June 2015


For decades, school reformers and poverty relief advocates have argued about 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.

With the aid of sound theory, the theory of interdependence and modularity, we can see that both sides are right—and that both are also wrong.

Insights from the theory of interdependence and modularity
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.
  • 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.

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.

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.

Education institutions that are integrating backward
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. 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 paper profiles four of these efforts in:

  • KIPP
  • Community schools
  • Harlem Children’s Zone
  • 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Looking ahead: A flip to a modular world
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.

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  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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

  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher