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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Harvard Family Research Project introduces complementary learning as a concept for improving learning outcomes without relying solely on school-based reform.

The widening achievement gap, especially for some low-income children of color, has brought us to a critical point in our national debate about effective education policy reform. Further, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and various school-funding lawsuits have raised questions about what an adequate basic education is and have increased our awareness about the challenges many public schools face in helping children meet their full potential, from birth through post-secondary education.

In response to these problems, numerous within-school education reform initiatives have been introduced.1 But as yearly test results roll out, the limits of these reforms are becoming clear. Educators, parents, and others increasingly look to nonschool supports that will enhance and promote learning and development across the developmental continuum. We call these supports complementary learning.

Decades of research show that complementary-learning supports—including high quality early childhood education, family support, family involvement at home and in school, and after school programs—can be effective in promoting children’s learning and contributing to their school success. However, we now realize that considering these supports in the same old ways—piecemeal, in silos, disconnected from each other and from schools—will not achieve the goal of making sure children are successful both when they first enter school and after they’ve finished school. Moving forward, we need to ensure that these nonschool supports, first and foremost, are in place and accessible to all children. Second, we propose that they be linked and aligned with each other and with schools to maximize their effectiveness in leveling the playing field for children.

This installment of Theory & Practice articulates our concept of complementary learning as a framework for thinking about the importance of, and linkages among, the many contexts, activities, and actions—both school and nonschool—in which children learn. It is meant to stimulate new field-level thinking about what it takes to educate children for the 21st century and announces to our readership HFRP’s commitment to help build the strategies for complementary learning and the knowledge and practice base to support them.

Complementary Learning Defined
To set the stage for a broad, research-based discussion of complementary learning, HFRP published a series of recent issues of The Evaluation Exchange examining the developmental and evaluation knowledge base for key complementary-learning supports, highlighting challenges in evaluating them and bringing them to scale, and suggesting next-generation strategies and questions.2 These publications, along with HFRP’s own research, evaluation, and documentation of innovative nonschool supports, suggest two essential principles to guide thinking about how to develop complementary-learning systems so that children both enter and leave school with the knowledge and skills they need for success in life:

1. Both school and nonschool contexts are critical to children’s learning and achievement. Families, out-of-school-time (OST) programs, youth service agencies, and community-based organizations, as well as informal learning opportunities such as libraries, museums, churches, the arts, and sports teams, can complement school-day learning and lead to more effective and sustainable educational efforts. Richard Rothstein, author of Class and Schools, discusses these ideas in our Questions & Answers interview. The discussion is bolstered by Edmund Gordon’s concept of “supplementary education” articulated so well in a new volume of the same name (see book review —Ed.). We know, for example, that high quality, organized OST activities have the potential to support and promote youth development because they (a) situate youth in safe environments; (b) prevent youth from engaging in delinquent activities; (c) teach youth general and specific skills, beliefs, and behaviors; and (d) provide opportunities for youth to develop relationships with peers and mentors.3 In fact, evidence increasingly shows that youth participation in quality OST activities influences their current outcomes, which, in turn, impact outcomes into adulthood.4

Longitudinal research by HFRP and others on the ways family educational involvement promotes low-income children’s literacy achievement through elementary school suggests the large value-added of family involvement in the home and at school.5 Additionally, children need support from health and mental health organizations to ensure that they are both physically and emotionally ready to learn.

2. Learning opportunities and contexts should complement one another. A second cornerstone of complementary learning is the notion that the many contexts in which children learn should complement one another and work toward a consistent range of outcomes. Developmental psychology, education, and other fields have long shown that these contexts have reciprocal influences on children as well as on each other.6 Being strategic about the way in which contexts connect, and building on the strengths of multiple learning contexts, can be a more effective way to improve child outcomes than if these contexts continue to operate independently of one another.

Ideally, from birth through high school, children would benefit from a coherent continuum of learning opportunities in various contexts. That continuum should begin during the early years with quality parenting, child care, and pre-kindergarten programs, continue through childhood and adolescence to include after school and summer programs, and extend all the way through college preparation.

To achieve this broad and systemic vision, learning contexts need to connect through deliberate and targeted strategies that focus programmatic energy, resources, and time on shared functions or common goals. This means finding meaningful ways for two or more learning contexts—such as schools and after school programs, or families and early care and education programs—to connect so they work toward the same or complementary ends, ultimately improving one another’s effectiveness. Consider the following examples:

  • Early care and education, families, and schools. Today’s policy environment places a strong emphasis on school readiness and, in particular, on children’s literacy development. We know that quality childcare and early childhood education affect children’s cognitive development.7 We also know that the home environment is crucial to addressing the achievement gap.8 Early care and education programs and schools that support positive parenting practices and family involvement in children’s learning will help to ensure that children enter school ready to learn and to stay on track once they get there.

