Recently a friend of mine asked me the following question, “What would your platform on education policy look like if you were running for state or national office?” His question came after several Facebook posts where I had decried the stranglehold that high stakes testing focused policies had on federal and state government education initiatives. My original posts had been reactions to such writings as this Washington Post article and this Ed Week report on a recent National Academy of Sciences study on the testing movement.
My friend’s question was actually one I have thought about over the last few years, but have never sat down to think about more than in passing. My response, copied below, is not a full treatise, but it does put down some initial thoughts and implications. It is a response based on my experience teaching within the 10 common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. It is a response that is based on the belief that federal education policy should serve the primary role of guiding educational ideals, with the details of how those ideals should be enacted left to the local school districts. It is a response which seeks to move the discussion beyond the current education policy paradigm, “punish schools that perform poorly on tests, and reward those that do well.” As the NAS report points out, this paradigm has done little to improve education for all of our students. We need a new paradigm. We need a new ideal.
My response starts with the question, “What would education look like, if we asked schools to organize themselves around the principle of, “know your students well”?
Curriculum, hiring decisions, instructional choices, resource allocation, parent communication, and state/federal support would focus on making sure that the decisions we make about all of these issues always come back to the question, “Do we know all of our students and the specific things that those students need to learn?” This would be a highly personalized approach, and schools would have leeway to address the question in many ways. Asking schools to structure their programs to know students well would allow for creativity and innovation in how schools are run.
In one district, knowing children well might mean that we recognize our students come to school hungry and can’t learn properly as a result. So rather than state money going to the takeover of this struggling school, it would go to social/community programs that ensure the students can learn on a full stomach. In another district it might mean that we choose a curriculum that will allow students to learn skills that will allow them to find work in the local economy, as opposed to curriculum that is focused and decided on by textbook companies that tailor to the needs of two or three markets. In other communities it might mean that resources would be placed into working with local businesses to allow schools to hold parent-teacher conferences on-site, so that parents would be able to attend a conference without losing out on crucial daily pay.
Teachers would be evaluated on how they change their practice to meet the in-class needs of every student they teach, every day, as opposed to how that student performs on a high stakes test on one or two days every year. Knowing students well means that I as a teacher will take responsibility for every one of my students, whether they have pull-out services or in-class aides, and not sit quietly by when a colleague continually teaches with the attitude that, “I taught the material, but they didn’t learn it.” Understanding why a lesson was unsuccessful would require understanding the students and their work.
Knowing students well would mean that every student would have at least one adult in the building that knew who they were, what their interests were, and what struggles and joys they faced daily. This might take the form of an advisory program, or a family circle, or daily one-on-one meetings with specific teachers and students, or a myriad of other ways that schools would find ways to address this question. Schools would know where their alumni were ending up, and whether their schooling prepared them for the tasks they chose.
Education would no longer be a one-size-fits-all business, because policy would require every single child in the country to be supported in being the best student they can possibly be. Knowing our students well meets them where they are, as opposed to where someone else should be.
This was my response. A starting point for discussion.