Busting a broken debate: How schools should embrace poverty relief


Jun 11, 2015

All too often, arguments in education are set up as “either-ors.” Knowledge is pitted against skills, memorization against project-based learning, and individual learning is pitted against team-based learning—just to name a few.

These battles in education reform between different philosophical camps are nothing new, but they also all-too-often create false dichotomies, as we’ve explained.

One of the more frustrating battles in education reform has been waged between school reformers and poverty relief advocates over what it takes to close the achievement gap.

Some scholars, like Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom, argue that school-based interventions are the most promising solution. Others, like Richard Rothstein, argue that schools are not the most efficient platform for fighting the effects of poverty and that society could better help low-income students succeed in school by spending scarce dollars on programs that target children’s health and well-being.

In a research paper, titled The Educator’s Dilemma: When and how schools should embrace poverty relief, that we published yesterday, Julia Freeland and I show how with the aid of sound theory—the theory of interdependence and modularity—we can see that this debate is yet another in the long list of false dichotomies in education. Both sides are right—and both are also wrong.

In brief, the theory of interdependence and modularity shows that when an organization must improve to serve more demanding and challenging users who are underserved by existing options and the way the parts within the given system interact are not yet well understood and are therefore unpredictably interdependent, the organization must integrate to control every critical component of the system in order to make any part of the system function. In other words, when driving toward greater performance with moving parts that are unpredictably interdependent, in order to do anything, the organization must do nearly everything.

Conversely, when there are no unpredictable interdependencies in the design of the service’s parts, organizations can use a modular architecture; modular parts fit and work together in well-understood, crisply codified ways and can be developed in independent work groups or by different organizations working at arm’s length.

For schools, this means that to help low-income students who are underserved by existing schooling options succeed academically, they must integrate backward in an interdependent way into the nonacademic realms of low-income children’s lives. This approach heeds the wisdom of both the Thernstroms and Rothstein but in contexts that neither imagined.

The conundrum the U.S. education system faces is that society is asking it 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—and we have constrained our ability to succeed by structuring the school system in a modular, rather than an interdependent, manner.

There is hope though. Over the past decade, several educational institutions serving low-income students have begun to attack the effects of poverty by integrating beyond schools’ traditional academic domain to embrace the sorts of supports—mental health services, pediatric care, and mentoring, to name a few—for which poverty relief advocates have long called.

The new paper profiles four of these efforts in KIPP, community schools, Harlem Children’s Zone, and the SEED schools. Studying these institutions’ different approaches to integrating backward, whether and how they do so to drive academic outcomes, and the level of interdependence in their architecture helps explain their different levels of success in driving student outcomes.

Analyzing their efforts offers two key lessons.

First, merely integrating backward to offer wraparound services with outside providers in a modular fashion is not enough to help low-income students succeed academically; the architecture must be interdependent so that the school can control the balance, mix, and type of services offered to each student.

Second, the success of these models appears to turn on the end goal around which they are integrating; if addressing the achievement gap is not the driving force that causes a school to integrate backward, such that all the services offered are deployed to achieve this goal, then we are unlikely to see dramatic changes in academic results for low-income students.

This leads to a few big insights in the paper. Among them, it sheds light on why President Obama’s effort to create “Promise Neighborhoods” around the country that attempt to borrow from Harlem Children Zone’s integrated service delivery model is unlikely to work. A key reason why is that the majority of the Promise Neighborhood grantees do not appear to be as fully integrated or interdependent as Harlem Children Zone’s programs—which themselves may lack the level of structural interdependence that is necessary at this stage to produce the desired results. The grantees instead operate more like partnership coordinators across various providers in their cities and neighborhoods. If the goal is to boost low-income students’ academic results though, then this approach almost certainly lacks the level of integration required to achieve success given the level of unpredictable interdependencies that still exist among the various services that students need. Not being required to replicate the interdependent architecture and services offered by institutions, like the Promise Academies charter schools within Harlem Children’s Zone, that bolstered academic achievements is, at this stage, problematic.

Although the theory is clear that today schools must integrate backward in an interdependent way in order to drive breakthrough results for the most demanding students, a key criticism is that it is costly for school systems to integrate into nonacademic realms. The theory of interdependence and modularity, however, shows that the costs of not integrating are in fact higher to society; they are just hidden from the financial statements of any one organization. The theory also predicts that, over time, as integrated schools start to succeed in serving low-income students and we gain a clear sense of the causal mechanisms that lead to this success, the education system will modularize, which will in turn create greater efficiencies.

In education, however, we are attempting to short circuit this process by operating in a modular manner, despite the fact that we have not achieved breakthrough results for the highest need populations at scale. It’s time to blow past the broken debate between school reformers and poverty relief advocates by figuring out how schools can integrate backward in an interdependent way into the nonacademic realms of low-income children’s lives to produce the breakthrough results we so sorely need.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.