Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: An Interview with Susan B. Neuman

<p>Claus von Zastrow, Public School</p>
December 16, 2008

Dr. Susan B. Neuman has received much media attention recently as the apostate former Bush administration official who publicly opposes No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in its current form. As the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education who presided over NCLB's early implementation, she certainly made waves by arguing that schools alone cannot close achievement gaps.

But Neuman has received less attention for her affirmative vision of what we can do to improve poor students' odds dramatically. Her new book, Changing the Odds for Children at Risk, lays out "seven essential principles of educational programs that break the cycle of poverty." In December 2008, she talked to me about her book and her thoughts on current education policy.

The book uses extensive research on child development and effective programs to make the case for responsible, substantive investment in areas such as early care and education, comprehensive family supports, and after-school. (Not surprisingly, Neuman was an early signer of the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education," a manifesto urging investment in more comprehensive supports for students' well-being.)

Neuman's thoughts on accountability deserve particular attention. She has famously criticized NCLB's accountability regime for emphasizing sanctions over support, but she is no critic of rigorous accountability. Rather, she argues that accountability structures should ensure sound program goals, adequate resources, timely course corrections, and strong outcomes.

Listen Up! Audio from the Interview

You can download the entire interview here or listen to six minutes of interview highlights:

Read a transcript of these highlights below.

Or, you can browse the following excerpts:

Transcript of Interview Highlights

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: In your book, you note the persistence of poverty and its impacts on children. Why do you think we've failed to alleviate this problem so far?

NEUMAN: I think we've failed to alleviate poverty because we don't understand just how devastating it is. Most of the time we've had interventions that aren't targeted to the kinds of needs [children in poverty] have. As a result, we've seen failure.

One of the things that I did was look at all the kinds of programs that really have sustainable benefits. What we recognize is they all really target the children that need help the most. They focus on beginning early. They focus on connections to coordinating services.

We also know that [to be successful] programs really need to be intense. There has to be a high dosage of treatment.

Furthermore, a lot of our programs supplant an intervention, rather than supplement that intervention. [But that supplementation] is really critical.

We know that our best interventions use highly trained professionals--not volunteers or aides. We also know that they focus on language, because language is the medium of knowledge. They also focus on accountability.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you think that you can characterize what effective accountability really looks like, and is this the kind of accountability we've seen talked about the last five or six years?

NEUMAN: Unfortunately, the accountability that we've had in the last five years is about sanctions. It was supposed to be about rewards and sanctions.

Good accountability is an accountability that is directed at improving services for children. It does not have sanctions, but it has rewards for doing our work better.

A lot of our programs…are under-funded, and so they're going to fail before they even get started. So we need to accurately measure how much [their success] would cost. That's accountability at the very first level.

Accountability at the intermediate level is looking at data constantly, and constantly reflecting: "Are we getting the quality of service we need in order to ensure children's improvement? If not, let's strengthen our service."

Then finally, we look at accountability toward the end of our project and begin to say, "Are we getting [the desired] results, and how can we better tailor our program to needs?"

Being on the inside of No Child Left Behind, I think that we've learned a lot. I would argue very strongly for not less accountability, but better accountability.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: [In your book] you talk about other kinds of supports we need to give children in poverty. This has been a very controversial conversation recently. People have worried that in shifting the discussion this way we're actually getting schools off the hook for their responsibilities to address the needs of poor children. How do you respond to that?

NEUMAN: I think most of the teachers that we have are doing the best they can. I think the circumstances we have placed them in are very difficult. The reason in this book that I focused on the surrounds rather than schools in particular is that often the surround--specifically family supports, safe communities, after-school programs—can have an enormous benefit, and can actually work to mobilize efforts that can strengthen the school and can strengthen the child's programs. I don't think we're letting schools off the hook at all, but we are saying schools need help.

We have under-recognized the devastation that poverty brings and have said to the schools, "It's all on your head." That's not fair, and teachers are walking because of that phenomenon. They're saying, "We can't do it all."

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you ever worry that in saying that schools can't do it alone we might, in a sense, disempower them as agents of important social or economic change?

NEUMAN: I don't think so. Schools have never been remedial institutions or clinical institutions. They're not set up that way. They cannot address all the needs that these children who are coming from high poverty and devastating circumstances [have]. So I think we're recognizing the problem better and we're mobilizing everybody to work together into a more concerted effort.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you want to speak briefly about what that constellation of supports is?

NEUMAN: First, we need family support. Many mothers and fathers want to do the right thing for their children. They may not have the opportunity to do that.

But these parents also live in communities. I think what we have underestimated very often is the surround--the environment that these families are often in. The communities need to be revitalized.

I believe that rather than move families, [as in] some of the Moving-On Opportunity programs, we need to work to revitalize the communities that these children live in.

Finally, they also need…After-school programs are a very distinct kind of child development institution that is very important in these kids' lives.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So how do we build public will to accept fundamental reforms that follow your essential principles?

NEUMAN: I think we make government more transparent. Very often, the American public sees policy as something done to them, rather than engaging in policy discussions. So I think a more public accounting of where our programs are and what they are doing to change the odds begins to engage the public in a public discussion.

This story originally appeared on Public School—a Website that lets educators, parents and policymakers from coast to coast share what's already working in public schools, and spark a conversation about how to make it work for children in every school. Join the conversation, or read the full story and related links here! (Reprinted with permission.)