When a City Tackles the Achievement Gap

Mapping a city-wide approach to education reform that aligns resources to support all kids

November 14, 2017
Graphic of a road connecting cityscapes

Political leaders at all levels, in all parties, continually pledge to expand opportunity and close gaps caused by poverty and inequality. But what would it take to really deliver on those promises?

One approach is to put children at the center of these aspirations and to align community services and resources to give every child an equal chance to succeed through school and into adulthood. In an initiative now being piloted in six cities across the country, communities are working to redesign their municipal systems and form new citywide partnerships so that everyone — elected officials, nonprofit leaders, healthcare professionals, social workers, parents, business owners, and educators — takes on the responsibility of supporting children and closing the opportunity gap.

The initiative — now in its second year, and spearheaded by former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville — is called By All Means, a project of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It involves the mayors, school superintendents, and other civic and municipal leaders from Louisville, Kentucky; Oakland, California; Providence, Rhode Island; and Newton, Salem, and Somerville, Massachusetts.

Despite decades of one-off interventions and reforms, such as improved curriculum, greater choice and accountability, or teacher training, significant achievement gaps still exist across the country between white and black students, and wealthy and poor students.  

Here, we lay out how this whole-city approach can look in practice — and what types of partnerships and programs can give disadvantaged children the same chance to reach their academic, professional, and social-emotional potential as more-advantaged peers. We focus on the initiatives in Salem, Massachusetts, as one example of the systems-level re-envisioning that cities are doing.

Why We Need to Rethink Education Reform

Education reform efforts have been largely focused on one-off interventions, such as improved curriculum, greater choice and accountability, or teacher training. These programs are necessary to improving learning — but they are “clearly insufficient to achieving the goal of preparing all children to be successful,” as Reville, currently a professor and director of the Education Redesign Lab, wrote recently in The Washington Post. Despite decades of widespread implementation of such reforms, significant achievement gaps still exist across the country between white and black students, and wealthy and poor students.  

By All Means is approaching reform differently. It’s emphasizing that cities need to partner with schools for children to succeed — because no matter how well or how much children learn inside of school, they still have widely disparate experiences outside of it, which contribute to or inhibit their learning.

With these out-of-school disparities in mind, By All Means is building a national cohort of political, educational, business, and community leaders who are mobilizing to lower administrative barriers, find funding, and outlast the inevitable political transitions to create sustainable, city-wide "systems of opportunity," as Reville describes it. “We’re putting education on the front burner of a city’s priorities,” he says.

"If a child is coming to school hungry or is homeless, he cannot learn, no matter how great that teacher may be,” says Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “We all play an integral role in making sure our kids are prepared for the future.”

A Case Study: Salem, MA

Growing initiatives in Salem exemplify what this work involves.

The demographics of Salem, located 16 miles north of Boston, mirror those of many other small cities across the nation. Residents include many recent immigrants as well as families who have lived there for generations. Salem Public Schools has about 3,800 students. 50 percent of its student population is white, 37 percent is Latino (mostly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), and 6 percent is black. 29 percent of students speak a first language other than English, and 44 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged. On standardized tests, white students tend to perform significantly higher than black and Latino students.

With the district classified as a Level 4 turnaround by Massachusetts in 2011, Salem has faced broad challenges. In 2013-14, according to the United Way, "almost 60 percent of the student population came from economically disadvantaged homes, and nearly 70 percent were considered high needs students — an inequity that made it exceptionally difficult for many children to thrive." Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Margarita Ruiz decided to prioritize bridging the divide between schools and out-of-school supports, aiming to give all students equitable resources and opportunities. “Out of school factors have a huge impact on student achievement in school and on their futures. If a child is coming to school hungry or is homeless, he cannot learn, no matter how great that teacher may be,” says Driscoll. “We all play an integral role in making sure our kids are prepared for the future.”

Systemwide Reforms that Work

1. Connecting Sectors Across the City

To start that work, Salem — like the other five cities — has created a “children’s cabinet,” which brings city leaders together to create new connections and a sense of shared accountability. Driscoll and Ruiz meet bimonthly with the head of Salem’s health and social services department and leaders from the schools, the teachers union, community organizations, and foundations to set goals and review their progress.

At these meetings, innovative partnerships from different sectors of the city are formed, allowing the leaders to more acutely target what Salem’s children need. They’re then able to approach funders and service providers with a clearer view of what would be most beneficial. For example, the North Shore Medical Center began funding K-12 supports through its Community Benefits program, an agreement that sprung from these conversations. And the United Way is providing multifaceted support to various community leadership programs that aim to close the achievement gap. 

A new citywide initiative called Our Salem, Our Kids is asking local businesses, health care professionals, and youth development organizations to partner with the school to provide children with the supports they’re missing. 

2. Individualizing Student Success

To help give children equal resources, Salem has partnered with City Connects, an organization that isolates the out-of-school factors that limit learning. City Connects is providing every Salem child in kindergarten through eighth grade with an individualized student success plan that details her academic and social-emotional needs: her reading level, how she spends her summers, if she has a pediatrician, etc. City Connects is also retraining Salem’s school adjustment counselors to evaluate children similarly in the future, making the work more cost-efficent and sustainable over time.

3. Coordinating Services

Based on those individual student plans, Salem is connecting families to local resources that can provide their children with the supports they’re missing. With help from Social Capital, Inc., Salem has created an online guide to all the youth-focused progams and organizations in Salem. If a sixth grader doesn’t have anywhere to go for homework help, for example, he can get connected with the local YMCA. If a third grader needs glasses, he can get connected with a local optometrist.

4. Mobilizing the Community

More broadly, with the launch of a citywide campaign called Our Salem, Our Kids, Salem is making youth development the responsibility of all adults in the city, and asking local businesses, health care professionals, and youth development organizations to get involved. The city is currently training leaders in youth-servicing organizations on building strong adult-child relationships, so that they can better address children’s social and emotional needs. Those individuals will then train other local professionals across sectors. With more and more community members involved, the goal is for all Salem residents to be more likely to offer youth internships and volunteer opportunities, to provide services, and to provide guidance and a lending hand whenever they can.

“We believe that taking a holistic approach to student learning, examining social and emotional needs and creating individual plans to support each student will enable our kids to better focus in school and achieve their highest potential,” says superintendent Ruiz. The message to children: All of the adults in their city are working for them, for their wellbeing, and for their futures.

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Education Policy K-12 Parenting and Community School Leadership Social-Emotional Wellbeing

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.