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If school reforms are
to ensure that all students succeed, the reforms must be designed in keeping
with what the word all implies. All clearly includes students who are
motivationally ready and able to profit from "high standards" curriculum and
instruction. But it also includes those who are experiencing external and
internal barriers that interfere with their benefitting from higher standards
and improved instruction.
Most learning, behavior, and emotional problems seen in schools are rooted in failure to address external barriers and learner differences in a comprehensive manner. And, the problems are exacerbated as youngsters internalize the frustrations of confronting barriers and the debilitating effects of performing poorly at school.
The litany of barriers to learning is all too familiar to anyone who lives or works in communities where families struggle with low income. In such neighborhoods, school and community resources often are insufficient to the task of providing the type of basic (never mind enrichment) opportunities found in higher income communities. The resources also are inadequate for dealing with such threats to well-being and learning as gangs, violence, and drugs. Inadequate attention to language and cultural considerations and to high rates of student mobility creates additional barriers not only to student learning but to efforts to involve families in youngsters' schooling.
What do schools do to address barriers to learning? Almost all schools flirt with some forms of preventive and corrective activity focused on learning problems, substance abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, school dropouts, delinquency, and so forth. A few programs are offered in all schools in a district; others are carried out at or linked to targeted schools. Programs may be offered to all students in a school or only to those in specified grades or identified as "at risk" and/or in need of compensatory or special education. Few schools, however, come close to having enough resources to address barriers to learning in a comprehensive way -- especially when a large proportion of their students are affected. The fact is that activity to support and enable learning is marginalized at most schools and is implemented in a fragmented and piecemeal manner. This contributes to poorly conceived and designed programs and unsatisfactory results.
In recent years, there has been increasing interest in school-community collaborations as one way to provide more support for schools, students, and families. This interest is bolstered by renewed concern for countering widespread fragmentation among community services. Various levels and forms of collaboration are being tested, including state-wide initiatives in California, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, among others. The efforts encompass such ideas as school linked services, coordinated services, wrap-around services, one-stop shopping, full service schools, and community schools. A reasonable inference from available data is that school-community collaborations can be successful and cost effective over the long-run. They not only improve access to services, they seem to encourage schools to open their doors in ways that enhance recreational, enrichment, and remedial opportunities and family involvement.
Collaboration, however, is not the norm. The majority of programs, services, and special projects function in relative isolation of each other and continue to focus on discrete problems and specialized services for individuals and small groups. The fragmentation is worsened by the failure of educational reform to recognize the need to restructure the work of school professionals who staff student support programs. A related failure stems from deficiencies in on-the-job education. For example, in service training for school staff hardly touches on ways to improve classroom approaches for effectively teaching students with mild-to-moderate behavior and learning problems.
What needs to change? While emphasis on higher standards, accountability, and flexibility is important, such reforms are not enough to turn around most urban schools. In such settings, raising academic standards, demanding accountability, and offering administrative flexibility are insufficient strategies for addressing the many overlapping barriers that interfere with students learning and teachers teaching. Also insufficient are initiatives to link up a few community resources to school sites and open up Family Resource Centers.
The present situation is one where, despite awareness of the many barriers to learning, reformers continue to concentrate mainly on improving (1) instruction (efforts to directly facilitate learning) and (2) the management and governance of schools and agencies. Then, in the naive belief that a few health and social services will do the trick, they talk of "integrated health and social services" (usually in terms of linking community services to school sites). There is little talk of restructuring school programs and services designed to support and enable learning, and this neglect continues to marginalize activity that is essential to improving student achievement.
Ultimately, addressing barriers to learning must be approached from a societal perspective and requires fundamental systemic reforms designed to improve efforts to support and enable learning. This calls for developing a comprehensive, integrated continuum of community and school programs. Such a continuum must be multifaceted and woven into three overlapping systems: systems of prevention; systems of early intervention to address problems as soon after onset as feasible; and systems of care for those with chronic and severe problems. All of this encompasses an array of programmatic activity that
It is unfortunate that must school reformers seem unaware that schools must play a major role in developing such programs and systems if all students are to benefit from higher standards and improved instruction.
Development of a comprehensive, integrated approach that effectively addresses barriers to learning requires cohesive policy that facilitates blending of many resources. In schools, this includes restructuring to combine parallel efforts supported by general funds, compensatory and special education entitlements, safe and drug free school grants, and specially funded projects. In communities, the need is for better ways of connecting agency resources to each other and to schools. The end product should be cohesive and potent school-community partnerships. With proper policy support, a comprehensive approach can be woven into the fabric of every school, and neighboring schools can be linked to share limited resources and achieve economies of scale.
It is time for reform advocates to expand their emphasis on improving instruction and school management to include a comprehensive component for addressing barriers to learning. And in doing so, they must pursue this third component with the same level of priority they devote to the other two.
Several initiatives already are exploring the power of moving
from a two to a three component model for reform. These
include our work related to the concept of an enabling
component as a missing and essential third component of
reform, the restructuring of student support services by the
Los Angeles Unified School District, the adoption of the
concept of "learning support" by the California Department of
Education, and espousal of a three component model by the New
American Schools' Urban Learning Centers. Such pioneering
efforts offer new hope to students, parents, and teachers. We
think greater policy attention to such initiatives is
essential if society is to strengthen neighborhoods and
communities and create caring and supportive environments
that maximize learning and well-being for all youngsters.
WebMaster: Perry Nelson (firstname.lastname@example.org)