New research: A better school structure to close gaps


Jun 9, 2015

If you’re looking for a summer read that helps you step back from day-to-day edu-debates, pick up Robert Putnam’s latest book. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis gives a sprawling portrait of the growing opportunity gaps between rich and poor students in America. Through a series of first-hand, intimate interviews with children and families across the country, Putnam goes beyond repeating the disparities in K–12 and postsecondary academic outcomes that education reformers can recite in their sleep; he zooms out to illustrate all of the nonacademic disparities and differences that shape young people’s divergent paths toward adulthood and, for some, reinforce stubborn cycles of intergenerational poverty.

In the book’s final chapter, Putnam offers a range of relatively traditional policy solutions that could combat these growing gaps. These consist of mostly macro recommendations for how we might think about alleviating the wide-ranging effects that poverty inflicts on children. In many ways, the conclusion reads less as a call to particular action, however, than as a call for a cultural shift toward greater empathy—or as he puts it, “a commitment to invest in other people’s children.”

Some readers are now contemplating how to go about tackling these very real challenges. Last week, after interviewing Putnam, Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute considered concrete school-based solutions to the complex gaps that Our Kids outlines. He explored three courses of action—school integration, school choice, and new school models with higher levels of service and support—which, he is quick to point out, admittedly cater to different poles of the political spectrum.

In a paper coming out later this week, Michael Horn and I also weigh in on how we think schools can address some of these chronic challenges. In The Educator’s Dilemma: When and how schools should embrace poverty relief, we argue that the challenge of addressing the achievement gap is as much structural as it is political. If schools are to mitigate the predictive power of poverty on student outcomes, they must restructure themselves to be more than just purveyors of academics. To borrow a business term, they must “integrate backward” beyond just core academic delivery to design and distribute a range of nonacademic supports. Importantly, we do not posit that offering simply more services to low-income students or families can predictably drive outcomes. Rather, we explain that schools need to design and deliver services in an interdependent manner that is tightly in sync with their academic side of the house, such that they are able to constantly innovate around and tweak the types and dosages of supports that they provide.

We base these conclusions on decades of research by Clay Christensen and his colleagues on how organizations must structure themselves in order to yield breakthrough performance. When a given product is falling short on performance, companies will integrate backward in order to have far greater control over the design and delivery of their products. For centuries, companies have been driven to integrate activities that were their original core business in order to reach new heights of performance and distribution.

Gustavus Franklin Swift’s approach to marketing and selling beef, for example, reflected his willingness to integrate beyond the late 19th-century’s model of raising, butchering, and selling beef on an exclusively local basis. At that time, because there was no technology for transporting meat long distances, the beef industry lacked significant economies of scale. Swift saw an opportunity to integrate backward and forward: he centralized butchering in Kansas City, which meant he could process beef at a very low cost. Then Swift designed the world’s first ice-cooled railcars. He even made and sold ice cabinets to retail shops throughout the Midwest and Northeast so that once the beef arrived, it would stay fresh. One key to Swift’s ability to market beef in far flung regions was the ability to assure customers that the beef was still safe to consume, given that it had traveled all the way from the stockyards of Chicago to the market. Because a clear understanding of refrigeration and meatpacking processes did not exist at the time, Swift had to control the entire process to ensure that the temperature and storage practices remained sound. In other words, Swift had to expand beyond his so-called core competencies and introduce new, interdependent lines of business in order to revolutionize the beef industry.

Schools aiming to drive performance can learn from this strategy of erecting interdependent organizational structures in order to serve their demanding customers. Many schools, particularly those serving low-income and minority students, may find themselves in a similar “not good enough” position. In an effort to serve students who, on average, perform behind their higher income peers, these schools are serving some of the most “demanding” students in the education system—students whom schools that merely provide academic services and only a few add-on services may not be set up to serve. Schools may need to integrate far beyond their core competency—delivering academics—to produce dramatically better results.

There are already some encouraging experiments in doing just that. We highlight four such efforts—KIPP, community schools, Harlem Children’s Zone, and the SEED schools. These are all well-known and promising approaches in the education reform space. We analyze these approaches, however, through the fresh lens of our theory to understand whether and how they are structured in a manner to maximize their ability to deliver nonacademic supports that in turn drive academic performance.

Putnam’s in-depth look at the fraying edges of equality of opportunity presents urgent and complex challenges facing the country. We hope that this paper can be a contribution to those seeking solutions to profound gaps that persist today among America’s kids.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.