Nation & World

Speakers at Ed School say it takes a community to educate a child

4 min read

By 12th grade, black students in the United States are four years behind their white counterparts in reading and math scores, according to national statistics that also show Hispanic students falling behind at a similar rate.

Yet by the year 2050, the number of blacks and Hispanics in the United States will jump from 26 percent of the population to 38 percent – while whites slip from 68 percent to 49 percent.

The combination of lagging academic scores, race, and rising population numbers is “a recipe for social instability,” said economist Ronald Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, moderated a Feb. 15 Askwith Education Forum panel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where an audience of 25 listened in at Longfellow Hall.

With the yawning racial achievement gap as a backdrop, two experts looked at ways civic effort – forces largely outside of school systems – can engage the problem.

Wendy D. Puriefoy, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Education Network (PEN), presented a case study from Mobile County, Ala., where not long ago 121 of 127 public schools were on the “state watch” list for at-risk schools. A few years later, she said, with the help of 10,000 people (most from the community outside the school system), only seven schools remain on that list.

Changing the performance of public schools, Puriefoy said, has to start with public conversations about problems and expectations; grade-by-grade data on academic performance; a specific strategic plan; and exact benchmarks for scoring progress.

Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, talked about smaller-scale projects – her group’s past decade of teacher training, coaching, assessment studies, and networking with principals.

For both Puriefoy and Guiney, the engine for civic involvement in academically troubled public schools is something called a “local education fund,” a nonprofit reform group, professionally staffed and independent of school boards. The concept was inspired two decades ago by the Ford Foundation, in response to the grim conclusions in the 1983 federal report “A Nation at Risk.”

At PEN, Puriefoy keeps an eye on 83 local education funds (Boston Plan for Excellence is one of them) in 34 states. Collectively, the groups raise $200 million a year for educational reform: $4.5 billion since 1983.

From outside the formal public school structure, local education funds help build the infrastructure, leadership, knowledge, and momentum needed to raise faltering student achievement in largely poor, urban public schools. “They create a positive environment for reward,” said Puriefoy – and “a table where all kinds of groups can come together,” including experts from higher education, business, and communities at large.

The Mobile, Ala., experiment was based on a “theory of action” that draws in a potentially volatile mix of needs from students, school administrators, teachers, and the broader community, she said. It was the most successful of 14 similar initiatives funded by a $16 million Annenberg Foundation grant, said Puriefoy, and inspired the first Mobile County education bond measure (for more than $6 million) in 41 years.

The results were impressive, but also “intensive and expensive,” she said – which raises a question: Can the experiment of Mobile be scaled up and used nationwide to close the achievement gap at troubled schools?

In a political and funding climate wary of experimentation, said Puriefoy, that’s unlikely.

In Boston, said Guiney, smaller steps have made a systemic difference in the past decade, without resorting to the kind of large-scale community organizing used in Mobile.

In the meantime, Boston could be a national model in its own right, she said. A fast-reaction policy committee meets once a month to look at immediate problems surfacing at schools. Assessment by education scholars at Harvard and elsewhere is constant.

And Boston Public School principals now network and listen to advice from the Boston Plan, said Guiney. “If urban education is going to work, we have to expand our sense of openness.”

She called the Boston story of small-scale successes “quite different” from the story of large-scale organizing in Mobile. “But my essential point is the same,” said Guiney. “We’re going to [need] some of these answers from people outside.”