  • After school programs and schools. Investments in after school programs have increased over the past decade as a means of keeping youth safe while parents work, and as a way of promoting academic, social, and cultural development in the nonschool hours. Improving academic outcomes and narrowing the achievement gap is one goal of many after school programs. Consequently, programs increasingly are collaborating with schools to support learning and development. For example, by communicating about the needs of individual students, teachers, along with after school staff and volunteers, share valuable information that helps them to know youth and their families better, to tailor their work to students’ unique strengths and needs, and to develop methods that complement, but do not replicate, one another.

  • Families, schools, and communities. Meaningful and authentic relationships between families, schools, and communities are associated with positive school outcomes.9 As a result, educators and community leaders concerned about the achievement gap and the need for meaningful civic engagement in education are beginning to create models, processes, and projects that move away from a school-centered view of family involvement to one focused on the families and the communities in which children live. Family involvement that is co-constructed by parents and teachers ensures that family and community expertise serve as a resource for children’s learning.10

  • A continuum of integrated family, school, and comprehensive community services. While multi-agency efforts to build continua of the preventive and early intervention services from early childhood through high school are difficult to implement and especially difficult to sustain, a number of well-established efforts are beginning to show evidence of preventing negative behaviors and effectively promoting learning and enhanced educational achievement. Partnership for Results, in Auburn, New York, exemplifies this. A collaboration among health, mental health, human services, and law enforcement, the Partnership has implemented a continuum of evidence-based programs with integrated service planning, assessment, and databases for performance management and tracking of results. Services include enhanced school and out-of-school programs. Their results show better outcomes for all of the partners, including schools, with less violent behavior and marked improvements in academic outcomes.11

While connections can occur between individuals or programs, they can also occur at a systems level, with partnerships that cut across a full range of learning contexts.12 For example, with a mission of providing significant positive opportunities for children and youth within a 60-block area of central Harlem, the Harlem Children’s Zone, led by Geoffrey Canada, has developed an integrated community-wide network of services and supports that includes school-based community centers, parenting programs, youth programs, family support, health services, and job training (see box below).

The Harlem Children’s Zone:
Complementary Learning in Practice

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is a comprehensive community-building initiative designed to improve outcomes for children and families living within a 60-block area of central Harlem. With its interconnected and tightly woven web of services for children and adults, HCZ is a prime example of complementary learning in practice.

Led by Geoffrey Canada, HCZ is improving outcomes for low-income children by focusing on the whole community. Two core principles inspire this approach. The first is that children are more likely to be healthy and successful when surrounded by adults who can parent effectively and engage with children educationally, socially, and culturally. The second is that early intervention is critical for successful development. From birth on, children must have adequate health care, intellectual and social stimulation, and consistent guidance from attentive adults.

HCZ’s approach to improving child outcomes supports multiple aspects of children’s lives, in both the school and nonschool hours. Believing that achieving positive child outcomes is difficult, if not impossible, in “disintegrated” communities, HCZ offers a network of connected supports designed to ensure children are safe, healthy, productive, and academically proficient. Children in HCZ’s “service zone” have access to a continuum of programs and services that follow them developmentally, beginning at birth and extending through college.

HCZ’s system of community-wide services for children and adults is one of the most comprehensive in the country. Supports include workshops for new parents, family support centers, preschool programs, schools that function as community centers, employment and technology centers, after school initiatives, and health services and programs.

Evaluation is critically important to HCZ, described as “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.”* Evaluation efforts are underway to examine whether individual programs are successful and whether the integrated network of supports HCZ offers is effective as a whole in improving child and family outcomes. The evaluation is assessing the initiative’s goals (which include supporting families to care for their children, improving academic outcomes, and supporting positive youth development), documenting implementation, assuring excellence in programming, and assessing outcomes associated with different levels and durations of participation. As part of the evaluation, HCZ has developed a database that includes all program participants and tracks their participation. Early evaluation findings show a high usage of services by community members (nearly 12,000 children and families), and positive outcomes for specific HCZ programs.

* Tough, P. (2004, June 20). The Harlem project. New York Times Magazine, p. 44.

