Report: Addressing Poverty Gap Calls for More Flexible Approaches

Figuring out how to close the "poverty" gap that keeps many low-income students from fully succeeding in school has generated numerous theories over decades. A new research paper suggests that delivering services beyond academic help in an "interdependent, deliberate way" may be the best way to achieve "breakthrough results."

Researchers from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation examine two common two common approaches that have dominated policy making. Some scholars, according to "The Educator's Dilemma: When and How Schools Should Embrace Poverty Relief," have argued for school-based interventions that focus on a "culture of success" to overcome the "predictive power of race and poverty on student outcomes. Others have argued that schools aren't the best platform for fighting off the effects of poverty, and that society would get more benefit from spending program dollars on children's health and well-being.

The problem with either approach, coauthors Michael Horn and Julia Freeland stated, is that they chip away at the problem. The education system in the United States has been asked "to deliver breakthrough academic results for the highest need students, but in a world in which we don’t understand the precise solutions that can drive these outcomes."

One way in which school systems have hampered their success is by taking too "modular" of an approach in offering wraparound services that are delivered by outside providers in the areas of mental and physical health, nutrition and "soft skills." That approach may work when an organization can have total control over every aspect; but hardly ever will it work when there are no "unpredictable interdependencies" that can short-circuit the intent of those programs. As long as schools can't control everything about the services delivered, they'll fail.

What they suggest as an alternative is adding interdependence into the mix so that the school can control "the balance, mix and type of services" offered to each student. "Schools that effectively integrate high levels of nonacademic services into their models in an interdependent way may be unlocking a potent antidote to the achievement gap. These approaches can in turn start to render the age-old schools versus poverty relief debate moot," the report stated.

As evidence, the report offers profiles of four programs that the researchers say they believe are making the right impact:

  • KIPP, a national network of public charter schools that work in underserved communities;
  • "Community schools", a broad description for schools, such as Cincinnati Public Schools and Communities in Schools, that centralize multiple services inside the school building by partnering with local service providers to support students (and sometimes adults);
  • Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit in New York that provides services to children and families in that neighborhood; and
  • The SEED schools, a multi-campus public college preparatory boarding school.

While none of the models used in these examples is perfect, the researchers wrote, all focus on a single goal: addressing the achievement gap. When that ultimate goal isn't driving the "backward integration" of services, "we are unlikely to see dramatic changes in academic results for low-income students."

"We have constrained our ability to close the achievement gap by structuring schools in a siloed, modular manner," said Horn, who is the executive director of education at the institute. "If schools frame their mission solely as the delivery of academic content, they limit their ability to deliver on larger goals of success for students."

The report acknowledged the challenges of adding what some observers might consider "additional services" beyond those traditionally found in schools, considering the obstacles of "tight budgets, limited resources and existing processes." However, the researchers insisted, they foresee a future state in which certain services would be commoditized and delivered in new ways "to free time and resources to deliver nonacademic services and make scale possible and affordable."

The report, which relies heavily on the theory of "interdependence and modularity," emphasizes that "simply layering or cramming more services on top of existing models will not predictably boost outcomes. Instead, in order to meet the academic goals society holds for students, different schools will need to integrate backward to provide nonacademic services in different ways based on the specific communities and students they serve." What's needed, they concluded, is a "modular and flexible vision for the highest need students."

The report is available on the institute's site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.