A lesson for policymakers: when it comes to student support, quality matters

A new article published by the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings, highlights the dynamic market for “student support” services that’s emerging as public funding increases to help schools address students’ social service and mental health needs, many of which were aggravated by the pandemic.

“School districts are now inundated with ‘student support’ service providers but have little guidance on how to select or manage them,” Joan Wassser Gish and Haibin Jiang write in the article, “Amid rush of school support vendors, policymakers must monitor quality.”

Wasser Gish is the Director of Systemic Impact, at the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children, the home of City Connects, and Jiang is one of the center’s Research Associates.

“With the field’s increasing understanding of what effective student support strategies look like, policymakers should establish quality benchmarks to help districts ensure a minimum, evidence-based standard of care for students,” Wasser Gish and Jiang explain.

“Just as the Food and Drug Administration strives to ensure that the health benefits of a new treatment outweigh potential harms, policymakers in education can use evidence to minimize potential risks and maximize the benefits of student support interventions.” 

Among the risks that local, state, and federal policymakers can minimize are:

• the mishandling of personal information about children and families 

• failure to follow up when students share traumatic experiences, which risks “exacerbating the student’s feelings of isolation and helplessness and raising the risk of adverse student outcomes,” and 

• failing to correctly identify students’ needs and, as a result, misallocating resources and services

“Growth in the market for student support services must be met with an increased focus on ensuring that providers follow evidence-based best practices,” write Wasser Gish and Jiang. 

This oversight work “falls to a wide range of federal, state, and local policymakers… to ensure that students receive a baseline standard of quality care and support, and that resources, supported largely by public funds, are used effectively and efficiently.”

Fortunately, Wasser Gish and Jiang say, there is no need to start from scratch. Existing research, resources, and high-quality programs already provide a framework. One example is the National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support, which provide “a roadmap for how all schools can improve their approach to student support.” The guidelines were co-developed by expert researchers and practitioners convened by the Center for Thriving Children.

These new National Guidelines can help policymakers as they align federal investments – in programs like the Full Service Community Schools program – with evidence-based best practices so that more schools can implement proven strategies.

Recent federal efforts also include “the National Partnership for Student Success, which released voluntary quality standards, and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which invests in student support personnel and interventions.” 

States are taking action by using research on effectiveness to help schools and districts implement approaches that are more likely to work for students. 

“In Texas and West Virginia, for example, state funds are supporting the expansion of Communities In Schools… and Indiana is expanding City Connects.” Other states are advancing best practices by participating in school and district-learning networks.

 There is much more work to do, but as Wasser Gish and Jiang point out, having “a shared roadmap informed by research and practice” like the National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support should prove to be “a critical touchstone” for helping students across the country benefit from effective student support.

To learn more, please read the article.

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