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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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Heather Weiss

The national conversation about how to better educate our children, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, has shifted and is reaching a tipping point. The debate is no longer defined by the view that learning happens only in schools. Rather, reinforced by many years of research, it has advanced toward the realization that from birth onward, learning happens across multiple contexts—in families, early care and education programs, schools, out-of-school time and youth programs, and community settings and institutions, including libraries, museums, and faith-based organizations.

A new and strong emphasis on educational accountability has helped to drive this change. School performance data tell us that many schools are neither meeting the learning benchmarks of the No Child Left Behind Act nor reducing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Consequently, many now argue that while good schools remain critical, schools alone cannot educate our children.

Now is the time to tip the debate from dialogue to action. The question we must ask is, in addition to quality schools, what nonschool learning resources should we invest in and scale up to improve educational outcomes, narrow achievement gaps, and equip our children with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the complex and global 21st century?

In hopes of inspiring broad, creative thinking about nonschool supports and their potential, we put forward, as this issue’s theme, the idea of “complementary learning.” As explained in the issue’s Theory & Practice section, complementary learning refers to the idea that school and life success requires an array of learning supports. To be most effective, these supports should complement one another, moving out of their silos and working together to create an integrated, accessible set of community-wide resources that support learning and development. Finally, while nonschool resources should be aligned with public schools, they should not be limited by them.

Emergent thinking about nonschool supports that warrant investment, along with promising ways to link, assess, and scale them, is a highlight of this issue. Featured are the voices of two renowned experts—Richard Rothstein and Edmund Gordon—whose thinking and writing is helping to lead the evidence-based debate about the necessity of key nonschool supports. Our consultation with experts continues with an overview of ways in which several foundations are applying complementary-learning ideas in their grantmaking. In the Promising Practices section we offer examples of ways nonschool supports can complement and support joint learning outcomes; and in Evaluations to Watch we present two examples of how to use theories of change to develop, guide, and assess complementary-learning efforts.

So what is new about complementary learning? The core components and efforts to scale and link nonschool supports have been discussed for many years and have been manifested in many fledgling policies and programs. What’s new is that more educators, parents, policymakers, teachers, funders, and others are reaching a tipping point in their understanding of what it takes to prepare children for success in school and in life. It is our hope that this issue helps to move us even closer to that threshold, which, when reached, will result in a more comprehensive solution for improving learning outcomes.

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project