Lisbeth Schorr's book, "Common Purpose: Strengthening American Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America" offers possible solutions to disintegrating families.
JIM LEHRER: Tonight a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Lisbeth Schorr, author of "Common Purpose: Strengthening American Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America."
DAVID GERGEN: Lisbeth, as you say in your book, the abiding wisdom in this country, when it comes to helping poor children, is that everything has been tried; nothing has worked; and nothing ever will work. But you believe thatís all wrong?
LISBETH SCHORR, Author, "Common Purpose": Well, I not only believe itís all wrong. I have evidence thatís wrong. We know that in attacking some of the most severe social problems in this country like disintegrating families, disintegrating neighborhoods, school failure, teenage pregnancy, single parenting, we know there are programs that work. Now, the fact that there are programs that work is not enough because it turns out the programs that work have such a hard time being sustained and scaling up and being replicated.
DAVID GERGEN: These programs tend to be small in one community.
LISBETH SCHORR: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: Started by activists in a community, given a lot of support by the city leaders.
LISBETH SCHORR: Exactly. And what this--what "Common Purpose" is about is that we donít have to despair even about the possibility of scaling these programs up.
DAVID GERGEN: Toó
LISBETH SCHORR: But, we can, in fact, spread them; that they can be supported by public funds, although most of them were started as innovative programs by foundations, some demonstrations by--with public funds. But now we know that it is possible to reach millions with programs that previously had only reached a few hundred.
DAVID GERGEN: Two things. One, what are the secrets to scaling out from a local program to a statewide or a national program, and secondly, where has it worked? Give me some examples. Letís start with what the secrets are.
LISBETH SCHORR: The most overlooked secret is that itís not enough to just copy something because when you do scale up, a lot of new issues arise. The--what worked on a very small scale is not going to work once you introduce the program into a very large system because the way the system is regulated, the way large programs are funded, require all kinds of rigidity that are totally incompatible with what makes these programs work.
What makes these programs work is that they are flexible at the front lines. Thatís No. 1. So one of the secrets is to find a new balance between the flexibility that you need and the accountability that you need in order to make sure that public funds are being spent properly. Another big new secret that people are finding around the country in what I think of as the new wizards, who are experimenting, not just with innovations but with scaling up innovations, they form partnerships between formal systems and neighborhood organizations, neighborhood organizations that function much more like family than do formal systems. And the third thing is that we have to recognize that good programs differ from one place to another.
Thereís no central place that can figure out what to do in Oakland that will also work in Purdue. So these successful programs really have a lot--a lot of what makes them work comes from the local community. So we have to find a new way of using local wisdom and local strengths, while supporting that from outside because these depleted communities, they canít do it all on their own. They need funds from outside. They need political clout from outside, and they need to know a lot of what has worked elsewhere.
DAVID GERGEN: A couple of your examples were in the educational field. It was called "Success for All," a lot of the beacon schools in New York. Can you tell us what those made those successful. Tell us about the programs and how they work, taken from a small level up to a much larger level.
LISBETH SCHORR: "Success for All" is a wonderful reading program that was pioneered in one school, in Baltimore, and is now operating in 750 schools in 31 states. "Success for All" has done what so many of the successful school reforms do, and that is, it has--it has really changed how the whole school operates. Itís not enough to introduce just one new thing like say changes in class size. It has changed the way teachers teach. It has changed the way the school relates to the family. It has changed the one-to-one mentoring and tutoring that is available to the children and thereby it has really changed the way the whole school functions. And the results have been really dramatic because their objectives that no child should leave third grade without being able to read have been realized over and over again.
DAVID GERGEN: But the first thing, they had to de-bureaucratize the system as they moved from small to large, they had to let--make sure the bureaucracy welcomed it and would allow them to be flexible.
LISBETH SCHORR: Exactly. And one of the big problems with school reform is that we have learned how to make single schools work and we have not learned how to make school systems work because where the schools that are successful have been able to really shape a coherent set of reforms, theyíve been able to shape coherent missions. If youíre operating within a school system that keeps trying to micro manage and that keeps trying to tell them, no, you canít have 45 minute school periods; you have to have 40 minute school periods. You can have home rooms. You must have home rooms. When all those directives come from outside, then a school finds it so hard to adopt a set of coherent reforms.
DAVID GERGEN: I loved your line from T.S. Elliot, you must have a willingness to "disturb the universe."
LISBETH SCHORR: Exactly. Exactly.
DAVID GERGEN: I wanted to ask you about another element. We donít have a lot of time, but this question of synergy. Instead of taking things up, taking lots and lots of things and impacting one community and bringing lots of things in together at the same time.
LISBETH SCHORR: I think thatís one of the most exciting things that I found. The neighborhood initiative, the try to transform a whole neighborhood by taking together everything that worked and targeting this on a single neighborhood, they are--these neighborhood initiatives are saying we are no longer willing to choose between school reform, early childhood programs, housing, employment opportunities, job training. We have to do all of those things at once. And thatís what theyíre doing.
DAVID GERGEN: And where is that working?
LISBETH SCHORR: I have--I write about seven particularly wonderful communities, but let me just tell you about a couple. One is in San Town in Baltimore.
DAVID GERGEN: San Town in Baltimore.
LISBETH SCHORR: Right. Where the late James Rouse, the developer, said he was setting out to prove that life can be turned around for people at the bottom; not only that, but that it would cost less to do that than not to do it. And he collaborated with Mayor Schmoke of Baltimore and the residents of that neighborhood. And that neighborhood is turning around. New housing is being built. Infant mortality has gone down. School success is being achieved. Itís extraordinary, and we have similar findings in the South Bronx in Savannah, where also--in Savannah they started out by thinking that you could do--you could achieve what needed to be achieved by integrating services. Well, they found like a lot of other people have found, you canít service people out of poverty. You have to build a community, and they have done that very successfully. And they have the results to show for it.
DAVID GERGEN: Inspiring too.
LISBETH SCHORR: Inspiring. And all of these successful programs have been able not only to show results but they under--they are strategic about how they are going to get there so they put together what we know works in a way that relates what has to be done with what is to be achieved.
DAVID GERGEN: Lisbeth Schorr, thank you very much.
LISBETH SCHORR: Well, thank you, David.