In the most recent issue of Education Next, Mike McShane presents a strong take on the current state of integrated student supports—or wraparound services—in schools in his article “Supporting Students Outside the Classroom.”

His basic conclusion is that despite the undeniable logic of having schools address barriers to learning from students’ lives outside of school, such as homelessness, mental health issues, eyesight, or food insecurity, with the exception of a couple of programs, the results of these “community school” efforts have disappointed in terms of academic progress.

Although City Connects, which began in Boston and serves over 100 schools in six states, boasts stellar research results—the elimination of the achievement gap between English Language Learner students and their counterparts by the 3rd grade, and students that significantly outperform their peers in English and math, for example—the majority of other integrated student support programs, several of which happen to be considerably larger, don’t show significant outcomes outside of mild boosts in attendance and attitudinal improvements.

Why this is has baffled many. As McShane wrote, if a student has poor eyesight and cannot see her teacher or the words on the page of her book, it seems undeniable that eyeglasses will improve her ability to learn. So, what gives?

A research paper that Julia Freeland Fisher and I authored a few years back, The Educator’s Dilemma, sheds some light.

Because no one understands the precise mix of what external supports cause student outcomes to improve, a theory of innovation—Modularity Theory—suggests that schools must integrate to control every critical component of a student’s life that isn’t “good enough” to ensure academic achievement. In other words, when driving toward greater performance with moving parts that are unpredictably interdependent, in order to do anything, schools must do nearly everything.

As McShane wrote presciently, “There may be larger, worthy questions regarding the best avenue for needed supports. Why don’t schools provide these services directly?”

The conundrum the US 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 have constrained our ability to succeed by structuring the school system in a modular, rather than an interdependent, manner.

Most of the integrated student support organizations coordinate the use of external services from third-party community providers that they can’t control and that are removed from the academic work that occurs in the classroom—the definition of modularity.

What the theory shows clearly is that until we have an understanding of causality, modular approaches will not work. Merely coordinating different components will not produce the needed academic breakthroughs society desires. Instead, the architecture must be interdependent so that the school can control the balance, mix, and type of services offered to each student.

Another conclusion we reached is that 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.

From the vantage point of our theory, it appears one of the reasons for City Connect’s success is that its school-based coordinator starts with the teacher and each student’s academic goals. That is, the organization integrates the supports it provides in a tight, interdependent manner with each teacher and around the needs of each individual student in a personalized way—not in a tiered way that treats cohorts of students judged to have similar risk profiles in the same way.

KIPP, a national network of public charter schools dedicated to educating students in underserved communities, presents another interesting case study. Most advocates don’t think of KIPP as an example of a school that provides wraparound supports.

Yet, looking underneath the hood of a KIPP school shows that the school deploys a mix of additional supports for students, particular classroom practices that go beyond traditional academics, and targeted interventions in students’ and their families’ lives. All these efforts are intricately interwoven with each other—the definition of interdependence—such that it’s simply not possible to merely pull one piece of the program out to scale to other schools through a third-party provider.

KIPP undoubtedly doesn’t serve all students well. Some students likely can thrive in a less integrated, interdependent school model with fewer intrusions into their afterschool and home lives. For others, KIPP may still underserve their needs for additional supports and structure that are knit together in a particular fashion, which suggests that some students likely need even more deeply integrated models.

But KIPP also suggests that arms-length coordination with third-party service providers may just not be enough. Continuing to fund expansions of integrated student supports that follow this model without a much deeper integration across the different student support organizations is likely just an exercise in hope against the weight of evidence.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.