For 20 years, “school reform” theory has posited that schools can be quickly “turned around” with rapidly rising test scores.  The idea has been that schools can quickly make up for the effects of family and concentrated neighborhood poverty. We now realize such hopes were naive and misguided.

Research to date has found that Community Schools have a positive impact, and the new study in NYC confirms previous findings: “We found that the NYC-CS (NYC-Community School) had a positive impact on students across various outcome measures with some notable exceptions… (W)e found that the NYC-CS had a positive impact on student attendance in all types of schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) and across all three years that outcomes were measured… We also found positive and significant impacts on elementary and middle students’ on-time grade progression in all two years for which we have data and on high school students’ graduation rates in two of the three years.  Our analysis suggests that the NYC-CS led to a reduction in disciplinary incidents for elementary and middle school students but not for high school students. Finally, we found that NYC-CS had a positive impact on math achievement in the third and final year, but the impact estimates on reading achievement in all three years and on math achievement in the first two years were smaller and not statistically significant… Although all Community Schools experienced reductions in chronic absenteeism, we found that Community Schools with higher levels of implementation of mental health programs and services saw a stronger impact on this outcome, compared with community schools with lower levels of mental health implementation… The positive findings of the impact of the NYC-CS suggest that the strategy can be a promising approach to support student success in traditionally disadvantaged communities.”

Researchers add: “Finally, our analysis of program impact over time suggests that the impact of NYC-CS has increased for some outcomes over the three-year period we examined… This finding is consistent with prior research indicating that the Community Schools strategy is particularly impactful after several years of program implementation… Therefore, we encourage program developers and policymakers to think about implementation timing when considering evaluations of their programs in the future.”

Education Law Center attorney and columnist for the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker suggests the new RAND study and related research point to a new and very different strategy for school reform than the kind of test-and-punish accountability that continues to prevail across the states: “A new study of New York City’s Community School program contributes solid evidence that successful education reform entails attending to a broad range of student needs—both academic and non-academic.” “So-called education ‘reformers’ have had a stranglehold on state and federal education policy for almost 20 years. They imposed a myopic focus on student performance on narrow academic outcomes—measuring school and teacher ‘effectiveness’ based on annual standardized test scores in math and English. The solutions to low scores were blaming and firing teachers, and sanctioning schools with reorganization, takeover and/or privatization. These reformers charged that educators who recognized the effect of out-of-school factors on learning were merely using poverty as an excuse. The status quo needed to be disrupted with their brand of innovation. They claimed that their test-based reforms would achieve excellence for every student no matter what their life circumstances.”

Lecker continues: “None of these reforms were based on any evidence they would work. And, after two decades, the reform house of cards is crumbling… It turns out that those folks accused of using poverty as an excuse were right all along. Reforms that do not ignore the factors in students’ lives outside school are the ones that actually work… (W)hen schools can provide resources that respond holistically to student need, they can affect outcomes that matter for students’ lives—staying in school, learning what they need to in each grade, and graduating.  Looking beyond test scores enables schools to serve all children and helps children succeed.”