Transforming Education

“We don’t have after school programs when you don’t want to do football, because that’s pretty much the only thing that you can do in the inner-city… we’re all thought of to be sports players… Is there something else for us to do?” Dragon, Rize

This quote, from a youth in South Central Los Angeles in 2004, speaks to the ongoing inequality of educational opportunities outside of schooling. Socially and economically marginalized communities like South Central Los Angeles are often bereft of out-of-school educational opportunities such as quality early childhood educational centers, academic enrichment and tutoring programs, creative arts programs, dance classes, or career and technical education to name just a few. What’s equally as important yet not spoken to in Dragon’s quote are the ecological conditions, mental and public health resources, and neighborhood safety that are also social determinants of child health and development. All of these more-than-schooling factors are critically important for the development of human capacities and successful navigation through the dominant institutions of society.

Dragon not only expresses the dearth of educational opportunities in his social reality but his desire for something more. The ‘advantages’ that Dragon desires are the everyday experiences of a broader understanding of education. This is an understanding of education that posits the process of education as much more comprehensive than schooling – a process that has only been enabled for those of the socially privileged spaces within society. This broader understanding of education, to which this chapter points towards, is what Federal education policy has seemingly overlooked in its efforts of school reform toward educational equity. In this chapter we argue that the national aims for educational equity will continue to be limited with the narrow policy focus on school reform. We contend that in light of growing social science research on the importance of out-of-school influences on child health, learning, and development there needs to be a transformation in Federal policy on education. The US needs federal policy on education that addresses the social policy concerns of out-of-school influences on the development of human capacities.

History of Education Policy in US & the Limits of School Reform

Federal education policy in the United States has traditionally focused its efforts on school reform. While the importance of schooling cannot be underscored enough, school reform efforts have rarely addressed the meaningful processes of complementary, supplementary, and comprehensive education that occur outside of schools, in communities and homes of learners.  Further, these reform efforts have done little to support the academic achievement of students who live in socially and economically marginalized communities where they inherit inequitable conditions and do not have access to an adequate and equitable education.

Despite the failures of school reform, in the past five decades here have been several instances where federal policy has supported complementary and supplementary schooling. This can be seen in the development and implementation of Head Start and breakfast and free/reduced lunch programs as well as through the expansion of supplemental educational services for poor performing schools under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. More recently, the Obama Administration has acknowledged the educative significance of complementary and supplementary education by developing the Promise Neighborhoods program and supporting the expansion of before-and-after school programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative. Although comprehensive education is not yet fully embraced in federal policy, recent reforms in education policy signal that there is a growing recognition that education is much more comprehensive than that which occurs in the four walls of a school.

Thinking Comprehensively About Education

Thinking comprehensively about education recognizes simultaneously the relevance and limitations of schooling. While schools continue to be an important institution of education in which learning takes place, comprehensive education affirms and acknowledges both the multiplicity of knowledge and ways of knowing as well as the legitimated knowledge of dominant institutions. This notion, however, requires that we understand education to be a social process that is ubiquitous in the various spaces and practices in society—not just in schools.

As such, what are some of the forms of supplementary and comprehensive education? Cremin (2007[1975]) and others (Gordon, Bridglall, & Meroe 2005; Varenne, Gordon, & Lin, 2009) have suggested that supplementary and comprehensive education might include spaces and practices such as libraries, museums, childcare centers, health education and clinics, martial arts, hip hop, afterschool programs, athletics, parenting practice workshops, financial literacy programs, and prenatal services, among many others. It is through each of these institutions, programs, and practices that comprehensive and relational forms of equitable pedagogical experiences are enabled. These various forms of comprehensive education have substantial effects on educational outcomes and benefits to society.

