From the margins to the mainstream: A review of Broader, Bolder, Better

Let’s start with the ending: It can be done. And, spoiler: It works.

It,” in the new book Broader, Bolder, Better (Harvard Education Press, June 2019), is Integrated Student Supports (ISS), or “initiatives that provide wraparound services that attend to the early-childhood years along with nutritional support, physical and mental health care, and enriching after-school and summer activities in children’s K-12 years” (p.24). Authors Elaine Weiss and Paul Reville are devoted to decipher this “it”, or ISS, in a manner that can only be of help for all communities in the country, especially for those confronting similar challenges. They explain that ISS are not unique, but diverse in most respects. They exist in communities that are small and large, new and old, southern and northern, rural and urban, progressive and conservative. The 12 initiatives—working in school districts such as Joplin, Missouri; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Montgomery County, Maryland; Pea Ridge, Arkansas; or Vancouver, Washington; in part of them, including Austin, Texas; Durham, North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York City, New York; or Orlando, Florida; or across multiple school districts, such as Eastern (Appalachian) Kentucky—that are described in the book in a systematic, transparent, cohesive, and constructive manner are success cases—models that can be used to create “whole-child systems of education” (p.24). The book classifies the cases by their various types of ISS strategy they employ, including community schools, Promise Neighborhoods, Bright Futures USA, and PROMISE Scholarships. They tailored the services and supports they needed to tackle their specific unmet needs, and found the components, wisdom, resources, and agreements needed to offer those services.

The 12 cases exemplify that these practices can be adopted elsewhere, provided certain commonalities are found. What the successful cases share includes, in the first place, that all communities deeply care about the root problem: poverty in any of its shapes and manifestations (pp. 3-21, and others). There’s no question that all of the communities want to break the vicious cycle that promises to link today’s merit and education performance with future wellbeing, but gluing students’ current social class to their educational opportunities and their progress in school really works more backwards than forward. The 12 communities also show a serious understanding of what it takes to redress the consequences of being born in poverty, i.e., that the efforts need to be holistic, continued, sufficient, and shared. The communities also present ISS provided as surpluses, not as deficits, helping overcome the old belief that poverty was sort of an excuse, sidelining it as the core driver of achievement gaps, as Elaine Weiss explained in the release event of the book at EPI. In addition, these communities, which heavily rely on evidence-based effective solutions, implemented systems to monitor the interventions—including systems that allowed for developmental, individualized, inputs, and outcomes. This information is essential because it is what demonstrates the success and the continuous benefits of doing this right. Lastly, knowledge and creativity are also typical as they can help trim down the exact menu of supports and services, as well as the ideal ISS strategy, that each community needs. Though the authors acknowledge that “no single system can serve as a template,” (p. 43), another view of this is that any could become such template for a given community, or that certainly all validate ISS as a model that works and can be implemented.

This good news isn’t around that frequently for the education community. Or, more precisely, though it is—what can be more precious and best news than witnessing how education and socialization fuel children’s individual development and talents?—it often gets diluted because of the fact that it isn’t true for many reasons and for many children, ending in a waste, failure, and nonsense. Broader, Bolder, Better shows the “surpluses,” even in the positive language it proposes throughout the 12 chapters, of clearing children’s pathways from any opportunity obstacles. ISS make that in those communities, children’s development depends again on the context and the zip code where it takes place—but in a positive way, that could be replicated elsewhere.

More good news from Broader, Bolder, Better is that its main lessons can luckily be seen as linking the authors’ past professional lives documenting the depth of the problems affecting our children’s education and thinking about solutions—Elaine as a policy expert serving as the national coordinator of the Bolder Broader Approach to Education (BBA) campaign for the past decade, and currently a research associate with EPI; and Paul, as an academic at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who also served as Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—with their future significant roles spreading ISS across the country and putting  ISS at the center of our efforts to improve schools and children’s outcomes.

Fortunately, for their readers—especially for those who may have research, policy, or advocacy responsibilities—the book and the authors themselves can constitute the pillars to look to for inspiration of our daily activities and for guidance on our work and thinking. Weiss and Reville’s work and example show that there are multiple pathways that offer the alternatives that allow children to reach their fullest potential, and that both trying and following the process should possibly be obligations for all of us to embrace. Broader, Bolder, Better provides communities with a road map they can follow to viably do that, and leaves them, and frankly, all readers, with the mission of finding the way that will lead us to the most adequate ISS and making sure all our children are on route.