It Makes Sense: A Comprehensive Strategies Model within ESEA to Improve Student Achievement

December 19, 2011
By Roberto Viramontes

The challenge of educating our students must not fall on schools alone; the whole community must be engaged. First Focus Campaign for Children works to create policy incentives for closer and strategic collaboration between schools and community entities. First Focus Campaign for Children believes that Federal policy, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, should continue to prioritize connections between schools and community organizations (non-profits, local government agencies, businesses, health centers, human service centers, youth development programs) that can play a strategic role in fostering academic success. These partnerships will effectively leverage community resources and coordinate support services to meet students’ needs inside and outside the classroom, more comprehensively addressing teaching and learning needs,. While the 2011 Senate reauthorization of ESEA did include Promise Neighborhoods (a definite step in the right direction), more can be done in other parts of ESEA. If we are still willing to stick by school turnaround models within ESEA then why not put more emphasis on a model that comprehensively meets the needs of students? Community schools are a flexible and proven model that offer such an approach, addressing the whole child through an aligned curriculum, standards and assessments; collaboration and shared responsibility between school and community partners; professional development for teachers; differentiated instruction; extended learning and enrichment time; family and community engagement; and comprehensive services for students and their families. We recommend that Congress consider offering districts the option to choose the community schools model, and we recommend that this model be available to all schools to meet the comprehensive needs of all students.

The following is a blog post by our partners at the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that further highlights the value of comprehensive strategies that address children’s needs that affect their achievement.

As policymakers turn their attention to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and other federal educational legislation, they should do so with the goal of supporting comprehensive strategies that address children’s needs both in and out of school that affect their achievement. The clear shortcomings of ESEA’s current incarnation, No Child Left Behind, lie in its overly prescriptive nature and misguided focus on test-based accountability. “Reforms” that use tests to evaluate teachers have failed to improve the educational attainment of the low-income and minority children ESEA targets. They push districts and schools to engage in test prep and system-gaming to the neglect of real learning and of attention to the out-of-school issues that limit children’s readiness to learn.

The bipartisan decision by the leaders of the Senate HELP committee, Senators Harkin (D-IA) and Enzi (R-Wyoming), to return decisions regarding teacher evaluations to states and local districts, where they belong, is a step in the right direction. Abandoning the dysfunctional Adequate Yearly Progress requirement and using state-level NAEP results to compare across states are two others. Giving districts and schools sufficient flexibility to channel ESEA funds to where they are most needed, however, requires more.

The federal government will continue to mislabel schools as under-performing based on test scores, and “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools” remain subject to the same menu of “School Improvement” options. These unproven strategies disrupt already fragile communities by mandating teacher and principal replacement and even school closures. A second group of under-performing schools – “Achievement Gap Schools” –ironically lose preference for Promise Neighborhoods funding.

Schools with the largest and most persistent achievement gaps need more resources for Promise Neighborhoods, not less. Federal measures must promote policies that nurture the development of the whole child. Districts can do this by expanding accountability beyond the basic skills of reading and math to include the many curricular areas that are not easily standardized and quantified: the arts, sciences, history, student physical and emotional well-being, and civic engagement. Establishing partnerships with community organizations can bring new resources to schools and establish schools as community hubs. Providing school-based health services can ameliorate the impact of poor health on educational outcomes. And access to quality out-of-school learning programs reduces achievement gaps between those students who already enjoy such opportunities and lower-income students who lack them.

Organizations and campaigns such as ASCD’s Whole Child initiative, the Forum for Youth Investment’s Ready by 21 initiative, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the National Assembly for School-Based Health Care (NASBC) work in communities across the country to promote comprehensive education strategies. Added federal support could greatly enhance their national impact and make strides in narrowing achievement gaps.