Many studies (Durlak, Weissberg, and Pachan, 2010; Hirsch, Deutsch, DuBois, 2011; Hirsch, Hedges, Stawicki, and Mekinda, 2011; Mahoney, Vandell, Simpkins, and Zarrett, 2009) have documented the benefits of out-of-school programs and processes. Some of the evidence suggests that such programs have positive impacts on students’ academic achievement (Durlak, Weissberg, and Pachan, 2010; Mahoney, Vandell, Simpkins, and Zarrett, 2009), positive youth development, and problem behaviors (Hirsch, Deutsch, DuBois, 2011; Hirsch, Hedges, Stawicki, and Mekinda, 2011). Other work (Heckman 2008 ) has estimated that investing in these types of programs early, such as high quality early childhood education, yields a 7% to 10% per year return investment to society. In fact, Heckman (2012) states “Short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits through reduction in the need for special education and remediation, better health outcomes, reduced need for social services, lower criminal justice costs and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families” (p. 2). All of these findings point to the importance of out-of-school factors in influencing equity in human learning and development. Therefore, a public policy framework and agenda of comprehensive education is necessary in order to affirm and further enable the national goals of educational equity, particularly in the socially, racially, and economically marginalized spaces of society.

Given the marginality of many communities in the US and the large magnitude of inequality in resources between communities (Massey & Denton, 1993; Quillian, 2007; Rearden & Bischoff, 2010; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Sharkey, 2008; Sharkey, 2008; Wilson, 1987) many children and youth grow up in marginalized communities where they inherit inequitable conditions, thus making equitable education an impossibility. These inequitable conditions include growing up in conditions of racism and discrimination, sexism, unemployment, financial stress, lack of health insurance, and residing in racially and classed segregated neighborhoods that lack essential institutions such as supermarkets, have a high incidence of gun violence, high rates of unemployment, poor quality schools, low rates of home ownership, high rates of incarceration, and high levels of ecological toxins. If we do not pay attention to and address the reproduced inequality of neighborhood resources and opportunities for comprehensive education the national endeavors of educational excellence and equity will continue to be a curtailed and the children of the US will continue to be left behind in the global community; a consequence this nation cannot afford.

Two examples

A few examples will help illustrate how a policy agenda of comprehensive education that provides a host of services to meet the social, economic and education needs of a community might be structured. While the Harlem Children’s Zone is one of the most nationally recognized comprehensive education models upon which other initiatives have been designed we’d like to highlight alternative promising models so as to demonstrate that comprehensive education cannot be encompassed by a singular model, but rather has to be developed in a way that is responsive to the community needs and culture. The first example is the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI) in San Diego, CA (Clark & Bryan, 2012), and the second is the Broader Bolder Approach to school reform in Newark, NJ (Wells & Noguera, 2012). Both initiatives attempt to address the need for comprehensive wrap around social, economic, health, and educational services for educational equity.

The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation

The Diamond Neighborhoods of Southeastern San Diego, CA, are home to more than 88,000 residents. The Diamond Neighborhoods are primarily Hispanic (43%) and African American (30%) with significant Caucasian (11%) and Asian (11%) populations, as well as smaller populations of Somalis, Samoans, Sudanese, Laotians, and Chamorro. Close to 60% of the population is non-English speaking, with over 20% of residents’ incomes falling below the poverty line. Almost 40% of the region’s residents are under the age of 18, making youth a key target population in this community.

Over the last several decades, the Diamond Neighborhoods have experienced physical, economic, and academic decline. In an attempt to revitalize the Diamond Neighborhoods, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI)a local nonprofit foundationpartnered with the residents of the area and created a long-term comprehensive community development plan to improve the social wellbeing of the community. The community development plan included two core components: (1) economic investment; and (2) support for community-led social initiatives including youth development, health, and education programs.

In recent years, support for youth-led initiatives has continued to be a primary goal of JCNI. JCNI’s trademark “listening” strategy guiding community development efforts led the director of the Community Building Department, Roque Barros, to ask the residents themselves, “What should our relationships with youth look like? What youth projects are already in existence that we can support?” Resident responses led JCNI to provide support to a neighborhood Teen Center and the Writerz Blok Urban Arts Park. Significant time and technical resources were also devoted to supporting the organizational development of two existing community-run educational non-profits, the Elementary Institute of Science (EIS), a summer and after-school science enrichment program, and PAZZAZ, a local after-school tutoring group.

All of this and more have contributed to the development of a comprehensive educational system within the heart of the Diamond Neighborhoods. For further information on JCNIs transformative work in the Diamond Neighborhoods, please see Andrea Yoder Clark & Tracey Bryan’s chapter in Thinking Comprehensively About Education (2012).

