From Addressing Barriers to Learning,
Vol. 2 (3), Summer 1997


Addressing Barriers to Learning:
Closing Gaps in Policy & Practice

As readers of this Newsletter know, our Center approaches mental health and psychosocial concerns from the broad perspective of addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development. Specific attention is given policies and strategies that can counter fragmentation and enhance collaboration between school and community resources.

In 1996, we held three regional meetings on the topic: Policies and Practices for Addressing Barriers to Student Learning: Current Status and New Directions. On July 28th of this year, we held a national summit on Addressing Barriers to Student Learning: Closing Gaps in School/ Community Policy and Practice. The various meetings brought together dedicated leaders representing an impressive mixture of national, state, and local agencies and organizations.

As we stressed in the report based on the 1996 meetings, developing a comprehensive, integrated approach to addressing barriers to student learning continues to be a low priority among policy makers. Also stressed was increasing concern about serious flaws in current policies and practices aimed at preventing and correcting learning, behavior, emotional, and health problems. This growing concern provides an opportunity for change.

Since last summer, we have continued to explore the current status of policy and practice around the country. We have zeroed in on state and local agencies and specific reform initiatives using structured surveys, reviews of formal documents they distribute and material they post on their webpages, and insights gleaned in discussions with those who are knowledgeable about prevailing policies and practices. The more we looked, the more we were struck by how few initiatives specifically approach barriers to learning as a primary and essential concern. Thus, our July summit was designed to begin a process to widely enhance realization of the importance of analyzing school reform and restructuring initiatives in terms of how well they address barriers to learning.

Participants at the summit had the opportunity to review a representative set of major initiatives aimed at improving student learning and development. Featured as a leaping off point for discussion were (a) models designed with support from the New American Schools Development Corporation, (b) changes in thinking at the California Department of Education resulting from its adoption of the concept of Learning Support, (c) an update on the Community Schools movement, (d) the upcoming effort to realign Missouri's Caring Communities initiative with the state's education reforms, (e) the Kauffman Foundation's work related to the Successful Schools initiative, (f) the movement for Comprehensive School Health Programs as stressed in the Institute of Medicine's recent report and as supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and (g) the approach the Los Angeles Unified School District is taking to reform and restructure its student support programs and services. In addition, participants brought to the table an immense amount of experience with reforms around the country. The day's work yielded further appreciation of the potential contributions such initiatives can make and increasing awareness of how few models include a focus on addressing barriers to learning as a primary and essential component of reform and restructuring. Also evident was the likelihood of further confusion among policymakers and more fragmentation in practice at all levels as model advocates compete for adoption.

This brief report reflects our efforts to analyze and extrapolate from the various sources of data.In preparing the report, we have tried to capture and integrate the consensus of what was explored at the summit with our other sources. At the same time, we recognize that data are always filtered through a personal lens; we take full responsibility for any errors of omission or commission and for all interpretations

Fundamental Gaps in Policy/Practice

When the lens of addressing barriers to student learning is applied to current reform and restructuring initiatives, the major gaps in policy and practice can be grouped into five fundamental areas (see the Figure). What follows is our effort to highlight the major gaps in each of these areas as our analyses have identified them.

Although the litany of gaps are all too familiar to anyone who works in the field, there are a number of implications that arise from viewing them within the framework provided. These implications are explored in some detail after we comment on each area and list out some of the fundamental gaps in policy and practice

(1)Measures to Abate Economic Inequities/Restrictive Opportunities

Everyone is aware that restricted opportunities affect learning and development. Restricted opportunities stem from a variety of documented factors and play a role in causing learning, behavior, emotional, and health problems. The root of many of these variables can be traced to conditions related to poverty. Thus, measures to abate poverty remain one of the most fundamental areas where major gaps in policy and practice undermine efforts to improve educational outcomes for all youth. As long as so many young people live in poverty, many will confront an enormous range of restricted opportunities that lead to poor school performance, and interveners trying to address such problems increasingly will be overwhelmed. And, of course, not only do youngsters with problems suffer, all public school students are negatively affected as larger proportions of school/community resources are diverted to cope with problems. What makes all this so ironic and poignant is that it exacerbates economic and social inequities by severely limiting who in the society reaps the benefits of formal education and who suffers the consequences of schools where high rates of failure and disaffection are the norm.

