Who is Communities in Schools?

Education Today

What Affects the State of Education Today?

Communities in Schools is a non-profit group claiming of late that a “scientific study proves” that their group is not only effective in academic type interventions, but is in fact “our country’s leading dropout prevention organization, and the only one proven to significantly decrease dropout rates, increase graduation rates, and increase math and literacy proficiency.” (http://pittsburgh.cis-pa.org/)

Communities in Schools bases its claim of proof on an ostensibly scientific study conducted by a group known as ICF International. Just hearing the word “proof” in the same sentence with the words “scientific study” ought to prick the ears of anyone who has ever taken a basic college statistics course. Can it possibly be true that after years of data collection across literally hundreds of millions of students that a single reproducible methodological approach to improve academics, decrease drop out rates, improve attendance, and decrease discipline incidents has been found? If you’re like me, you are open-minded and hopeful, but highly skeptical.

Before I go any further, I should point out that I myself am a member of AmeriCorps, and I am temporarily serving for Communities In Schools of Arizona. I present these questions about the Communities In Schools five year longitudinal study neither as a proponent for, nor crusader against Communities In Schools (CIS).

Who conducted the longitudinal study?

A group known as  ICF International compiled the quasi-experimental data upon which the claims of proof of a methodological approach to improved academics were founded. According to ICF International’s web site, “ICF was founded in 1969 as the Inner City Fund, a venture capital firm established to finance inner-city businesses. Its first president was C. D. Lester, a former Tuskegee Airman, who was joined by three U.S. Department of Defense analysts.”
(http://www.icfi.com/about/our-history) According to the same website, the ICF organization has as one of its primary goals to promote “responsible fatherhood”, “supportive housing”, “sustainable workforce development”, and “justice”.

It goes without say that nearly everyone everywhere wants a social utopia, in whatever form that may take. What is difficult to fathom is a group that purports itself as a scientific organization yet also openly admits and actively promotes an agenda. There are as many PhDs on the board of ICF as any global corporation, but, again, there is a clear bias toward finding programs who support “social change”.

ICF’s primary markets are now Defense and community outreach type programs – such odd bedfellows. It is clear that ICF is not a purely objective scientific brain trust company. Still, this open bias should not automatically discredit the ICF longitudinal study. After all, it may be unprofessional and suspicious to be both scientific and yet have an agenda – but that cannot discredit true science. With this in mind, you could not have found a more cooperative or suspicious organization to compile a study on Communities In Schools.

Where was the study published?

This question has a different answer depending on to whom the question is posed. When scientists say “published”, they mean that the document was submitted to what is known as a peer-reviewed journal. At a peer-reviewed journal, several scientists read the study without knowing who the authors of the study are, or what the authors’ agenda is. If the reviewing scientists feel that a study is generally scientifically valid, the study will then  be promoted to the editor of the journal for the final word on publication.

So in what scientific journal was this five year long “scientific” study published?

None that I’ve found. Not one. How is it possible that a five year long study which purports to “prove” a methodolgical approach which claims to lower the drop-out rate, improve attendance, raise grades, and reduce disciplinary problems works effectively would go unpublished? How, indeed.

Let’s take a closer look at the document that was “published” by Communities In Schools. The very first thing we notice is that the document has both the Communities In Schools and ICF International corporate logos on its face. Inside the 34 page report, you will not find much “SPSS” data (SPSS is the software package with which scientific papers are typically prepared). The document is not formatted in the standard APA style typically associated with scientific studies. In fact, the study looks much like an advertisement for Communities In Schools, and perhaps ICF International itself.

But what about the specific claims of this well polished study?

Specifically, the report claims that, amongst all schools utilizing CIS, dropouts were reduced, attendance across all grade levels was improved, math scores across all grade levels improved, and that reading scores across all grade levels were neutral or declined. Yet, the report also states that none of the so-called “improvements” were substantitvely meaningful (p. 9). In other words, the primary finding of the report, so widely touted as proof that CIS is effective, is that there is no meaningful effect of having CIS in schools, except for a decrease in reading scores.

However, the authors of the report claim that amongst schools which are “high implementers” of the CIS model, droupout rates did improve in a meaningful way, so did elementary school attendance, and middle school math and reading scores (but there was still a depressive effect on high school reading scores). Problematically, the ICF study operationally defined “high implementers” thusly: “those CIS schools that implemented the model with fidelity. We developed a scoring rubric which was field-tested and validated, that measured implementation in four domains: planning, needs assessment, service delivery, and monitoring and adjustment.” Unfortunately, what exactly “service delivery” is remains undefined. In other words, the definition is tautological. Schools that performed well were defined as high implementers, and vice versa. The “high implementers” are merely those CIS schools who happened to have a better outcome, chosen “cherry picking” style from the total population.

The study expands upon certain cohorts, and even though this piece reads more like an advertisement than a scientific study, the numbers clearly indicate that even the hand-picked data is not good. For instance, the Withcita cohort had negative effects on nearly every rubric measured, where it had an effect at all.

One of the few seemingly positive data items in the cherry-picked list was that overall GPA had improved in the Austin cohort. I was pleased to find this diamond in the rough, because I want CIS to be what it purports to be. I found myself with more than a moment’s worth of pause and had to force myself to consider that the longitudinal study occured at the height of the Texas school cheating scandals. Unfortunately, this GPA correlation also implies a correlation between CIS and grade cheating scandals. Corelation is not causation, however.

So what does it all mean?

The ICF/CIS study indicates that schools are spending “under $200 per pupil” for over 1.2 million pupils. Let’s say around $200,000,000 per year. With no statistically significant meaningful results (with an appreciable effect size), that means taxpayers and funding stakeholders are spending two hundred million dollars per year on a program whose only actually meaningful effect is to suppress reading grades.

But what if I’m wrong? Suppose that my interpretation of the CIS study is misguided. Is it worthwhile to spend $200,000,000 for the results, even if they were as fantastic as CIS purports? No, not even remotely. Why? Because CIS is doing absolutely nothing that school nurses, social workers, head start workers, and psychologists are or should already be doing. CIS itself provides NONE of the services it directs people to. CIS only connects people to resources, like food stamps, grief counseling, etc. Yes, there are some exceptionally talented CIS workers who are good-hearted and well-meaning and actually produce good results, but overall CIS is yet an additional beuracratic layer competing for the resources that already exist. CIS is a parasitic consumer of the resources already available to the community – the only difference is that now the cost burden has been increased to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars a year, removed from direct control of the local school district and placed directly into the hands of corporate sponsors like Pepsi and Procter and Gamble, and on the backs of federal taxpayers.

An updated version of this report was submitted to the Sentate Education Committee regarding proposed ESEA Legistlation. Click here to download the report.

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