12/18/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Promise Neighborhoods: Will They Work?

Just a few pages into the narrative describing its vision for the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood (BPN), there is an interesting admission: Of the 1,650 public school children who live in the proposed neighborhood, less than a quarter attends a Promise Neighborhood school. Instead, via school choice, most families have elected to go elsewhere. The San Antonio Promise Neighborhood also acknowledges that by middle school, barely a quarter of students attend an affiliated Promise Neighborhood School.

Even when Promise Neighborhoods aren't disrupted by school closures, their vision and their effectiveness are blunted by the fact that in many of the neighborhoods, most of the students attend schools that are not affiliated with the neighborhood itself. (Seventy percent of students in the Hayward, California Promise Neighborhood attend an affiliated school.) This underlying disconnect between where children go to school and where they live means that one of the chief arguments in favor of promise neighborhoods, that they would create a mutually reinforcing set of gains in and out of the classroom, is for many neighborhoods an impossibility.

The Buffalo Promise Neighborhood says that the answer to this problem is simple: "encourage" increased neighborhood enrollment by first stopping new students from outside the zone from enrolling in a BPN school, followed by an intensive marketing initiative. Other neighborhoods such as the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis are introducing "academic case managers" who are responsible for identifying learning challenges and potential solutions regardless of whether or not a child who lives in the zone attends one of the partner schools.

Unintentionally, these neighborhoods appear set to replicate a 2009 study by Harvard researchers that added significant nuance to assessments of the value of the Harlem Children's Zone, the inspiration for these Neighborhoods. Like the Promise Neighborhoods, many children who live outside the Harlem Children's Zone attend one of the Zone's schools. If the Zone's extensive services are making an impact, one would expect that students who live in the Zone would outperform students who only attend a Zone school. The researchers found that the students performed the same, "suggesting that proximity to the community programs is unimportant."

Studies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's "Moving to Opportunity," also stress the centrality of schools over communities with respect to academic performance. When families were given vouchers to move to better neighborhoods that had schools of similar quality, there was no material improvement in student academic performance. If Promise Neighborhoods are not driving sufficiently meaningful transformations of their partner schools, their efforts may be for naught.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, has also weighed in on the effectiveness of the Harlem Children's Zone. They sought to see whether the Harlem Children's Zone schools, when compared to other New York City charters, did better than expected given the socioeconomic background of its students on achievement tests administered from 2007 to 2009. This, they reasoned, could be an indicator of the Zone living up to its potential. The Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy, when adjusted for demographics, ranked in the 55th percentile in mathematics and 39th in English. In eighth grade math, the HCZ Promise Academy scored 10 points better than projected. Tellingly, however, of the schools that scored better than the Promise Academy, three were KIPP schools, a national network of charter schools with a rigorous, results-focused culture. As the Brookings authors point out, "none provide or depend on community and social services to achieve their academic mission."

With most recipients of implementation grants only two years or so into their efforts, the effects of the Promise Neighborhoods have not yet appeared on test scores. What fuels the optimism of Promise practitioners that the neighborhoods' work will eventually translate into measurable results is the strong emphasis the Department of Education has placed at all stages on the collecting and use of comprehensive child-level data, making recognition of underperformance unavoidable.

The absence of overwhelming evidence in support of the initiative has not stopped the concept's backers from claiming legitimate successes in how the neighborhoods have reshaped or strengthened relationships in more productive ways or provided resources that would not have otherwise existed. One of the San Antonio Eastside neighborhood's elementary school principals, Guadalupe Diaz, who has benefitted from the Neighborhood's infusion of literacy resources, affirmed, "I can't measure performance [statistically] but I know we began closing the gap last year."

Many of the most visible successes undertaken by Promise Neighborhoods have come from their efforts on early childhood education, exemplified by the surge from 34 percent to 94 percent school readiness among pre-schoolers in the Baltimore Promise Heights neighborhood. Many neighborhoods have focused on the youngest population first, reviving questions about the need for the entire continuum of services if targeted interventions can close most of the gaps that would spiral into more costly problems in student's teenage years.

Even though the program is proving that the coalition of actors can work together, it is too early to say that the concept itself works. In many ways, this is all beside the point. The question is much more than whether Promise Neighborhoods will work or not, it's whether the success will be large enough to matter. To answer that question, one need not wait for the data because the answer is clear enough: it will not. Promise Neighborhoods are an exercise in recognition that there are many factors beyond schools' control that affect children's academic and lifetime outcomes. Yet, those who argue that schools stop being blamed for the broader ills of poverty do themselves no service by embracing such a piecemeal effort as the Promise Neighborhoods program. The sophistication of the Promise Neighborhoods effort ultimately does little to distract from the absence of a truly bold national antipoverty and schools agenda.