The Broader Bolder Approach

The Broader Bolder Approach (BBA) is a strategy that aims to transform schools in Newark, New Jersey, through the development of civic capacity. Stone et. al. (2001) and others (Noguera, 2003; Orr, 2007) have defined civic capacity as the creation of a series of strategic partnerships between schools, businesses, universities, hospitals, local government and a broad array of neighborhood-based service organizations. Such partnerships are designed to increase local support for schools and enhance the social capital of students and their families. Policy advocates of civic capacity building have argued that providing schools with substantial increases in external support is the most cost effective means to deliver the resources and support they need. The theory holds that such support will lead to greater accountability, better functioning schools and higher levels of student achievement.

The BBA is an ambitious reform project that has been launched as an attempt to develop a comprehensive school reform strategy that will address issues and challenges arising out of the distressed social contexts in which families and public schools are situated through a variety of school-based interventions. The BBA model includes social service provisions, economic development, and civic engagement with school reform efforts in order to insure that efforts to transform schools are not undermined by environmental hardships or the lack of quality control attention in educational practices and interventions. The central goals of the BBA are to expand learning opportunities for students by investing in quality early childhood education, extend the traditional school day, and enrich the curriculum by providing an education that is relevant to the economic, political, cultural, and social life of the 21st century.

As is true in many other high poverty urban areas, a combination of social, economic and political problems has historically constrained efforts to improve schools in Newark, New Jersey. These problems are also at the root of many of the current challenges confronting its residents. The BBA strategy seeks to mitigate the detrimental effects of the environment by developing the capacity of schools to respond to student needs and by drawing on support and resources from local institutions.

The BBA strategy also seeks to transform the way in which urban public schools typically serve low-income children of color and their families. The BBA uses data to carefully monitor student progress and the ways in which programs are implemented in order to be more responsive to social and educational needs of children and their families. The goal is to respond immediately to evidence that programs are not implemented with fidelity or are not achieving the goals that have been set.

For further information on the Broader Bolder Approach to school reform in Newark, New Jersey, please see Lauren Wells & Pedro Noguera’s chapter in Thinking Comprehensively About Education (2012).

Concluding Remarks: Toward Comprehensive Education Policy as National Imperative

In their compelling paper, Gordon and Heincke (2012) argue that there are limits to what schools can do alone and what can be achieved through school reform. They call for the need to push for a national program and Federal Office of Affirmative Development of Intellective Competence which would focus on better enabling communities and families to support the academic and personal development of children from pre-conception through college. Based on the recommendations of the National Study Group on Supplementary/Comprehensive Education they provide a framework for a public policy agenda on comprehensive education that would achieve the national endeavors of social and academic equity and excellence. They argue that these national endeavors are not plausibly attainable from school reform efforts alone. It is our contention that the aims and endeavors toward educational equity can only be achieved comprehensively.

This chapter considers the implications to public policy based on a comprehensive transformation of education. A public policy framework and agenda of comprehensive education is necessary in order to affirm and further enable the comprehensive systems and practices of education in society at large and socially and economically marginalized communities, in particular. This is an imperative if the democratic aims of the United States are to address the non-democratic reality of social inequality and educational inequity. If we don’t transform education in the United States and pay particular attention to and address the reproduced inequality of opportunities for comprehensive education, the national endeavors of educational excellence and equity will continue to be compromised and the children of the US will continue to be left behind in the global community; a consequence this nation cannot afford.


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Cremin, L. (2007).  Public Education and the Education of the Public. Teachers College Record, 109(7), 1545-1558. (Original work published 1975)

Durlak, Joseph A., Roger P. Weissberg, and Molly A. Pachan. (2010). Meta-Analysis of After-School Programs That Seek to Promote Personal and Social Skills in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 294-309.

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Heckman, J. (2012). Invest in early childhood development: Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy. Retrieved April 3, 2016:

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Wells, L., and Noguera, P. (2012). A Broader and Bolder Approach for Newark. In Thinking Comprehensively About Education: Spaces of Educative Possibility and Their Implications for Public Policy, ed. Ezekiel Dixon-Román and Edmund W. Gordon: . New York: Routledge.

Wilson, W.J. (1987). The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

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