Making The Grade: Assessing the Evidence for Integrated Student Supports

ReportFamiliesFeb 1 2014

An educated workforce is critical to having a competitive economy, and education is also important to the success and well-being of individuals throughout their lives. However, while education levels have risen substantially for many in the U.S. across the decades, disparities remain substantial, and many youth do not even complete high school.

Integrated student supports (ISS), sometimes referred to as integrated student services, represents an emerging field of practice that aims to address persistent disparities in educational achievement and attainment. ISS is a school-based approach to promoting students’ academic achievement and educational attainment by coordinating a seamless system of wraparound supports for the child, the family, and schools, to target student’s academic and non-academic barriers to learning. Programs that fall under an ISS umbrella have arisen in communities around the country. Five common components to improve academic achievement were identified across many, if not all, of the

ISS models that have emerged in recent years:

  • Needs assessments,
  • Coordination of supports for students,
  • Integration of supports within schools,
  • Community partnerships, and
  • Data collection and tracking.

All nine models reviewed for this study included these five components, though the way in which each component was defined in the models varied. Though models vary, this approach tends to emphasize the importance of coordination of supports to cost-effectively address identified needs.

Another common characteristic of ISS programs as implemented in communities is that they address not only the student but families, peers, and the school itself, in order to enhance students’ educational outcomes.

This focus on the non-academic factors that influence educational outcomes arises from practitioner’s experiences working in the community and also reflects a research base that clearly indicates that academic achievement and attainment are affected by numerous factors outside the academic domain. Child Trends’ review of research studies on the determinants of educational outcomes identified myriad factors that have all been found to affect one or another educational outcome.

Most of the extant studies reviewed tended to have a narrow focus on one outcome or just a handful of influences. To address this narrow focus, Child Trends conducted original analyses of the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS), a nationally representative sample of American adolescents as they age into adulthood. These new analyses included dozens of variables together to identify the factors that rose to the top, for American adolescents at large as well as Hispanic and black subgroups. Importantly, these analyses also did not identify one factor or a small set of factors that are critical or primary determinants of educational outcomes. Rather, these analyses echo those in the narrower studies in indicating that many factors—each with a quite small effect—influence high school graduation and post-secondary education. (The one exception was a teen birth, which was found to have a large negative association with high school graduation, over and above all other factors.)

Thus, practitioner insights and empirical findings agree that improving educational outcomes requires a broad focus. Moreover, this perspective is supported by the most widely-accepted tenets of theory and research in child development. For example, the ecological model recognizes the importance of proximal influences, such as the family and peers, as well as more distal influences, such as the school and community, on children’s development.

The lifecourse model recognizes that experiences at an earlier stage of childhood affect outcomes at a later stage, and the positive youth development field emphasizes the importance of positive relationships and supportive interactions. And, the whole child perspective sees children as defined by their health, behavior, and socioemotional development, not just their school success. The bioecological model builds on these perspectives, emphasizing the interactive nature of developmental processes, over time, between an individual and the contexts in which they develop.

Thus, the integrated student supports approach to improving educational outcomes and reducing disparities derives from experience as well as research and theory and appears well-warranted. Has it been found to be effective? Three types of evaluation studies have been conducted: outcomes evaluations; cost effectiveness studies; and implementation evaluations.

While several rigorous evaluations have been completed, the evaluation basis for integrated student supports as an approach can best be described as emerging. To date, it appears that ISS models can improve academic outcomes; but findings are mixed and tend to be stronger in quasi-experimental studies than in more rigorous random assignment evaluations. Quasi-experimental studies find promising results for student progress, attendance, reading, and math achievement. However, whether outcomes differ for children of varied ages and backgrounds has not received sufficient attention.

Given that the ISS model explicitly assumes the importance of non-academic factors in enhancing educational outcomes, it is surprising that, as yet, available evaluation evidence does not provide much evidence that the programs enhance those non-academic outcomes (the mediators) that are expected to drive academic outcomes. And, across studies, it is not clear which supports and/or which practices are important mediators. Is there a particular set of supports that are essential, or are supports best seen as a menu that can be offered depending upon the needs of the community or students, and can some supports be dropped as non-essential? Alternatively, is there a set of best practices that need to be implemented, regardless of the supports offered, to insure improved outcomes?

While three studies of cost effectiveness have been completed, they are based on rather different data and employ different approaches. Nevertheless, all three find large returns on investment. One commonality across the studies, though, requires assessment: that the cost of the supports provided in the community are not to be included as an ISS program cost. This assumption reflects the intent of the models to not only provide resources and coordination but to leverage existing community resources. Thus, it is well-aligned with the conceptual framework for ISS approaches; but whether sufficient supports are available at no incremental cost is not clear.

As found in youth development and early childhood research, evaluations of implementation find that better program quality is a predictor of educational outcomes. Again, these studies are few and the measures used vary across studies. Moreover, the distinction between supports and practices is again not clear. Quality can refer to fidelity to a strong and proven model, or the positive processes of program implementation, such as school climate, relationships and communication. Presumably quality is necessary for both supports and practices, but it is not clear where investments in quality are most productive, for what or for whom.

In sum, integrated student supports represent a promising approach, well-grounded in theory, research, and community experience. However, the evaluation evidence for the effectiveness of this approach is only beginning to emerge, and many questions remain unanswered. To identify whether, when, how, for whom, and why ISS approaches enhance educational outcomes will require an investment in strong evaluation studies. Such work should enhance the breadth and magnitude of the impacts that this promising approach can achieve.