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Is the White House Committed to Addressing the Role Poverty Plays in the Achievement Gap?

The Department of Education is allocating more money to the Promise Neighborhoods program. Is it enough to make a real difference?

More money is coming to the U.S. Department of Education's year-old Promise Neighborhoods program. Modeled after Geoffrey Canada's successful Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) initiative, the Promise Neighborhoods program awarded $10 million in 2010 to 21 mostly nonprofit and higher education-based applicants. That money funded the planning stage of comprehensive, cradle-through-college-to-career wraparound services with great schools at the center. Now, starting today, the USDOE is launching a second phase of the program and will provide $30 million to a new round of grant applicants and fund the implementation of 4-6 existing projects.

But given that 20 percent of American students live in poverty, will this limited amount of money scale up the interventions fast enough to make a difference for kids?

In a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Duncan acknowledged that "poverty is a factor in education, and we must do everything we can to address it." Indeed, Promise Neighborhoods grants are designed to do exactly what well-respected education reformers say is needed to close the achievement gap—"support communities in their efforts to enlist and coordinate better education, health and safety services, as well as provide young people the opportunity to be successful at the key stages of their lives." So why isn't there more money allocated to the Promise Neighborhoods program?

In comparison, over the past year and a half, the Obama Administration has put more than $4 billion toward its Race to the Top (RTTT) competition, making it the single-largest discretionary program in the history of the USDOE. RTTT doesn't fund wraparound services that help schools counteract the effects of poverty. Instead, the program, which has been the administration's main blueprint for education reform, gives money to states that agree to expand testing, link teacher performance ratings to student achievement, and turn around struggling schools through removing and replacing school staff. Now, imagine how many Promise Neighborhood projects could be funded with the kind of cash Race to the Top received.

True, the success of the HCZ has been debated, and the current Promise Neighborhoods projects are mostly in the planning stage—they're too new to have data on their results yet. But adding more testing and turning around schools are both reforms that haven't exactly been been shown over the long term to close the achievement gap. Over the past decade, No Child Left Behind ramped up the emphasis on testing but only eight percent of black male eighth graders enrolled in schools in urban areas—many of which are poor—currently hit the "proficient" benchmark on reading tests.

With the economy being in such dire straits and politics being what they are these days, it was a fight to obtain even this amount of money for the program. Jim Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, said the Obama Administration is "hoping for and pushing for" additional funding for future expansion of the Promise Neighborhoods program. But he also indicated that the USDOE sees the initiative as more of a demonstration program that will model the best practices, tools, information and resources that can be shared with other organizations, whether they receive a grant from the government or not.

For those nonprofits, universities and, new for this second round, Indian tribes that want to compete for a piece of the $30 million pie, applications are due on September 6, 2011. The Department will select their new grantees on December 31, 2011.

Illustration by Chris Johanson

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