Harnessing the ‘Third Way’ to improve communities

Education and community health can benefit from new approach

WHEN I WAS in graduate school studying urban planning in the early-2000s, there was a lot of talk about how cities need “good” schools, but surprisingly little discussion or study about how you build community to nurture a good school, and vice versa. Luckily, I had the opportunity to work for a professor engaged in social network research. He encouraged me to read sociologists like Herbert Gans and Mark Granovetter, which is how I developed an appreciation for why both individuals and communities depend on social relationships to thrive. More so than any other institution in our cities today, schools are positioned to nurture these social ties.

Unfortunately, our school improvement strategies rarely take community development principles into account. In fact, the methods we employ to turnaround failing schools often slice the delicate social fabric of our most vulnerable neighborhoods by relying heavily on outside expertise, culture, talent, and governance; by severing the ties between schools and community through school assignment processes; and by failing to engage families and neighbors. Even the full-service schools that work hard to provide wraparound support through community-based organizations often fall short—delivering a patchwork of services that respond to distress in a community is not a substitute for fostering strong social organization.

Detaching community development from education policy has also led to an education reform movement that tacitly accepts high-poverty schools, encouraging educators to find ways to increase student learning in these settings, rather than directly confronting concentrated disadvantage. While cities like Boston with lots of flashy appeal are an exception, for most cities, it is extremely difficult to reverse decades of residential disinvestment when high poverty schools are the norm and nobody is advancing viable strategies to remedy this condition.

With these problems perpetually nagging my sensibilities as a planner, I was particularly excited when Chris Gabrieli and his team at Empower Schools approached MassINC to enlist our help stimulating a conversation around a Third Way. The Third Way builds on Chris’s experience working collaboratively with the Springfield Public Schools to develop an Empowerment Zone, an approach that recognizes disadvantaged communities need external resources and support, but that they also must be a full partner in the effort to bring about lasting change.

At a forum held in Boston on Tuesday, Chris explained that the Third Way terminology implies a strategy that offers a detente between the charter school and public school camps. The Third Way seeks to marry the scale of public schools with the relentless drive of charter school innovators. By working collaboratively to implement Third Way strategies, the hope is that we could finally take a whack at large achievement gaps.

Speakers at the forum offered examples of how this is already happening in small pockets. Springfield Education Association president Tim Collins noted how teachers felt real ownership of the Empowerment Zone strategy because they played a leading role in devising the approach. Komal Bhasin, tapped by Jeff Riley to run the UP Academy Leonard in Lawrence, described how she’s been challenged by working at a much larger scale than the small charters she led previously, but also energized by the ability to have greater impact by serving more students, leveraging district resources that were previously unavailable to her.

These testimonials were a great introduction to a long overdue Third Way conversation. But my dream is that the Third Way movement does not stop at the education border. Changing the paradigm means addressing the vital connection between schools and community health with those who fundamentally understand these dynamics. The conversation Tuesday flirted with this notion. For instance, Denver was thrown out as an example of where Third Way strategies have been applied not just for the lowest performing schools, but also to make good schools great. Along these lines, I could see Gateway City leaders recruiting an innovative education organization to partner in creating an extraordinary neighborhood learning community, which then becomes a strong selling point to prospective homeowners in a residential area targeted for revitalization.

As much as I believe in the neighborhood lens, I also think Gateway Cities should mine opportunity in Third Way strategies when it comes to mustering expertise and money for more systemic innovation, such as building strong early learning systems and reinventing college and career pathways. The new governance and accountability structures Third Way partners are developing to collaborate on the reinvention of a single school or group of schools could serve as useful templates for these larger systems change challenges.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Despite the many reasons to be energized by the possibility of Third Way strategies, the heartfelt positions of those on both sides of the charter debate and the pending ballot question will make it extremely difficult for a productive conversation to take hold. This is where Gateway City leaders can make a real difference. For years, Gateway City educators have lamented that their voices have been underrepresented on policy matters that disproportionately affect their communities. At the forum this week, we heard loudly that they are open to any and all approaches that produce better outcomes for their students. Let’s hope that they continue to speak out and that their actions and words begin to attract the consideration they well deserve.

Ben Forman is the research director at MassINC.