03/17/2011 01:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rewriting NCLB: The Promise of Neighborhoods

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are on the stump again, armed with terrifying statistics about school failure as they nudge Congress toward the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a No Child Left Behind). Under the current law, 82 percent of schools may be at risk. "This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail," warns a wan and weary-looking Duncan, "and very few ways to help them succeed." The talk is of annual achievement benchmarks; improvements in measuring student progress, rewarding good teachers and purging the system of bad ones; and ensuring that creativity and critical thinking are not lost in the focus on math and literacy.

The accent, however, is on the wrong syllable.

We need to be paying more attention, and driving greater investment, to Promise Neighborhoods, a critical initiative in the Administration's blueprint for NCLB reauthorization -- and the place where real education reform begins. Here's the vision: All children and youth will have access to great schools and strong systems of family and community support that will prepare them to attain an excellent education and successfully transition to college and career. The goal: to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed communities. Applications for competitive grants, under the aegis of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, are slated to be ready by late spring, with a deadline for DOE awards at the end of September, just after the nation's children return to school. They can't come soon enough.

At the earlier end of the education spectrum -- from birth to 5 -- child development experts, pediatricians, early childhood educators and researchers have long argued that positive outcomes for children, including their readiness for school, ongoing academic success, and future productivity, depend not only on their intellectual development, but also on their physical and social-emotional health, and on their immediate environments, most importantly, their families and neighborhoods. Indeed, the actual architecture of children's brains is shaped by the interaction of their genes and experience, all of which happens in the context of relationships, in homes and in communities, with important adults in their lives. Poverty also shapes children's long-term health and development, affecting all domains of development--cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional, and physical.

Harvard's Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child, has been driving home this point, for all who would listen, since the publication, in 2000, of From Neurons to Neighborhoods, a landmark study from the National Research Council that emphasized a more holistic approach to young children's development and the importance of early intervention for vulnerable children and families. What all of this calls for, down in the weeds of early childhood policy:

• Access to basic medical care for pregnant women and children and to intensive home-based support for vulnerable families
• Two-generation programs that provide support for parents as well as high-quality early education programs that enhance their children's cognitive and social development
• Interventions that yield specialized services for young children experiencing toxic stress from abuse or neglect, severe maternal depression, parental substance abuse, or family violence

And here's a snapshot of poverty in America today, courtesy of the National Center for Children in Poverty and the Brookings Institution:

• The federal poverty level in 2010 was $22,050 for a family of four.
• On average, families need an income equal to about two times the federal poverty level to meet their most basic needs (italics mine).
• 46 percent -- or 11.7 million -- of children under age 6 in the U.S. live in low-income families.
• 24 percent -- or 6.1 million -- of children under age 6 live in poverty.
• The overall poverty rate is expected to increase from 12.5 percent in 2007 to nearly 16 percent by 2014.
• The child poverty rate is expected to increase from 18 percent in 2007 to nearly 26 percent in 2014, adding six million children to the ranks of the poor.

Not a pretty picture--and one that we ignore at our peril.

States and communities across the country have long been creatively using education funding -- including Title I -- to support services for children beginning at birth. Today, in Wisconsin, the latest front in the education wars, the Appleton Area School District has adopted a comprehensive Birth to Five Plan, which includes literacy programs for parents delivering at local hospitals; community parent education workshops; Parents as Teachers home visiting; Early Childhood Special Education, Title I Preschool and Even Start Family Literacy. Such are the building blocks--or at least some of them--for getting our youngest, and most vulnerable, children off to a solid start.

Promise Neighborhoods is part of the solution. It's not nearly enough -- how about diverting some of that $100 billion plus for war-spending in FY 2012? -- but it's what we've got. And, in my book, the initiative represents one of the most promising, evidence-based, impulses in education reform to come along in awhile.