How to Help School Reform Succeed


How to Help School Reform Succeed

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

Over the past generation we’ve invested tremendous resources in school reform and school improvement – public and private money, great human talent in and out of classrooms, research, and heightened local and national attention. We’ve invested in higher standards, stronger curriculum, better prepared teachers, new models of school and more accountability.  

I’m for all of that. But too often, school reform and school improvement efforts don’t reach the young people who struggle most in schools, those who are most likely to leave school without graduating. For these young people, school reform and school improvement alone aren’t enough.  

It’s becoming increasingly clear that much of what determines a young person’s success in school happens outside of it. Last year, America’s Promise researchers interviewed hundreds of young people who left school without graduating.  The quality of their schools hardly ever came up in the conversations.

School wasn’t the problem, they told us – life was – and, in their view, school wasn’t the answer, either. Young people told us that they want to succeed, and what they want and need, more than anything, is the engagement of adults who care enough to tutor, mentor, coach, guide and love them.

This graduation season, leading observers have begun to echo what young people told us – that the engagement of caring adults who know how to help is the single most important intervention for those who face the greatest challenges. 

Earlier this spring, a group of Harvard researchers looked at what helps young people overcome adversity and move toward success.  Their conclusion:  “Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed rela-tionship with a supportive adult.”  The researchers found that the presence of a caring adult, especially for young children experiencing toxic stress, is a key ingredient in resilience. “It’s those capacities and relationships,” the researchers state, “that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”

In the wake of the tragic events in Baltimore, sociologist Orlando Patterson writes in the New York Times about the underlying tensions in cities where so many young people join gangs “to find a family and male role models.”

Patterson quotes one gang member who said, “I grew up looking for somebody to love me in the streets. You know, my mother was always working, my father used to be doing his thing. So I was by myself. I’m here looking for some love. I ain’t got nobody to give me love, so I went to the streets to find love.”

Amanda Ripley, one of today’s most brilliant and compelling writers about education, penned an Atlantic cover story about Starbucks’ collaboration with Arizona State to provide college opportunity for baristas.  Ripley writes about the struggles that many of these new students face in persisting with their education, even with the newfound support from Starbucks and the sophistication of ASU’s approach.  

Where students found success, Ripley writes, was in the high touch (but long distance) coaching support that students received from counselors.  Offering both technical guidance and emotional support, those counseling sessions helped students navigate the inevitable and sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges. They made all the difference between sticking with it and dropping out of college.

“The research tells us that what really matters for low-income and first-generation students is that you put your arms around them,” Daniel Greenstein from the Gates Foundation told Ripley.  While the Gates Foundation often focuses on engineering approaches to improving outcomes, Greenstein haled the “reintroduction of intimacy” as the key to success.  

Together, these researchers and experts make a compelling case that caring, supportive relationships lie at the heart of creating the conditions that give all young people, especially those who are growing up in challenging circumstances, a true chance to learn and thrive.  Without these relationships, other efforts are bound to fail.

I don’t for a moment want to diminish the importance of school reform and school improvement efforts – they are crucial and I am an enthusiastic supporter.  But for the most at-risk young people, great educational opportunity comes only with great, supportive relationships.