Complementary-Learning Implications

As we look to the future it is our hope that complementary learning extend beyond its use as a conceptual frame. To realize this goal, we propose a set of action steps necessary to move forward a complementary-learning agenda:

1. Further recognition of, and investments in, nonschool learning contexts and supports. We noted earlier that decades of research have demonstrated the clear influence of nonschool factors and contexts on children’s learning. For example, brain development research shows us that children are born ready to learn and that early experiences significantly impact how the brain develops.13 Longitudinal research has demonstrated that quality preschool programs can help to ensure that children raised in poverty do not enter school significantly behind their wealthier peers and that preschool can have long-term benefits and cost savings.14 Additionally, evaluations of out-of-school time programs show their impact on children’s academic and social adjustment.15

Given this ever-increasing evidence base, if we are serious about narrowing the achievement gap, investments in these supports need to increase so that more children—especially low-income children and students of color—have access to quality educational experiences outside the school context. While school-based reforms are important, ignoring or not investing adequately in what happens outside of school will have a negative effect on the overall success of reforms.

2. Increase complementary connections between learning contexts. While recent efforts to build more comprehensive systems16 and networks through collaboration have increased the number of programs and organizations that connect for the benefit of children, progress has been slow and uneven. To have the impact on learning outcomes that we believe is possible, the number of organizations, programs, and resources that connect will need to increase vastly. Moreover, enhancing the quality of these connections will be critical.

Putting complementary learning into practice requires that learning contexts be connected in meaningful ways. These connections can be facilitated by certain “linking mechanisms” that serve as on-the-ground, practical ties. Linking mechanisms are real-world practices that cut across contexts to forge connections that might not otherwise exist. Mechanisms may include, but are not limited to, professional development and staffing, public and institutional policies, family involvement, technology and other communication tools, research and evaluation, and public and private funding.

For example, family involvement in school-based after school programs can help parents learn about and feel more comfortable in their children’s schools. Professional development can facilitate knowledge sharing among early childhood educators and kindergarten teachers that will facilitate smooth school transitions. Collaborative funding streams can promote resource sharing among multiple service providers, and can promote evaluation for shared accountability or continuous learning and improvement.

3. Increase funding for collaborative and complementary endeavors. One challenge to connecting learning contexts is that a financial incentive is often required to get started. Fortunately, in recent years many funders have realized that currently disconnected programs and services can be more cost-effective and sustainable if resources are aligned into a system that supports children and their families in the learning and development process. We have seen an emerging trend in philanthropy toward strategic investments in initiatives working toward these ends. Examples from foundations highlighted in this issue illustrate the kinds of investments we hope will increase in years to come.

4. Develop and support a knowledge base to support these principles. Looking ahead, we believe a more solid knowledge base of research and evaluation to support complementary-learning principles will be needed. While we know a great deal about the contribution of individual learning contexts, we know less about them as connected elements. Although this knowledge base is growing, much more research and documentation is needed to provide “existence proof” that aligning and linking learning contexts and resources is worth serious exploration and investment. We need to look hard at past system-building efforts, examine previous collaborative efforts closely, and apply the lessons from these to “next generation” complementary-learning efforts.17

In addition, research and evaluation are needed to better understand which types of connections provide the most benefit and how to improve them once connections are made. Finally, we need to evolve methodologically to embrace the complexity involved in studying complementary-learning efforts that often feature “messy” partnerships and connections that tend to evolve over time. (See the box below for one such example from the field of public health.) While ideas and techniques gleaned from existing evaluations help us identify the kinds of measures to use and useful tools for evaluating complex initiatives, this is an exciting and challenging area in which the field must continue to evolve; and as we evolve, we must look to other fields to help us understand how evaluation can help guide our understanding and expansion of complementary learning.

Knowledge Development and Evaluation for HIV/AIDS Antiretroviral Therapy:
A Parallel for Complementary Learning

Concerns about American economic competitiveness, increased awareness of the failure of many children to reach learning standards, and heightened attention to racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps are creating a new willingness to invest in complementary-learning supports. This, in turn, challenges us to develop a new approach to learning, performance management, and evaluation. Instructive parallels exist with the way in which public health professionals are developing learning and evaluation systems to guide and assess efforts to scale up antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

As the recent Institute of Medicine report Scaling Up Treatment for the Global AIDS Pandemic argues, ART requires a complex, multisystem effort and efficient use of very scarce resources.* Limited knowledge exists about which ART programs work or how necessary key components should link together. Even less is known about whether they can be replicated and scaled up with positive effects. Much of what we know about ART has been learned in resource-rich countries and will not necessarily generalize to resource-poor locations. In this case, the usual argument—do the research, see what works, and then go to scale—will not work. As a result, public health professionals are developing a new approach to what they call “monitoring and evaluation.”**

This approach emphasizes usable knowledge that gets disseminated quickly to inform practice, and the strategic use of clinical trials and meta-analytic syntheses. It builds efforts to strengthen government capacity to track progress and organizes multidonor consensus on standards and benchmarks. The Institute of Medicine report also argues that in the complex, harmonized multidonor effort that is required to scale-up ART, it will be impossible to attribute change to particular donors and wasteful to try.

