04/08/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Designer Schools: Making Sure They're a Good Fit for All

School redesign is a hot topic in education circles, and it's easy to see why. In so many ways, the basic underpinnings of our schools haven't changed radically since the Industrial Revolution. Yes, we've introduced new technologies, curricula and so forth, but the underlying assumptions and delivery mechanisms are firmly rooted in the past.

Instead of tinkering with improved features here and there -- teacher development, class size, additional learning time and so forth -- proponents of school redesign believe that it's time to go back to the drawing board, starting with a blank sheet of paper to create a school system designed specifically for the needs and realities of the 21st Century.

In late March, the Carnegie Corporation released a report entitled "Opportunity by Design: New High School Models for Student Success." It's a gamechanging piece of work that carefully lays out the need for comprehensive redesign, along with 10 "design principles" that reformers must keep in mind if they hope to affect a fundamental change in educational outcomes.

Carnegie's design principles are essential, but they're also flexible, recognizing the leadership capacity of superintendents and teachers across this country who are working double time to drive better academic outcomes for their students. Too often, those local leaders find themselves frustrated by structures and assumptions that simply don't reflect the world we live in today. If we are to realize the full potential of school redesign, it's important that we create a good "fit" for all our students -- especially those who were left out of the current design iteration.

I'm thinking specifically here of students from one-parent (or no-parent) households. Our current school system was designed for an Ozzie and Harriet world where two parents share responsibility for ensuring their children's academic success. Given the basic design assumptions, it's no surprise that children from such households perform better on numerous education metrics, including GPA, standardized tests and college attendance.

The challenge, however, is that real life no longer hews to the script for the 27 percent of U.S. schoolchildren who come from a single-parent home. Though Harriet may try mightily to provide on her own, she is too often thwarted by a system that still assumes she has backup. For families that are poor, this design flaw negatively effects student performance. A new report from Child Trends explains it like this:

From a resource perspective, parents provide their children valuable social and financial capital, and these types of resources tend to be more limited in families with one parent and even more so in families with no parents. ... [S]ingle mothers are often less able to provide emotional support and monitor their children effectively if they are overburdened by financial and emotional strains or are less able to balance work and family responsibilities successfully.

At Communities In Schools (CIS), we see this problem every single day, but we also see the amazing things that can happen when communities are catalyzed to act as extended families for children in need. Last year, CIS partnered with more than 300,000 parents or guardians, connecting them with over 15,000 community organizations to support them and their children. Boys and Girls Clubs, The Y, local churches, synagogues and mosques, Rotary Clubs and Junior League all function like a powerful extended family, offering physical and emotional supports that enable children and their caregivers to succeed.

And now, what we've seen to be true in our own experience is backed up by international data. One of the most intriguing findings in the Child Trends report is that the two-parent advantage we see in the U.S. does not always hold true in other contexts.

When researchers looked at education outcomes such as reading literacy, grade repetition and school enrollment around the world, they discovered many instances in which children from single-parent households performed just as well as their peers with two parents at home. Again and again, this apparent anomaly was observed in developing countries, where extended families and/or religious institutions play a far greater role than they do in the industrialized world.

What does this mean for school redesign efforts? If single-parent households are a permanent feature of the U.S. landscape, then any new-and-improved school design must find ways to welcome and integrate caring adults and the communities to which they belong into the lives of students and families.