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Sunday, January 12, 2014

What's Best for Kids

If you've spent any time in schools or in school district offices, there's a good chance you've heard someone implore others to remember that it's important to keep students in mind when making decisions.

Although not always, this is sometimes a underhanded insult. It suggests that others may have ulterior motives (presumably self-interest) when making decisions about how schools work.

At my school, we've recently been thinking about how to change our structures, schedule, class offerings, and other important operational components in an attempt to provide better educational experiences for students. The process has led to a few reminders that we should keep students at the heart of our thinking, which led me to really think about how my school might change if we really thought about said change through the lens of "what's best for kids."

Here are a few things I think would put students first (certainly not an exhaustive list):

1) We would allocate far fewer days to testing and test preparation

Many of my students experience severe anxiety about tests, and some even skip school when they know a test is coming. There is much to be said for learning to take tests and their role in society, but we've overdone it by a long shot. The emphasis we place on tests encourage deficit thinking and lead to hours upon hours spent thinking about how to make up for student shortcomings.

Focusing on students' strengths would not only create a healthier learning environment, it would give us the leverage we need to think about how we might best remedy some of their weaknesses.

2) We would spend our staff meeting time and professional collaboration time thinking about students

In my estimation, millions of meetings in public schools go nearly to waste every week because staff are directed to poor over data the district office is held accountable for by the state and federal government. Without training on how to interpret that data or draw inferences about how to act in service of changing it (much more on that here and here), school staffs leave these meetings with little more than a headache and complaints about how they could have used that time grading.

Part of the problem here is the type of data staff are being asked to analyze. Of far better use would be student work. There no data I can think of that better helps me plan effective lessons.

3) We would spend more time creating fascinating and relevant project-based curriculum

Students in too many schools are receiving the type of drill and kill instruction geared toward preparing students for the tests that make or break the careers of the adults in the system. Too often, the charge is made that teachers who eschew standards-based, test-centered instruction are not doing what's best for students. I find this ironic since standards-based instruction is mostly intended to improve the few drops of data that force repercussions for adults. (Read more here on my thoughts about standards-based instruction.)

No - there are plenty of excellent strategies available for helping students meet standards. What I currently see lacking at my school, and many schools like mine, is a severe lack of motivation/interest on behalf of students.

Contrary to popular belief, students do not dislike learning. In fact, like all humans, they enjoy it tremendously - when the learning is right for them.

If we were to put students first, we would ask students to join us in developing cross-curricular units that seamlessly integrate desired standards in pursuit of solving a community-based problem or presenting a meaningful project. This could be anything and everything from helping our students advocate to the school-board their right to use electronics in class to analyzing the harmful effects of popular music videos on teenage body image. Whatever it is, it has to matter to students and value their prior knowledge.

4) We would spend more time building relationships between all members of our community

Unfortunately, many of the staff at our school were raised in vastly different environments than our students. We may know what our students allow us to see of them in a school setting, but there are undoubtedly many more layers to each of their unique personalities.

People who go to work where they feel like they know the people they spend time with well enough to speak honestly and openly with them enjoy what they do. This leads to a healthier environment for all involved.

5) We would make small class sizes a priority for all students, regardless of whether they're in a class that requires a high-stakes test at its end or not

Class size is often poorly understood because changes in class size don't affect all classrooms in all schools the same way.

Students from safe environments who know how to learn, are motivated to learn, and already have background knowledge in the subject at hand are significantly more manageable in class. But even when you have all of those factors working in your favor, an increase in class size still portends a massive increase in work when it comes to parent communication, assessment, and tutoring - all tasks that fall outside of the school day, and therefore often slip the minds of those in this "debate" who don't work in schools.

For teachers who work in schools that serve less privileged communities, increases in class size carry an even heavier burden. It means that you have to be extraordinarily skilled at classroom management, willing to devote tremendous effort planning detailed lessons, and have the competencies and social-emotional characteristics that allow underprivileged students to trust you and learn from you.

Ultimately, smaller class sizes mean better educational experiences for all students - and that is particularly true for the students least well served by our system.

6. We would be mindful of how changes affect different students differently

Solutions being posed by many of our district leaders center around offering students more choice in the classes they take, including increasing the rigor (terrible, terrible word to use to describe what goes on the classroom - can we please just say challenging) of classes.

It is my sense that these solutions primarily come from parent feedback. And while I acknowledge that these are important pieces to consider, they are not game changers, at least not for the students we're currently failing as a system.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! I love those six suggestions. In particular, spending more time building relationships between all members of the community. Great ideas! @MrTRease

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