Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Education, By All Means

Launching a community-wide effort to break down the barriers to success for low-income students
Six city mayors shown on stage at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Even as various reform efforts have sought to address the inequities of educational outcomes in the United States — leading to some improvements in specific areas — deep and persistent gaps in opportunity and achievement remain.

Can schools alone close those gaps? The blunt answer, according to Professor Paul Reville and the Education Redesign Lab, is no. So what’s next? What are the resources and partnerships schools need to make sure that every child has a chance to succeed?

In teaming up with superintendents and mayors from six cities (Louisville, Kentucky; Oakland, California; Providence, Rhode Island; and Newton, Salem, and Somerville, Massachusetts), the Education Redesign Lab is looking for specific, research-based answers to those questions. The multi-year initiative, called By All Means: Redesigning Education to Restore Opportunity, aims to create comprehensive and linked systems for learning and wellbeing that help eliminate what Reville calls the “iron-law” connection between socioeconomic status and achievement.

This week, By All Means hosted the first of a planned series of national convenings to dig into these unrelenting inequities and share strategies to address them. Mayors from the six cities, along with education leaders from across the country, came together to start the process of rethinking local systems to better serve all students.

Here, Usable Knowledge provides a series of snapshots from their conversations, revealing the complexity of educational inequality at the local level.

Schools Can Play a Role . . .

One thing is clear: Schools can implement certain research-based initiatives to help even the most disadvantaged students succeed.

Five specific whole-school practices have been shown to boost test scores and increase graduation rates, according to Professor Roland Fryer. One strand of his research, which has sought to replicate effective charter-school practices in public school contexts, has shown that when a school increases instructional time, has excellent teachers and administrators, and instills data-driven instruction, small-group tutoring, and a culture of high expectations, it can eliminate gaps in math performance.

Incorporating noncognitive skills into the school day can give students their own tools for lifelong success. Many low-income children, who are under significant stress, don’t develop the self-regulation and planning skills needed for academic achievement. Turnaround for Children is working to help educators build those social-emotional skills into curricula from elementary school through high school, said CEO Pamela Cantor.

Schools can also provide parents with the resources they need to be involved. Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Jennings Public Schools in Missouri, cited a program that put washers and dryers and a food bank into Jennings schools in order to help families with their basic needs — and to make it easier for them to attend PTO meetings.

Finally, schools can set students on a road to success after they graduate. Richard Barth, the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, described an effective initiative at KIPP charter schools to guide students to apply to more “target” colleges where they will thrive academically, be supported socially, and receive the necessary financial aid.

But Communities Must Collaborate . . .

But as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf explained, no single K-12 system can close the achievement gap on its own.

To give every child a real chance at the social freedom and economic mobility promised by the American dream, schools have to partner with their communities. In the words of Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, “we have to understand community as a complex ecosystem” — one where the parts work together to achieve common goals. Curtatone cited Shape Up Somerville as a successful city initiative that achieved an ambitious goal — reducing childhood obesity — by partnering with all aspects of the community, including schools, local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and transportation.

To start seeding those connections, “build off of what you have,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. If a city has great after-school programs, for instance, then a school district looking for summer-learning options can begin by reaching out to those organizations to put together summer programs.

Notably, organizations don’t have to be education-focused to be involved. Businesses should recognize that success in their local schools will benefit them, eventually giving them better-trained employees or a populace with the resources to spend more, said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. Museums can bring students in for field trips. Business leaders can set up youth job opportunities for teenagers. And any adult in the community can donate her time to tutor children. Mayors need to make the case to their communities that these connections matter.

Cities also need to recognize that education doesn’t end with the school day, or even at graduation. Working with families is the “next frontier in education,” said Newton Mayor Setti Warren.

In Jennings, for example, the town begins working with families from birth so that children enter school with the non-cognitive and academic tools to succeed. And the Providence Talks initiative is working to close the “word gap” that separates kindergarteners from low- and high-income families by empowering parents to talk more with their young children and take an active role in those children’s education from the start.

Finally, cities need to build human capital to maintain these partnerships. In order to make sure that everyone is working toward the same goal, “we have to have people that are responsible for the connections themselves, [people who] own the network” between schools and their communities, said Elorza.

And Expect to Meet Opposition

This type of a full-scale effort — whether it’s reforming education within schools or concentrating an entire community on its children’s wellbeing — will have to overcome opposition. These initiatives will be big, complicated, a departure from "business as usual," and potentially expensive, at least in the short term.

To gain trust, reformers need to communicate how big this problem is — and how much these reforms could pay off in the long run. Citing the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, Fischer said that some communities are paying tens of thousands of dollars to incarcerate young men and women who entered school in kindergarten already at a social, economic, and academic disadvantage. Paying for universal pre-K is much less expensive than paying for prison, he said, and reformers have to make that case.

“We have to communicate the why” to education reforms, said Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. “We have to explain that students never get a second change to be in third grade.”

Reformers also need to engage constituents early in the process, and explain how educational change could eventually make their lives and their jobs easier, said Elorza.

Eventually, gaining support comes down to the individual will of every community member. “This problem is not insurmountable,” said Fryer; though he said that political will is not growing fast enough. “The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we really want to solve this problem?’” And “the question to voters is, ‘Will we hold people in office accountable? Are we willing to do what we should do for kids who are not ours and who may not look like ours?’”

Additional Resources


Get Usable Knowledge — Delivered
Our free monthly newsletter sends you tips, tools, and ideas from research and practice leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Sign up now.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles