Addressing Poverty: The Non-Reform Reform Model for Urban Schools

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 18, 2016

If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .

There have been a lot of reform efforts aimed at improving student achievement in urban schools. Over the past twenty years, administrators, policymakers, and philanthropists have tried idea after idea to fix what ails schools in high poverty neighborhoods. Depending on the trend and collective wisdom of the day, urban districts have seen the closure of failing schools, the replacement of teachers and principals, the rigorous the implementation of teacher evaluation policies, the increase in the number and importance of standardized tests administered each year, and the restructuring of district governance to incorporate vouchers, charters, and privatization.

Photo courtesy of the Institute For Urban Education

Photo courtesy of the Institute For Urban Education

The majority of these efforts threatened negative consequences for failure, from embarrassment to reconstitution, and rewards for success, from recognition to additional funds. Still, we have seen scant improvement by most measures. Test scores are stagnant, our position in the global hierarchy has changed little, and graduation rates in many cities hover below 50%. While giving to education charities was up 3.2% to $54.6 billion in 2015, and federal spending has risen 64% under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), there has been frustratingly little progress in the schools that are most at risk. The reason for this stagnation is that these efforts are merely reactive attempts to compensate for the actual problem, systemic, multigenerational poverty.

School Reform That Leaves the School Alone

Harvard University recently announced a plan to pilot a revolutionary approach to improving schools by addressing the poverty that puts many urban students at a disadvantage before they step foot in a classroom. The initiative, By All Means: Redesigning Education to Restore Opportunity, looks to the factors outside, rather than inside schools, that stand between poor students and academic success. The pilot will work with superintendents and mayors in six cities across the country, and seeks to, “address the current failures of our education system, especially its limited efficacy in reducing social mobility”.

Rather than look to the policies that attempt to use instruction to catch students up in the context of the social and economic effects of poverty, this program will attempt to address the effects of poverty that impact students outside of the classroom. The program uses what its founders call a, “new engine” for child and youth development, which integrates an array of solutions that seek to alleviate the consequences of poverty through a focus on health and social services and out-of-school opportunities.

No matter how much schools improve, children need more than academic supports to thrive; they must also be physically and emotionally healthy to be ready to learn each and every day. In this expanded model, medical, mental health, and human services must be comprehensive, braided with educational services and designed to support students so they are able to supply their best effort when in school.

Turning Around the Kids, not the School

The choice to focus on ameliorating the effects of poverty turns the assumptions of traditional school reform on its head. The reforms mentioned above assume that something is inherently wrong with the school system, the principal, the curriculum, or the teacher. While I don’t mean to suggest that the majority of large districts have achieved mastery of these areas, it does seem clear that after two decades of focus on teaching, learning, accountability, and governance, this approach has come up lacking.

Harvard’s approach prioritizes mental health and physical well-being at the same level as quality instruction. It explores a host of community factors affecting children’s lives instead of solely concentrating on what’s going on inside the classroom. Protection from traumatic events, poverty, and violence are prerequisite conditions to a student’s ability to focus and achieve in school. By all Means supports learners with mental health and behavioral struggles and works to manage these obstacles so students are healthy and ready to learn.

A similarly focused initiative in New York, Newark, and Washington DC called Turnaround for Children has seen positive results by laying a core foundation that allows for academic growth. More than 90 percent of students with behavioral needs in these schools get connected to appropriate services within three weeks. This is a departure from the norm; in most schools, psychologists, social workers, healthcare professionals, and counselors are in short supply. Research indicates that only about 20 percent of children or adolescents who need mental health care receive it, with unmet need greatest among minorities.

The By all Means program is currently under development in Oakland, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Providence, Rhode Island; and Salem, Somerville, and Newton, Massachusetts and will look slightly different in each site. School and city leaders are expected to take an entrepreneurial approach to address the issues that are specific to their localities. While it will be years before research documents the success or failure of these efforts, it seems that counseling and healthcare, unlike testing and turnarounds, will have an immediate and positive community impact, if not an educational one.


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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.