Major Gaps in this Area. There is consensus that current reforms represent woefully inadequate measures to abate the scope of restrictive opportunities that exist in the country. Relevant analyses, reflecting fundamental differences in social and educational philosophy, are readily available and need not be repeated here.

(2) Primary Prevention and Early Age Interventions

The next line of defense in addressing barriers to learning involves primary prevention and early age interventions (e.g., fostering healthy development, promoting public health and safety, developing programs for community recreation and enrichment in poverty impacted areas).

Major Gaps in this Area. Current policies and practices do not ensure

(3) Identification and Amelioration of Learning, Behavior, Emotional and Health Problems as Early as Feasible

Given that primary prevention and early age interventions are not yet a high priority in policy and practice, early identification and amelioration have gained some prominence as the next line of defense. The intent is to combine both facets. With respect to health, the federal government's Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment initiative has demonstrated both the potential and the inadequacies of current policy and practice related to early identification and amelioration. In an era of reduced public expenditures, insufficient underwriting of this program has curtailed aggressive outreach and tailoring of strategies to reach various population groups. Even more basic is the lack of resources for ensuring that medical, dental, and mental health treatments are available and accessible. Consequently, in many cases, significant treatable problems are found, but families cannot be connected with appropriate treatment. In schools, comparable gaps are seen in the dearth of programs that (a) provide immediate support to students when they begin to perform poorly academically and (b) anticipate and provide immediate support for those experiencing difficulty adjusting to school, making other transitions, or responding to crises -- all of which are strongly associated with poor academic performance.

Major Gaps in this Area. The need is to strengthen policy and practice to ensure

(4) Ongoing Amelioration of Mild-Moderate Problems

Activity that helps ameliorate mild to moderate problems has been significantly reduced by prolonged curtailment of funding for education and public services (including recreational and enrichment opportunities that foster healthy development). Relatedly, the number of students with learning, behavior, emotional, and health problems is increasing. Thus, it is not surprising that referrals for special help are escalating. Less services, more referrals equals not enough special help to go around. What should be a relatively small pool of youth in need of adjunctive services has become an overwhelming onslaught that drains dwindling resources to the point where the majority cannot be served. And, for a large proportion of students this guarantees below grade level performance at the end of middle school, non enrollment in college prep courses, and a high likelihood of dropping out. (Because so many of these students are seen as a product of failing social and educational systems, some analysts refer to them as pushouts.)

Major Gaps in this Area. Policy/practice is needed that goes beyond such current emphases as increasing standards and fostering collaborations; a primary focus also must be on ensuring

(As noted in last year's report, achieving high quality programs involves transforming the education support resources schools own and operate so that the efforts (a) function in an integrated, programmatic way and (b) are woven together as much as feasible with community owned resources. The idea is both to use combined resources more effectively in addressing barriers to learning and to evolve a comprehensive approach for doing so.)

(Examples of program options include courses in computers and information technology; programs related to graphic, performing, and culinary arts; high school academies focused on business and health careers.)

(5) Ongoing Treatment of and Support for Chronic/Severe/Pervasive Problems

The increasing volume of students with mild-moderate problems is overwhelming the relatively few corrective strategies society has established. This means that a significant number of youngsters receive little or no special assistance, and their problems worsen. Because of this state of affairs, there is a tendency for teachers and parents to want more and more youngsters with mild-moderate problems referred for the special education and related remedial and therapeutic services. Referrals have increased markedly for special education and other specialized treatments intended for those with the most chronic/ severe/pervasive problems. Because of inadequate gatekeeping, this swells the ranks diagnosed and misdiagnosed students and misuses and overloads specialized systems of care. And, whether or not they end up in special education, students whose problems continue unabated over several years are prime candidates for dropping out of school.

Major Gaps in this Area. Policy/practice are needed to ensure