Decades of Academic Research Support Community Schools Strategy in New York City’s Renewal Schools

So-called “corporate” school reform has been defined by setting standards and testing students to see if they have met the standards.  Rewards and punishments follow for the teachers and schools said to have produced these results. The assumption has been that a school is a closed box that can turn around the lives of the enrolled students—all apart from the fact that students spend only six or seven hours of the day at school. Corporate school reformers said they would disrupt the stasis they thought defined bureaucratic public schools by offering rewards and punishments to motivate teachers to work harder and smarter. Many of these so-called education reformers came from the business schools and employed competition as their primary motivator. And the politicians who followed their advice brought us test score targets to be met and a promise quickly to make every child a winner.

We were warned in advance that this wouldn’t work as we planned.  Dr. James Comer at the Yale School Development Program created a multifaceted program to help schools support the most vulnerable children and to engage educators, parents and the community in this process of building trust and strong relationships.  In 1997, in his book Waiting for a Miracle, Comer described the results. While his staff and outside evaluators believed that the Comer schools had made important progress in improving the children’s education, Comer wrote: “Our best approximation suggests that after three years about a third of the schools make significant social and academic improvement, a third show a modest improvement which is often difficult to sustain, and a third show no gain.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 72) The Comer program suggested that seven years was a more realistic timeline to look for real school improvement.

One of the most artificial aspects of corporate school reform was the setting of achievement test targets and short timelines as a motivator.  No Child Left Behind established that all American children in public schools would be proficient by 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. As we moved closer to 2014, everybody began to realize that making all schools produce high scores wasn’t working.  When it became apparent that almost all American schools would fall behind in raising what was called each student’s Adequate Yearly Progress, Arne Duncan, then Secretary of Education, began issuing No Child Left Behind Waivers to states which would promise to meet his particular school reform priorities in exchange for his willingness not to declare that state’s schools “failing.”

Slowly it began to be admitted that students’ lives outside school affect their test scores, and that schools alone cannot solve the serious challenges resulting from concentrated poverty.  In 2012, Diane Ravitch described achievement gaps as a complex challenge in children’s lives—not merely the result of the quality of a particular school: “Such gaps exist wherever there is inequality, not only in this country, but internationally.  In every country, the students from the most advantaged families have higher test scores on average than students from the least advantaged families.” (Reign of Error, p. 57)

Last year, the Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz described the problems of demanding ever-rising test scores from every school on the same prescribed timeline: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Here we are in 2019, when many educators have realized that something has to be done at school to address the needs of children living in communities where poverty is concentrated. A broad-based movement to make schools a social service and healthcare center for families and to add preschool and after school and summer programs at school has emerged.  These are called Community Schools. Here is how the Children’s Aid Society in New York City defines a Community School: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities.  Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: A strong core instructional program… expanded learning opportunities… and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” (Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action, p. 1)

This week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a new piece by the National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel pleading with the New York City Schools not to give up on NYC’s 2014 expansion of Community Schools. When he made Community Schools the centerpiece of his Renewal Program for the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested he would improve the schools rather than following his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s strategy of shutting down such schools.

But lately De Blasio is being criticized because the school turnarounds have not been quick enough.  In October, Eliza Shapiro, writing for the NY Times, suggested, “New York knew some schools in its $773 million plan were doomed. They kept children in them anyway.” The New York Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, responded by affirming  De Blasio’s original goal: “Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a bold—and correct—investment in 94 of New York City’s most underserved schools.  Rather than giving up on these students and schools, the city invested in them… The Renewal graduation rate has climbed from 52 to 66 percent.  Attendance has increased from 84 percent to 89 percent.  Chronic absenteeism has fallen from 47 to 36 percent.  Suspensions have decreased by 54 percent… While we have not yet decided the future of the Renewal initiative, we will never stop investing in the kinds of programs that have allowed us to improve so many schools that would have closed under prior administrations.”

In their new piece, New York City Offers Some Unpleasant Truths about School Improvement, Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel defend Mayor de Blasio’s plan for Community Schools, although they point out that the Renewal School program underestimated the amount of time it takes to build the kind of trust and relationships James Comer wrote about and to address the challenges poverty poses for children: “The Renewal program—which also supports schools in the city’s larger Community Schools Initiative (CSI)—assists schools by increasing supports, training, and resources for students and teachers. The CSI increases family and community engagement and creates collaborative structures and practices…. These approaches—extended learning time, family and community engagement, collaborative leadership, and integrated student supports—are fundamental to community schools models and informed by decades of research showing that out-of-school factors have an overwhelming influence on student outcomes.  In turning to this evidence-based approach, the mayor should be applauded.”

Welner and Daniel recognize that a three year timeline isn’t enough: “Fortunately, with the initial (three-year) results now in, we do see encouraging improvements… Yet as is the case with all major reform efforts, there have also been challenges that must be addressed….  For example, these schools have been hampered by high levels of principal turnover.  Further, a quarter of the initial Renewal schools have been closed for not meeting the program’s ambitious goals.”

The National Education Policy Center’s purpose is to bring the peer-reviewed research of the academy to bear on the policy that shapes public schools.  Welner and Daniel starkly assess the impact of child poverty on school achievement and the optimal ways schools can address these challenges:

“Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities.

“Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important—and can certainly be crucial in the lives of some students—policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….

“But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.

“We need to acknowledge these two realities—seemingly in tension: (1) that education reforms can be very helpful, if they’re the right ones and if we’re patient and committed; but (2) we as a society are deceiving ourselves if we think we’ll transform educational outcomes without addressing economic inequality.”

Finally, Welner and Daniel recommend that in New York City, “De Blasio should remain committed to the Renewal program—a program based on decades of rigorous research and already showing meaningful benefits for underserved students… When we look across the nation and see other leaders chasing silver bullets, or ignoring educational inequity altogether, we should rejoice that New York and its mayor are engaged in the demanding yet essential work of partnering with communities to address basic needs….”

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