Closing the Achievement Gap

 

POverty

Closing the Achievement Gap in Boston

William Julius Wilson Faculty ResearcherWilliam Julius Wilson, Geyser University Professor,
Harvard University; Director, Joblessness
and Urban Poverty Research Program,
Harvard Kennedy School
Paper TitlePoverty, Politics, and a “Circle of Promise”: Holistic Education Policy in Boston and the Challenge of Institutional EntrenchmentCoauthorJeremy Levine,
PhD candidate,
Harvard University

The Harlem Children’s Zone, a campaign to close the achievement gap between black and white students, has been called “the Harlem Miracle” by The New York Times, which cited astonishing gains in math and verbal proficiency at area charter schools. The initiative started as a one -block pilot project in the mid-1990s and has since grown to encompass a 97-square-block section of New York City’s Harlem district. The program’s success has inspired other cities to try something similar—Boston among them.

In February 2010, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced a neighborhood-based education plan, dubbed the “Circle of Promise,” to serve youths in some of the city’s poorest communities. The “circle” spans five square miles, riddled by crime and poverty, and includes 10 out of the 12 chronically “underperforming” schools identified by the Boston School Department. Education reform, the Menino administration insists, must extend beyond school walls to offer urban students an array of enrichment services, such as preschool, after-school, vocational, athletic, and recreational programs.

City officials consulted with Kennedy School professor William Julius Wilson during the project’s early planning stages. Wilson’s coauthor, Jeremy Levine—a Harvard PhD candidate in sociology and a Kennedy School doctoral fellow—worked on the project full time in the summer of 2010 as a Kennedy School Rappaport Fellow. During his three-month stint, Levine operated as a true insider, attending internal meetings, studying the services available to residents in the affected neighborhoods, and helping to shape overall policy. Although he and Wilson want the Circle of Promise to succeed, they took note of the initiative’s shortcomings, presenting their analysis in a special issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs devoted to urban education and neighborhood revitalization.

While the Harlem Children’s Zone benefits from $75 million a year in private funding, no new money has been raised specifically for Boston’s Circle of Promise. Instead, the plan calls for reallocating funds from existing sources —mainly government agencies and nonprofit organizations—and using that money more efficiently through better coordination. Wilson and Levine, however, are skeptical about closing the achievement gap through efforts that do not address resource disparities.

They also question the pledge of greater coordination, given that Boston Public Schools (BPS) for the most part devises policies independent of the mayor’s office, which formulated the Circle of Promise. “Fragmented urban governance allowed City Hall to initiate an education policy without full institutional support from BPS, an institution one would expect to be at the forefront of any municipal education initiative,” Wilson and Levine write.

Further complications arise from the fact that four other education programs were launched in the same geographic area, and at roughly the same time, by the state of Massachusetts, local charitable foundations, nonprofit agencies, and President Obama’s Promise Neighborhood Initiative. This “overlapping deployment,” the authors maintain, “undermines the promise of coordinated service delivery and makes it difficult to determine which projects are successful and which are superfluous.”

An even bigger problem stems from what Wilson and Levine call “institutional entrenchment,” wherein long-established ways of viewing the situation, as well as patterns of doing things, become locked in. Drafters of the Circle of Promise, the authors observe, did not start out by asking “What factors influence academic achievement?” Instead, they assumed up front that they had the solution—namely, that the achievement gap could be closed by taking advantage of “a plethora of organizational resources” in Boston’s inner city. “We don’t know whether or not that is a faulty premise,” Levine says.

One way to break through entrenched modes of thinking, he and Wilson argue, would be to bring in an independent outside agency—unbeholden to fixed positions—that could inject some new ideas into the process. An organization such as the Boston Foundation—a philanthropic group that has already promoted President Obama’s “Race to the Top” agenda in Boston schools—could play that role, figuring out what it would take to ensure that the Circle of Promise can actually deliver on its considerable promise.

— by Steve Nadis

Drafters of the Circle of Promise did not start out by asking “What factors influence academic achievement?” Instead, they assumed up front that they had the solution—namely, that the achievement gap could be closed by taking advantage of “a plethora of organizational resources” in Boston’s inner city.