Don’t stop with broadband—build an infrastructure for supporting students

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May 28, 2020

From major cities to swaths of rural America, long-standing gaps in internet connectivity have never been so stark. Disparities in students’ access to home Wi-Fi have turned the “homework gap” into a far more serious “school” gap. While there is bipartisan consensus that we need to build a better infrastructure for digital learning, Congress and the FCC still have much more to do. In the meantime, everyone from local schools and major telecom companies to late-night hosts are trying to step in to improve students’ access to digital infrastructure.

However, a piece of the connectivity conversation is still sorely missing: High-speed internet is now necessary to drive learning— but it’s by no means sufficient. What’s grabbing fewer headlines is the fact that even if we bring Wi-Fi to every student that currently lacks internet access, students will still need other critical investments. Wi-Fi is but one of many out-of-school factors that shape academic success. 

From broadband to broad supports

As school districts scramble to just locate and stay in touch with students, provide meals, and tackle mental health challenges, the crisis has pulled back the curtain on a wide range of inequalities young people face beyond school. These so-called “non-academic” or “out-of-school” factors have a tremendous bearing on academic readiness and performance. Put simply, poverty erects barriers to learning. Decades of child development research show that addressing these factors is a precursor to better learning outcomes.

This range of out-of-school challenges is inspiring an array of heroic solutions on the part of enterprising superintendents, dedicated educators, and generous volunteers. However, the ad hoc nature of many of these interventions could limit their scope. Triage efforts to feed kids daily or offer hotlines for tech support are critical lifelines. But investing in a sustainable infrastructure for student support could channel that goodwill into long-term change. 

As former Massachusetts commissioner of education Paul Reville recently underscored, education’s most profound paradigm shift in the wake of this crisis may have less to do with broadening distance learning and more to do with broadening student supports. His bold vision for policymakers and education leaders dealing with the fallout of the crisis? “Establish systems of child development and education that meet children where they are … and provide them with what they need, inside and outside of school, in order to be successful.” 

From poverty relief to expanding opportunity

The sorts of approaches Reville is calling for require investments in both new physical infrastructure and tighter-knit, sometimes time-intensive organizational partnerships across education and social services. For example, new data systems will be needed if we have any hope of efficiently streamlining the ways in which we track and organize supports across a byzantine array of child and family-facing agencies all trying to manage the same cases. At the same time, partnership models such as children’s cabinets will be necessary to weave together providers and help them move toward a more child- and family-centric system.

Cross-agency coordination, of course, is not a new proposition. Neither are efforts to shore up access to non-academic supports like pediatric and dental care by coordinating or even collocating services at school buildings. But more recent research suggests that deep connection between these services and schools—rather than mere coordination—is the key to unlocking better student learning outcomes as a result of more supports. That’s because stand-alone support structures disconnected from classrooms, such as point solutions targeting non-academic gains like health and well-being, don’t always translate into better learning mileage.

Instead, models that integrate these “non-academic” interventions with school-based learning may be the key to poverty relief policies that help children thrive rather than merely survive. As Joan Wasser Gish of Boston College has written, “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.” 

The costs of such an integration are far from trivial, especially as schools face budget cuts and look to create efficiencies in cash-strapped systems. While efficiency efforts have their place, integrated student supports reflect a different—but critical—form of innovation that is less about short-term efficiencies and more about long-term gains through better offerings. Although that comes at a higher price, it also comes at a disproportionately higher payoff.  A number of cost-benefit analyses of one integrated student support model—City Connects—suggest that implementation is slightly more expensive than business as usual at the level of the school, but over time, it saves society significant money.

From solidarity to sustainability

A well-intentioned ad hoc approach is not commensurate to a systematized effort where access to support is no longer left to chance. That’s true not just when it comes to results, but to the policies, it will take to make a coherent system of support the rule rather than the exception. In a recent article, Canadian researcher Yvonne Su warned that the rise of social solidarity to mitigate the inequalities that social distancing has laid bare could backfire. The conversation needs to shift from just praising the local “caremongers” who are stepping in to help children and families in these challenging times to constructing robust policy for investing in systems of care. 

This sort of political action is not without precedent. Washington State, for example, created an Office of Integrated Student Support. Ohio is also making significant investments in these supports. More states should follow suit. The steps that many schools and social service providers are taking out of necessity today could mark a promising transition to a holistic model of support come fall. But that hinges on state and federal programs putting the dollars in upfront. Wasser Gish’s team at Boston College and America’s Promise Alliance published a policy brief on the topic last year offering concrete guidance.

Bold policies to double down on connectivity should invite even bolder aims to address fundamental inequalities young people face beyond the classroom. We should be pairing digital infrastructure investments with investments in infrastructures for student support. Doing so requires a different sort of connectivity that has been sorely lacking for decades: integrating across stubborn silos separating student support services and schools.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.