There aren't many seminal moments in the field of education research, which often manages to be esoteric, expansive, parochial and contradictory, all at the same time.
But today's release of a major new study from Child Trends is one of those rare occasions when the word "seminal" would seem to be completely appropriate. Titled "Integrated Student Supports: The Evidence," this report is the first rigorous, independent analysis of all the existing research in the field of integrated student supports (ISS).
After evaluating 11 separate studies, nine very different providers, and three disparate models of ISS delivery researchers found measurable decreases in grade retention, dropout rates, and absenteeism, along with measurable increases in attendance rates and math scores. With an upcoming White House forum scheduled to further discuss the role of ISS in America's public schools, findings like one this are especially timely and salient: "Taken as a whole, Child Trends concludes that there is an emerging evidence base to support the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of integrated student supports in improving educational outcomes."
If that is the headline that comes out the Child Trends report, of course I'll be happy. But at the same time, the story goes much deeper than the headline.
The basic concept of integrated student supports is nothing new, even if the practice and the terminology are still in a state of flux. My organization, Communities In Schools (CIS), has been advocating the ISS approach for more than 30 years, but we are hardly the only ones. In addition to CIS, Child Trends calls out the Beacon Initiative, Children's Aid Society Community Schools, City Connects, Comer School Development Program, Elev8, Say Yes to Education, School of the 21st Century, Turnaround for Children, and University-Assisted Community Schools. Taken together, these organizations are active in some 5,000 schools across the country, serving at least 1.4 million students.
Community schools, wraparound services, school/community partnership -- all of these terms have come into use because of one critical insight in the education and youth development sector: Schools, as they are currently structured, simply don't have sufficient resources to meet their stated goal of equal educational opportunity for all children, regardless of ethnicity, financial need or family background.
Faced with limited human and financial resources, schools have necessarily circumscribed their role to focus on what they are equipped to do best: provide an academic education. If excellent teachers with an excellent curriculum are given sufficient time with the right number of students, then the educational inputs have been roughly equalized, and outcomes should be roughly consistent across economic and ethnic lines.
But even the most ardent supporters of the "no excuses" movement can no longer ignore the mounting evidence that sustained poverty creates significant barriers to learning. Following the federal requirement under No Child Left Behind for schools to disaggregate student population data, it has become irrefutably clear that poor students and students of color lag well behind their more affluent, white and Asian counterparts, even when the educational basics appear to be the same.
In response to a growing national awareness of these educational disparities, a loose coalition has begun to advocate for new strategies for bringing additional community resources into the schools, in an effort to better support challenged student populations. Educators, community leaders, philanthropists, foundations and universities have all taken up the challenge in various ways. The result has been an explosion of energy, ideas and talent -- though not always a clear list of accomplishments.
Challenges and Opportunities
In many ways, the cause of aligning and integrating a student support strategy into schools has become similar to the cause of world peace: It's a goal that everyone can now support, even if they can't agree on how to define the terms or how to measure success. Each of the "movement leaders" operates with a unique set of principles and practices intended to mitigate the effects of poverty and structural racism in the education all students, while deeply supporting superintendents, principals, and teachers. As a result, the movement itself has suffered from an inability to demonstrate the critical link between student supports and academic success.
For too long now, the advocates of student supports and school/community partnerships have been unable to agree on a standard answer to two essential questions:
1. What do we mean by the term "student supports"?
2. Is there any evidence that student supports are a critical element educational success, particularly for at-risk populations?
The new Child Trends report, for the first time, applies a rigorous and comprehensive analysis to answer those questions. In terms of definition, Child Trends provides one of the best summations I've ever seen:
Integrated student supports (ISS) are a school-based approach to promoting students' academic success by securing and coordinating supports that target academic and non-academic barriers to achievement. These resources range from traditional tutoring and mentoring to provision of a broader set of supports, such as linking students to physical and mental health care and connecting their families to parent education, family counseling, food banks, or employment assistance. While ISS programs take many forms, integration is key to the model -- both integration of supports to meet individual students' needs and integration of the ISS program into the life of a school.
Furthermore, while acknowledging that delivery models may vary, the report identifies four characteristics are common to most successful models:
• Supports are customized to individual students by trained personnel.
• Supports target both academic and non-academic barriers to success.
• Support programs are integrated within the school or school district for maximum effectiveness.
• Student outcomes are tracked over time to evaluate effectiveness and adjust support dosage, as necessary.
As for the question of effectiveness, I've already highlighted the key finding regarding grade promotion, credit completion and math achievement. In these areas, Child Trends finds "emerging evidence that ISS models can contribute to student academic progress," while the evidence is mixed for other criteria, including attendance and English/reading achievement.
Why is the evidence "emerging" and "mixed," rather than "conclusive"? The problem is one that's common to all large reform efforts: A lack of quality data, rigorously evaluated. Of the 11 evaluations analyzed by Child Trends, only four were randomized-controlled trials, or RCTs, long considered the gold standard in research. The remaining seven studies were quasi-experimental designs, or QEDs, which are regarded as somewhat less reliable.
The Way Forward
More RCTs are currently underway, offering hope for even more conclusive findings in the future. In the meantime, Child Trends concludes that "[i]ntegrated student supports are a promising approach for helping more disadvantaged children and youth improve in school and have a brighter path in life."
If we are to make good on that promise, all of us in the education and youth development space have an obligation to ensure that an evidence-based student support strategy becomes an integral part of the public school landscape. For educators, that means integrating a student support strategy into the design of public education at every level - teachers at the classroom level; principals at the school level; local superintendents at the district level; and state superintendents at the state level.
For student support providers, the Child Trends report offers the kind of evidence-based standards of practice that have been largely missing until now. All of us should not only adopt those standards, but commit ourselves to building an even stronger evidence base with performance management systems that enhance our own daily practice, along with cost effective, third-party evaluations that contribute to the collective knowledge of ISS best practices.
With this report and the upcoming White House forum, it's clear that ISS is having what's known as "a moment." But for public schools struggling to deliver on their promise of preparing the nation's young people for economic self-sufficiency and full citizenship, a moment is not enough. If we hope to create long-term change, the key is to turn this moment into the kind of momentum that can propel all of our schools and all of our students toward a brighter future.