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School Reform and Social Policy: A Systemic Approach to School Improvement

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Lance Fusarelli, professor and director of graduate programs for the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at N.C. State University. 

Several years ago, when I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper suggesting that school reforms alone were insufficient to eliminate achievement gaps, to systemically improve education, and to elevate the U.S. educational system into the top-tier in the world. I received a B on the paper, with the comment that improving education requires school reform, not social reform. Now, it wasn't the B that bothered me (well, that's not true—it did and still does); truthfully, I probably didn't deserve half the A's I received either. But what really bothered me is that it clearly demonstrated the presence of those silos I wrote about in my previous blog.

No institution has undergone more reform than public education. We've tried everything—from Dewey and progressive education to high-stakes testing and accountability. One would think, after a century of school reform, that we would have figured out how to get it right. While some reforms have improved schooling, persistent achievement gaps remain, despite dramatic investments in education. The findings of the Coleman Report in 1966 still remain largely true today.

If schooling in the U.S. has proven stubbornly resistant to improvement, it's reasonable to ask whether we aren't pursuing the wrong solutions to the wrong problems. A few years ago, I wrote an article oddly titled "School Reform in a Vacuum," which asserted school reform in and of itself would have only a modest impact on school improvement and argued for a more systemic approach to school improvement through reforms in social policy (modest reforms, not radical ones). The response? Crickets. I've suggested this to a few policy wonks and Senate staff and largely gotten the same response—silence and a "We can't do that" or "We don't operate that way."

Why? Much like the school-choice silos discussed in my previous post, rigid, well-delineated silos exist between school reformers and those working to reform health and social-welfare policies. Much like a rigid Weberian bureaucracy, each policy area has carved out its niche—with supporting bureaucratic structures at the federal, state, and local levels. With entrenched bureaucratic processes, rules, regulations, and well-established cultural norms, these "specialists" working within each silo work within their domain of responsibility. "Stick to your knitting" accurately describes this type of behavior, which, as organizational theorists suggest, is perfectly rational within its prescribed boundaries.

The result? The creation of many well-intentioned agencies filled with policy makers focused on narrowly defined issues who try to solve complex, interdependent problems but who don't talk to or engage in any meaningful way with anyone outside their silo. A few years ago, Matt Lauer interviewed then-President Obama about how best to improve America's schools. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post commented that the usual school-based solutions were discussed but the elephant in room—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, health insecurity, etc., was completely absent from the conversation.

This leads me to ask, "Are we asking the right questions?" Children are only in school about a third of the day (excluding before and after school activities). Is it reasonable to assume that what occurs in the other two-thirds of a child's day impacts their learning? If not—if it doesn't matter at all—then, indeed, we can systemically improve schooling solely through school-based reforms.

But if it does matter, if it is reasonable to expect that demographics, economic changes, and societal factors exert an impact on educational attainment and on the life chances of children, then let's look at the many dimensions of this complex issue. A few years ago, I examined national and international data on child wellbeing over the past three decades and related research; some trends became clear:

  • The U.S. has one of the highest rates of children living in poverty of any advanced, industrialized nation, a disproportionate amount of whom are children of color
  • Children growing up in poverty are more likely to dropout, work and earn less over their lifetime, and are more likely to receive public assistance
  • The U.S. has comparatively high rates of infant mortality and ranks near the bottom in low birth rates—which exerts a profound impact on child development. On the other hand, we also have one of the highest rates of childhood obesity
  • Family life has changed, with the percentage of children living in a married-couple family the lowest in 6 generations; meanwhile, the percentage of children born out of wedlock has increased dramatically. Divorce and the rise of single heads of households remain the best predictors of poverty
  • Children of color living in poverty have less access to high-quality health care, particularly in rural areas
  • People of color have significantly less access to high-quality early childhood programs and childcare
  • Disparities in educational achievement by race and class appear even before kindergarten

Recent advances in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and neurobiology demonstrate that poverty and its attendant stressors exert a powerful influence on shaping brain architecture and neurochemistry. The capacity for change in neural circuitry is highest earlier in life and decreases over time because of the brain's plasticity in the early years of a child's life. Early intervention is more efficient and cost effective.

Effective school reform requires reforms in social policy as well. This requires a mix of courageous political leadership and common sense. Here are some suggestions that, in the long term, when combined with diligent school reform efforts, may reduce educational inequities and systemically improve schooling for all children:

  • Greater investment in early childhood intervention programs, including Early Head Start
  • Expansion of affordable childcare through tax credits—anyone with young children knows that annual childcare costs can easily exceed that of college tuition
  • Elimination of the marriage penalty
  • Strengthening systems of child support—which currently suffer from bureaucratic inefficiency and lax enforcement
  • Expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credits for low-income families
  • Expansion of programs such as the Recovery Zone Economic Development Bond program and the Small Business Administration's Community Express Loan program that provide opportunities for residents of economically distressed areas
  • Greater investment in creating community health and education zones, similar to the Harlem Children's Zone or the underfunded Promise Neighborhoods initiated under President Obama

Liberals argue we don't spend enough on social welfare or on schooling in the U.S.; conservatives argue we spend too much. Both are wrong. As Kimberly Morgan demonstrated in Foreign Affairs, we spend enough—with net social spending comparable to the richest nations in the European Union—but we spend it on the wrong reforms and spread it widely across income groups. We invest heavily in education but we invest it poorly. We spend far too much on remediation and too little on early intervention, despite research that conclusively demonstrates remediation is one of the least cost-effective strategies for reform. None of the modest proposals discussed above require a massive infusion of federal funds but rather a reallocation of existing domestic-spending priorities. This is where vision, courage, and common sense are needed.

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every complex problem, there is a simple solution, and it's always wrong. If policy makers are serious about systemically improving schooling for all children, they must think holistically—go beyond the schoolhouse doors, and adopt multilayered, interconnected reforms that break down the immense, bureaucratic silos that they have constructed.

—Lance Fusarelli

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