The din surrounding education reform often fails to recognize forces that significantly affect student achievement, but happen outside the classroom. You can strengthen teacher quality, overhaul curricula or throw open the doors to school choice, yet research shows that if kids are frightened, hungry or depressed, they cannot learn as well.
These are austere times, so understanding that common-sense reality is not enough. Legislators want data to justify any funding decision. Into the breach wades Child Trends, a non-partisan nonprofit that for 30 years has been evaluating research on what works for kids.
Last week, the Bethesda, Md., -based think tank released a report measuring the effects of so-called “integrated student supports” — the services that link students to mental health counseling, tutoring, food banks and the like. Such programs are widespread, serving more than 1.5 million young people in nearly 3,000 schools across the country.
The largest, Communities in Schools, operates in more than 2,000 buildings, including Seattle’s.
So do these programs actually improve achievement?
Child Trends’ researchers say yes, particularly with regard to math scores and better attendance (through programs like Diplomas Now at Aki Kurose Middle School). The data is mixed on reading. But overall returns on investment ranged from $4 to $15 for every dollar spent (though some programs can take a decade to show effects).
Money was much on the minds of the Child Trends researchers. They note, for example, that the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students has grown over the past decade — so much that it now dwarfs disparities between black and white students. Supports like those provided by Communities in Schools address such effects enough that they should be included in funding discussions around education reform, the researchers wrote.
“Explanations as to why one child succeeds educationally while another fails partly lie in the individual abilities, knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and skills students have or develop,” they said. “However, this is by no means the complete set of factors … the contexts in which children grow up have strong influences on their development and academic success.”