Anthony Biglan and William A. Aldridge II
Russ Whitehurst and Michele Croft have criticized the Promise Neighborhood initiative for including social and community interventions along with school reforms. They argue that there is no evidence that such non-school interventions affect academic achievement and that it is a waste of precious resources to include them. They provide an analysis of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) to support this position.
We have reviewed this report, Geoffrey Canada’s response to it, and Whitehurst and Croft’s rejoinder. We think the discussion is missing two important points. First, although the evidence from the HCZ about the efficacy of non-school interventions is weak, there is substantial evidence from other research of the value of non-academic, social and behavioral interventions both for academic outcomes and for many other important outcomes that affect young people’s development.
Second, any effort to intervene in high-poverty neighborhoods requires significant involvement of the research community. Simply implementing interventions in Promise Neighborhoods without further evaluation will not allow us to accumulate knowledge about how to make these interventions work and it will leave us without the evidence necessary to support further investments in such efforts.
We agree that the evidence from the HCZ efforts does not provide strong support for the value of additional interventions, but this is due to the methodological problems with evaluating them in the context of what the HCZ has done. Quite appropriately, for a program trying to make a difference in young people’s lives, HCZ has not designed a randomized trial of their nonschool programs. Whitehurst and Croft acknowledge that this is why it is difficult to evaluate their effect.
What is missing in the Whitehurst and Croft critique is the recognition that there is a large body of empirical evidence on the value of interventions–other than instructional reform–that have great benefit for the wellbeing of young people. The IOM report on prevention (National Research Council & Institute of Medicine, 2009) and our Promise Neighborhoods Research Consortium document numerous well-researched programs, policies, and practices that affect wellbeing from the prenatal period through adolescence. It is possible to prevent problems as diverse as depression, antisocial behavior, and drug abuse. The PNRC website provides a list of programs whose benefits include enhanced academic performance: Positive Action; Big Brothers Big Sisters; the Good Behavior Game; the PATHS program; Raising Healthy Children; and the Strengthening Families Program. In addition, although Whitehurst and Croft argue that the Nurse-Family Partnership, does not have an impact on children’s reading and mathematics test scores, our reading of the evidence indicates that for mothers with few psychological resources, the program does increase both math and reading scores as measured by achievement tests and GPA.
The PNRC website also summarizes evidence about the effects of numerous policies that can affect academic outcomes as well as other important outcomes. They include policies that support mentoring programs, a modified school calendar, after-school programs that include academic support services, and reducing class size,
Moreover, focusing narrowly on academic success would be a mistake. Psychological and behavioral problems such as depression, antisocial behavior, and drug abuse do substantial harm to development of millions of young people and impose significant costs on society. High poverty neighborhoods need comprehensive efforts not only to improve young people’s academic success, but to prevent all the other threats to their success in life.
This is not to say, however, that we should simply assume that comprehensive interventions will work in high-poverty neighborhoods. Research is needed to ensure the success of such ambitious efforts. The Harlem Children’s Zone inspired the efforts of our PNRC. We believe that the success of initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods hinges on ongoing research to guide, refine, and strengthen such interventions. For this reason, the PNRC has articulated not only what evidence-based interventions are available but also how they can be evaluated.
We have great admiration for Russ Whitehurst and Geoffrey Canada. Whitehurst led a reform of the research practices of the Department of Education that transformed the quality of educational research. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has inspired a nationwide movement to transform the development of children and adolescents in poor communities. It is the first serious effort this nation has made to address the problem of inter-generational poverty since the Johnson administration. We hope that the current controversy will not undermine the cooperation and mutual respect that is needed if those of us who are trying to make a difference on one of this country’s most neglected problems are going to succeed.
So we celebrate the contributions of both Canada and Whitehurst. But it would be a shame if the Whitehurst and Croft critique meant that none of these interventions were implemented and tested in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Some who are skeptical that anything can be done about poverty have joked that we fought the war on poverty and poverty won. But the last war on poverty wasn’t fought with the tools that science has now made available. We now have evidence-based interventions throughout development that can help young people succeed and the scientific methods for strengthening existing interventions and building comprehensive interventions that transform high-poverty neighborhoods.
National Research Council & Institute of Medicine (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: progress and possibilities. Committee on Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse among Children, Youth, and Young Adults: Research Advances and Promising Interventions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.