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The Coming Paradigm Shift in Education Reform

Instead of ignoring the role poverty plays in hindering student achievement, the next wave of reformers might tackle it head on.

If you hang out with people in the education world long enough you'll quickly find that bringing up the connection between poverty and poor student achievement can start a heated debate. While researchers, wonks, and politicians tacitly acknowledge the effect of poverty on students, the reform conversation usually focuses on school-centered solutions—modifying teacher tenure or creating common education standards, for example. But a national working group, the “Futures of School Reform,” a three-year-old collaboration of 20 prominent education experts brought together by Harvard's School of Education, says the era of reformers discounting poverty could be coming to an close.

Members Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and S. Paul Reville, Massachusetts secretary of education write on the group's blog that “the future of education reform is simple: American schools won’t achieve their goal of ‘all students at proficiency’ unless they attend to nonschool factors.”

And, they say, we will in fact attend to those nonschool factors,

not because of sudden prosperity and deep public-sector pockets, nor because of a broad shift in public sentiment that activates new moral commitments to the ideal of educating other people’s children, but as an outgrowth of the same hard-nosed, pragmatic, evidence-based orientation that for the moment is supporting the unlikely claim that schools can do it alone.


Reville in particular has first-hand experience. Massachusetts has had the highest student achievement scores in the nation for years, but, despite decades of education reforms, a gap between results for low-income and more well-off students persists. The two argue that the reform crowd's desire for outcomes and evidence, their attention to the bottom line, and changes in “information technology and education-governance institutions will facilitate” this shift. Essentially, rather than attacking the symptoms of the problem, reformers will see it makes more financial and policy sense to, finally, address the root cause. For example, instead of creating draconian anti-truancy policies, focusing on public-health initiatives that “reduce community levels of diabetes, asthma, lead-paint exposure, and obesity” and boost attendance—which then results in academic gains—is a better solution.

The group’s vision of the future connects school and student achievement to child development more broadly construed—and they readily acknowledge this “will require a new conception of education.” Models like the Harlem Children's Zone and President Obama's Promise Neighborhoods initiative are already taking steps in this holistic direction. Of course, the Promise Neighborhoods are just getting going and the jury's still out on whether the Harlem Children's Zone idea works—the project's still young and there are conflicting reports. Harvard economist Roland Fryer has shown that the project's schools have closed the achievement gap on New York City's math exam. But an independent Brookings Institute study showed that HCZ schools performed no better than other charters.

The challenge for those programs has always been scaling them up to work for entire cities and school districts, and Henig and Reville don't go into too much detail about how their paradigm shift in education would actually translate into action. But that said, they're absolutely right that schools can't do it alone and it's critical that America understands how larger problems like poverty limit what schools can do.

photo (cc) via Flickr user psd

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