Customized student support can level the playing field

Programs are powerful tools -- and cost-effective

AS A NEW high school teacher, I paid attention when educators, mayors, and Patriots players gathered before the Joint Committee on Education last month to testify on behalf of high needs students in Massachusetts.

Legislators on Beacon Hill are considering three different proposals to revamp the state’s school funding formula, and Patriots safety Devin McCourty summarized the general opinion of those who testified: “You got to level the playing field.”

McCourty’s call for equity in education is an obvious one, but the path to get there is anything but straightforward.

At the beginning of the hearing, the House chairwoman of committee, Alice Peisch, encouraged speakers to shape their testimony around which interventions are most effective, how much they cost, and how legislators can “ensure that the dollars spent actually benefit those students.”

Massachusetts schools need increased funding, but for those dollars to be impactful, schools must mobilize them in a way that addresses students’ comprehensive needs, including out-of-school factors that can inhibit in-school learning.

For years, the sciences have demonstrated that no two children have the same developmental trajectory. Children develop across all domains, in multiple contexts, over time. Therefore, student support cannot and should not be thought of as a one-size-fits-all solution to narrowing achievement and opportunity gaps.

Throughout my teacher education program, professors emphasized the necessity of providing multiple means of representation and expression in the classroom, because all students learn differently. If educators strive to level the playing field by personalizing in-class instruction, shouldn’t policymakers follow suit by customizing student support outside the classroom?

National research reviews by Child Trends and John Hopkins University, and rigorous evaluations of intervention models such as City Connects and BARR, demonstrate that customization can increase the effectiveness of student support. These interventions implement systems of integrated student support, which are school-based approaches that promote students’ academic success by “developing or securing and coordinating supports that target academic and non-academic barriers to achievement.”

City Connects, the Boston program where I have been doing research, is an evidence-based system that takes advantage of preexisting resources and structures in schools and communities. Within every City Connects school, a master’s level social worker or school counselor serves as an onsite coordinator who leverages relationships with teachers, families, and community agencies to ensure that every student receives an individualized plan that coordinates school-based supports and community resources to address his or her unique constellation of strengths and needs.

One low-income student may be struggling and misbehaving in class. After reviewing his needs, the school coordinator might connect him to after-school tutoring and youth development programs, and refer him for an eye exam since his teacher noticed he was squinting. Meanwhile, another student walks into school battling stress and exhaustion, because her parents are in the midst of a chaotic divorce. Her coordinator may add counseling or social-emotional services to an individualized plan that already includes after-school enrichments.

Similarly, BARR, a program started 20 years ago by a Minnesota high school counselor, takes a holistic approach to student support in high schools. Teacher teams serve student cohorts by holding regular meetings to discuss each student’s strengths, needs, and progress; engaging with families to personalize students’ learning experience; and implementing BARR’s curriculum to foster social-emotional development.

As a result of systematic and customized support, City Connects and BARR have narrowed the achievement gap between low-income students and their more well-off peers, demonstrated higher math and reading scores, and improved student experience and teacher satisfaction.

Systems of integrated student support drive positive student outcomes, and they do so in the cost-effective manner that Rep. Peisch called for.

Economists at Columbia University found that when accounting for both the cost of implementation and the cost of comprehensive services to which children and families get connected – after-school programs, medical care, family services, etc. – City Connects produces $3 in benefits for every $1 invested. Thus, if City Connects were widely implemented, existing investments in children and families could produce triple the benefits.  Consider that potential on the scale of Massachusetts’s FY 2019 budget, in which approximately $8.6 billion was spent on children and families.

In a follow up study, the same economists sought to understand how the cost and benefits of implementing the City Connects system of integrated student support compare to what schools without the intervention already spend on student support to produce current outcomes. They found that the small marginal cost of implementing City Connects within a school yields $24 in benefits for every additional dollar invested over current expenses.

Systems that tailor support to each student promote healthy development, academic success, and positive life trajectories. City Connects students are 50 percent less likely to drop out of high school than their non-intervention peers, which means they are more likely to go to college, be employed, avoid incarceration, and pay taxes.

Meet the Author
If we want students to thrive, then we need to connect them to customized systems of support that address out-of-school barriers to academic success. No amount of differentiated instruction can compensate for the impact that poverty, domestic violence, and stress have on a student’s readiness to learn. I can’t expect my students to leverage a leveled playing field inside the classroom if they struggle to keep their footing the moment they leave.

Elizabeth McKernan is completing her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. She did her student teaching at Milton High School.