We need a holistic approach to improving student outcomes

Focus on both in-school and out-of-school factors is needed to close gaps

IF MASSACHUSETTS IS committed to equal educational opportunity for all, the next phase of education reform must acknowledge that schools cannot close achievement gaps without a systemic approach to addressing the out-of-school disadvantages that impact students’ academic learning. Factors outside of school more powerfully predict outcomes than any factor in schools.

The current education reform debate, as Michael Jonas accurately captured in “A birthday reckoning” in CommonWealth’s winter issue, sets us up for failure. “One side views school reform — testing, accountability, and how schools are structured and operated — as the key to unlocking student potential, while the other says we need to address the many injuries associated with poverty that hold children back,” he writes.

Decades of practice related to meeting children’s comprehensive needs, and evaluations of how and whether student outcomes improved, make it plain that both are necessary: Addressing the impacts of poverty boosts student learning outcomes when implemented well, and improved systems in schools are necessary to effectively address the impacts of out-of-school factors on children’s readiness to learn.

Addressing the impacts of poverty improves learning outcomes

Scientists tell us that it’s not just harder to learn with hunger, unmet medical needs, or trauma. These experiences can also undermine a child’s ability to pay attention, regulate emotions and behaviors, and organize and remember information – the very things required for academic learning, holding a job, and contributing to our shared prosperity.

A recent report by Child Trends looks at the current state of research on “integrated student support,” school-based approaches to promoting academic success by addressing both academic and nonacademic barriers to achievement. Integrated supports intentionally coordinate school- and community-based resources to ensure access to health and mental health care, social services, after school arts and sports programs, in addition to the academic and social-emotional programs offered by the school.

The report finds promising positive effects, including improved academic achievement, attendance, and graduation rates; and improved student engagement, school climate, and student-staff relationships.

When experts gathered at the first national research conference dedicated to better understanding integrated student support, questions about why some approaches are more effective than others figured prominently. Co-sponsored by the American Educational Research Association and our center at the Boston College Lynch School of Education, the conference gave researchers an opportunity to delve deeper into questions of practice.

The sciences of child development and learning, and what we know so far about effective practices, point to the importance of school-based systems that tailor to each student’s needs in order to account for the dynamic impacts of poverty and the other out-of-school factors that can interfere with academic and social-emotional progress.

One example, incubated and studied in the center where I work, is City Connects, a program which builds on existing school- and community-based resources to create a system that provides each and every child in a school with a customized plan of supports and opportunities every year.

City Connects creates a single point of contact, an existing or new school counselor or social worker, who becomes a hub for information and coordination. With the goal of optimizing each child’s healthy development and readiness to learn, the coordinator creates a personalized plan for each student in consultation with those who know the child best: teachers, families, school staff, and if age-appropriate, the child.

A student who struggles to read needs a vision exam, eye glasses, and literacy and social skills supports. A middle schooler who recently moved into a homeless shelter needs family supports, food, clothing, and a chance to pursue his love of chess in an after school program. A first grader living with grandma needs in-class behavior support, and a chance to build self-esteem through sports while a parent is connected to treatment for opioid use. The coordinator, a school staff member, is supported by professional development and a technology system to engage families, coordinate in-school services, build ties to relevant community-based organizations, and follow up to ensure delivery.

Evaluations show that students who get customized supports during elementary school go on to narrow up to two-thirds of academic achievement gaps relative to the Massachusetts state average in 8th grade, and are about half as likely to drop out of high school when compared to their peers.

Percentages of Boston Public Schools students scoring proficient or advanced on MCAS who received City Connects programming at some point during grades K-5 compared with those who did not. Top line shows comparable statewide results.

Drop out rates among 9th and 10th graders in the Boston Public Schools who received City Connects programming compared with those who did not.

In short, a school-based system that has a laser-like focus on addressing the impacts of poverty and other out-of-school factors by driving the right set of resources to the right child at the right time, over time, gets results.


Systems for the whole child, whole school, whole community

 The greatest effects on academic outcomes are seen where schools have a systematic way to marshal the resources of both schools and communities to individualize student supports in order to help each student be ready to learn and achieve.

Schools that successfully address the out-of-school factors that impede learning move student support from the margins into the main operating functions of a school, designating and supporting a staff person, usually a social worker or school counselor, to become a nexus for information and coordination. While many schools piecemeal similar responsibilities among staff members, successful schools unify them, align practices and relevant technology systems, and treat this role as integral to the functioning of the school. Day-to-day the coordinator gets to know students and families, interact with staff, contribute to and align with whole-school initiatives, develop a fuller picture of each child’s needs and interests, and aid in making data-informed decisions about how to focus and leverage limited resources.

Moreover, in schools in Boston, Springfield, and Salem — where individualized comprehensive student supports are increasingly the norm — teachers say that they are better supported in their jobs, principals report that it creates improved school climates, and there are significant gains in student academic and social-emotional outcomes.

Building school-based systems that get comprehensive resources – like food, dental and medical care, access to after school programs, and positive relationships – to the right student at the right time can help children in every community have a meaningful opportunity to reach their potential and contribute to our Commonwealth.

It is also a smart investment. Columbia University economists estimate a societal return on investment for the City Connects approach of $3 for every $1 we already invest in education, health care, after school programs, social services, and more. If effective integrated student support were more widespread, we could triple the beneficial impacts of billions in public and private funds spent on services for children and families.

Acknowledging the impacts of poverty and other out-of-school factors on learning, and recognizing the helpful role school improvement strategies can play in organizing effective and cost-efficient systems of student support, are both necessary if the next phase of education reform is to produce equal educational opportunity for all.

Meet the Author

Massachusetts should avoid the false fault lines of the latest education reform debate. Instead, we can work together — drawing on the sciences of child development and learning, building on the expertise in our schools, and leveraging the resources in our communities – to create a more powerful system of opportunity, and again lead the nation.

Joan Wasser Gish is director of strategic initiatives at the Boston College Lynch School of Education’s Center for Optimized Student Support is an author of “Tipping the scales: How integrating school and community resources can improve student outcomes and the Commonwealth’s future.” She serves on the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care.