Originally published: District Administration | By Michael B. Horn and Julia Freeland | Dec 16, 2015

Nearly every week another report comes out about what works—or doesn’t—in education, particularly when it comes to boosting outcomes among the highest-need students.

Yet amidst the deluge of (sometimes conflicting) accounts of various interventions and despite noble intentions, we still lack a coherent, causal understanding of the mechanisms that can solve the achievement gap at scale. Unsurprisingly, efforts to close chronic achievement gaps continue to fall flat.

Over the years, two camps have emerged with very different visions of a path forward. Some scholars argue that school-based interventions are the most promising solution to closing the gap. Others believe society could better help low-income students succeed in school by spending scarce dollars on programs that bolster health and happiness.

In reality, both sides are right—and both are also wrong. Addressing the root causes of the achievement gap is as much a structural challenge as it is political or philosophical. As we found in our recently released research, “The Educator’s Dilemma: When and how schools should embrace poverty relief,”  the solution involves embracing the wisdom of both camps.

To mitigate poverty’s effects on student outcomes, we must restructure schools to be more than just purveyors of academics. Only by “integrating backward” to deliver a range of nonacademic supports beyond just core academics can schools improve children’s health and well-being.

Our education dilemma

Our education system doesn’t understand the precise solutions that can drive breakthrough academic results for the highest-needs students. At the same time, we have constrained our ability to succeed by structuring the academic and non-academic parts of the K12 school system in a modular, rather than an interdependent, manner.

Schools are designed around the expectation that students arrive ready and able to learn. They operate on a fixed-length school day and year, typically at arm’s length from outside groups that support high-need students with health, wellness, custodial care and other supports. Overcoming this constraint is critical.

Over the past decade, several educational institutions serving low-income students have begun integrating beyond schools’ traditional academic domain to embrace the sorts of supports—mental health services, pediatric care and mentoring, to name a few—for which poverty relief advocates have long called. It’s heartening to see examples such as KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone and the SEED schools moving in this direction.

Schools must work with outside agencies to improve student achievement

But merely integrating backward to offer wraparound services with outside providers in a modular fashion is not enough to help low-income students succeed academically. Rather, schools must design and deliver services in an interdependent manner that is tightly in sync with the academic side of the house.

The architecture must be interdependent so that the school can innovate constantly to control the balance, mix and type of services offered to each student. They need to control the delivery and dosage of supports such that they are able to adjust these services according to each student’s needs at any given time.

Out of reach

A modular world is still out of reach in K12 education because despite plenty of research, we don’t understand sufficiently the causal factors that drive student success. Therefore, school leaders cannot introduce a fully modular school system with predictable, standardized interfaces yet.

The world of education for the highest need students may indeed become modular, but not until we can specify exactly how we are serving all students in terms of causation.

The road to closing the achievement gap is long and winding. But if we move past our current modular structure of schooling and create the ability for schools to integrate backward, in an interdependent way, into the non-academic realms of low-income children’s lives, we can make far more rapid progress than ever before.

Michael B. Horn, a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, is an advisor to Intellus Learning and serves on the board of directors of Fidelis Education. Julia Freeland Fisher is director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.