In all the years that I’ve been advocating for economically disadvantaged students, I’ve never seen a time when so many forces seem to be aligning in our favor. First, on Feb. 25, Child Trends released a groundbreaking report that laid out a solid evidentiary base for Integrated Student Supports (ISS). And then, barely a month later, the White House waded into the same waters with its first-ever national summit on ISS.
A report plus a meeting? That might sound like just another day at the office, but this particular report and this particular meeting are anything but business as usual in the battle for educational equality. I’ve already written about the significance of the Child Trends report, and now, given a few days to digest the proceedings at the White House summit, I’m convinced that we will one day look back on this event as the prototypical “quiet meeting in a church basement” where a social movement is born.
The National Policy Forum on Integrated Student Supports, to use its official name, brought 120 national leaders to Los Angeles to chart a path toward closing the academic achievement gap for low-income students — especially students of color. Organized under the auspices of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, this marked the first time that federal policymakers at the highest levels convened a meeting to focus exclusively and intensively on ISS as an “essential” component of public education.
If you’ll take a moment to let that sink in, I think you’ll agree that this is a watershed event. For as long as I can remember, advocates of Integrated Student Supports have fought for a place at the table, a chance to make our case that non-academic supports are absolutely necessary to level the academic playing field for poor children. On March 27, we rolled up our sleeves, pulled up our chairs, and sat down at the table, both literally and figuratively — policymakers from the White House and the U.S. Department of Education, side by side with teachers, principals, superintendents, local and state school board members, philanthropists, academics and ISS providers from multiple organizations.
And with that, ISS officially became a part of the national conversation. To me, this meeting epitomized the growing recognition that we have to figure out the academic implications of poverty, and we have to do that with the school system, not over or against the school system. For those who care about quality education, social justice and equal opportunity, this is a major achievement that has been a long time coming. We’ve gained a seat at the education policy table, and that will make a major difference in three important areas:
ISS can no longer be seen as new, unproven, experimental or “nice to have.” This is a movement that began more than 30 years ago. Today, there are nine evidence-based providers serving 1.5 million students in urban, suburban and rural communities. We have history, we have scale, and we have evidence. In all humility, we recognize that our evidence is emerging and needs to get stronger, but that is a question of degree, not of fact.
The education policy community at large has woken up to the fact that our schools have an unanswered demographic problem, with black and Hispanic students facing a persistent achievement gap compared to their white classmates. Poverty is a roadblock to learning for millions of students, and schools increasingly are looking for ways to offer those students the non-academic supports they need to overcome economic hardship and focus on learning.
Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that the White House summit marked a shift in the way we discuss what’s “important” in education policy. Instead of the tight, highly circumscribed conversation we’ve been having for 10 years regarding teacher quality, accountability, school management and the role of technology-driven innovation, today’s conversation increasingly recognizes how “out of school factors” (like poverty) or “nonacademic factors” (like unsafe neighborhoods) materially impact student success.
To every teacher, principal, superintendent, supporter and site coordinator who helped us reach this tipping point, I’d like to offer my heartfelt thanks. I know there are many who have been toiling and learning in this field longer than I have, and I hope you recognize this moment as the tremendous victory and validation that it is.
Go ahead, take a few minutes to bask in the warm glow of success. But then, ask yourself this: How do we leverage our newfound place at the table to bring Integrated Student Supports to more students than ever before? That was a major focus of the policy forum in L.A., and it will be the subject of my next post.