Complementary learning is in a similar situation. We do not have a research-based recipe for success, but there is an urgency to act and to have a monitoring and evaluation strategy to guide the effort. Future issues of The Evaluation Exchange will look further at public health and other approaches to monitoring and evaluation that can inform thinking about knowledge development strategies for complementary learning. We welcome readers’ contributions to this effort.

* Curran, J., Debas, H., Arya, M., Kelley, P., Knobler, S., & Pray, L. (Eds.). (2004). Scaling up treatment for the global AIDS pandemic: Challenges and opportunities. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
** Rugg, D., Peersman, G., & Carael, M. (Eds.). (2004). Global advances in HIV/AIDS monitoring and evaluation [Special issue]. New Directions for Evaluation, 103.

See, for example, The Evaluation Exchange, (9)2.
2 The winter 2004/2005 and spring 2002 issues of The Evaluation Exchange cover the topics of family and community support and involvement; the summer 2004 issue covers early childhood education; out-of-school time programs are explored in the spring 2003 and spring 2004 issues; schools and education reform are covered in the summer 2003 issue; and the fall 2003 issue looks at community-based initiatives.
3 Eccles. J. S., & Gootman, J. A. (Eds.). (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; Simpkins, S. D. (2003). Does youth participation in out-of-school time activities make a difference? The Evaluation Exchange, 9(1), 2–3, 21.
4 Gambone, M. A., Klem, A. M., & Connell, J. P. (2002). Finding out what matters for youth: Testing key links in a community action framework for youth development. Philadelphia: Youth Development Strategies and Institute for Research and Reform in Education.
5 Dearing, E., McCartney, K., Weiss, H. B., Kreider, H., & Simpkins, S. (2004). The promotive effects of family educational involvement for low-income children’s literacy. Journal of School Psychology, 42(6), 445–460.
6 Spencer, M. B., Dupree, D., & Hartmann, T. (1997). A phenomenological variant of ecological systems theory (PVEST): A self-organization perspective in context. Development & Psychopathology, 9(4), 817–833; Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513–531; Cook, T. D., Herman, M. R., Phillips, M., & Settersten, R. A., Jr. (2002). Some ways in which neighborhoods, nuclear families, friendship groups, and schools jointly affect changes in early adolescent development. Child Development, 73(4), 1283–1309; Furstenberg, F. F., Jr., Cook, T. D., Eccles, J., Elder, G. H., Jr., & -Sameroff, A. (2000). Managing to make it: Urban families and adolescent success. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
7 NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2002). Early child care and children’s development prior to school entry: Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. American Educational Research Journal, 39, 133–164.
8 Brooks-Gunn, J., & Markman, L. B. (2005). The contribution of parenting to ethnic and racial gaps in school readiness. The Future of Children, 15(1), 139–168; Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
9 Fan, X., & Chen, M. (2001). Parental involvement and students’ academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 1–22.; Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory; Jeynes, W. H. (2005). A meta-analysis of the relation of parental involvement to urban elementary school student academic achievement. Urban Education, 40(3), 237–269.
10 Lopez, M. E., Kreider, H., & Caspe, M. (2004). Co-constructing family involvement. The Evaluation Exchange, 10(4). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.
11 Uninsky, P. B. (n.d.). The second mouse’s agenda: A comprehensive model for preventing and reducing violence in the lives of school-age children. Unpublished manuscript. Draft available from Partnership for Results, 144 Genesee Street, Suite 410, Auburn, NY 13021.
12 Pianta, R. C., Kraft-Sayre, M., Rimm-Kaufman, S., Gerke, N., & Higgins, T. (2001). Collaboration in building partnerships between families and schools: The National Center for Early Development and Learning’s Kindergarten Transition Intervention. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 16(1), 117–132.
13 Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
14 See, for example, Schweinhart, L. J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W. S., Belfield, C. R., & Nores, M. (2005). Lifetime effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 40. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
15 Miller, B. M. (2003). Critical hours: Afterschool programs and educational success. Quincy, MA: Nellie Mae Education Foundation; Simpkins, S. (2003). Does youth participation in out-of-school activities make a difference? The Evaluation Exchange, 9(1), 2–3, 21.
16 The Build Initiative, for example, supports early care and education systems building in select states.
17 See, for example, our fall 2003 issue on evaluating community-based initiatives.

Heather B. Weiss, Founder & Director, HFRP

Julia Coffman, Margaret Post, Suzanne Bouffard, and Priscilla Little, HFRP


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