Silver bullets and real solutions for students and schools

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Picture this: a silver bullet solution for the Achievement Gap, a single thing that schools can do to get all children reading by third-grade and college-ready by the end of high school.

The Urban Dictionary defines the silver bullet as “a specific, fail-safe solution to a problem (from the notion that a bullet made of silver is necessary to kill a werewolf).” A silver bullet also was the calling card of the Lone Ranger, fighting for justice.

Apart from the critique of the 1930s-50s era racism of the radio and television shows, there’s something fundamentally flawed about the silver bullet approach to problem-solving. While no silver-bullet solution to end the opportunity/achievement gap exists, a wide range of programs have demonstrated significant progress in the right direction. Four of these programs are paid parental leave, nurse family home visits, all-day kindergarten, and tutoring.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman proposed a modest paid parental leave program for city employees as part of his 2015 budget. While it’s promoted as making good economic sense (and it does), the Star Tribune’s Lori Sturdevant writes that studies show “California newborns got a better start in life because their parents could spend more time with them.” A better start in life, more bonding with both parents, and enhanced family stability will give kids a better shot at success in school a few years down the road.

Nurse home visits target the early years, too. In Minnesota, they are part of the Minnesota Visiting Nurses Association Nurse-Family Partnership — look for a blog post about Minnesota’s programs in a week or two. Research shows that the Nurse-Family Partnership program, founded in the 1970s, cuts the incidence of child abuse and neglect in half and shows an increase of 5-7 IQ points for children born to vulnerable moms. Here’s a paragraph from the New York Times description:

“[David] Olds developed NFP in the early 1970s. He conducted his first large study in 1977, in Elmira, N.Y., a semi-rural, mostly white, community with one of the highest poverty rates in the state. The program produced strong results. Follow-up studies would reveal that, by age 19, the youths whose mothers received visits from nurses two decades earlier, were 58 percent less likely to have been convicted of a crime. In the 1980s and 1990s, Olds spread the work to Memphis and Denver and subjected the program to more randomized study with populations of urban blacks and Hispanics. The results continued to be impressive. In 1996, NFP began wider replication; the model is now being implemented by health and social service providers in 40 states.”

Top Tier Evidence and the National Council of State Legislatures and the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Social Impact Exchange have more studies showing social and educational impact of the NFP program.

Free, all-day kindergarten launched across Minnesota this fall, thanks to funding voted by the legislature last year. A University of Minnesota study of Burnsville all-day and half-day kindergartners found that students who attended all-day kindergarten performed above the national average in first, second and beginning third grade, and above the average performance of children attending only half-day kindergarten. While differences remained between higher income and lower income students, between ELL and native English speaking students, and between white students and students of color, all types of students performed better with all-day kindergarten:

“[A]ttending full-day kindergarten is associated with higher achievement for students receiving FRL, classified as ELL, or who are racial minorities. It appears that full-day kindergarten education can help students with status risk factors to achieve at or near the national average through at least the beginning of second grade.”

Finally, for students of all ages, tutoring provides an extra boost to get over the steeper places on the learning curve. The St. Paul Public Schools Foundation is recruiting and training volunteers, in collaboration with community partners, to increase the impact of tutoring for students. [See Back to school — you can help for details.]

There’s no silver bullet for students or schools. Increasing learning and test scores will require combining a lot of different approaches, and the contributions of the entire village, not just a Lone Ranger.

 

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