8 Common-Sense Policy Debates School Districts Need to Have Now
Ever wonder why parents try to request certain teachers or schools for their children? If you think the only thing they care about are a school’s standardized test scores or its teachers’ ratings based on those scores, you’re only seeing part of the picture. Parents also seek schools that have a reputation for being welcoming communities where their children will be valued and respected. They seek teachers who are fair, nurturing and accepting of their children as unique learners.
What drives parents crazy (since most school districts do not honor these requests) is the lack of consistency, within and between schools, in the education policies that are critical determinants of overall school climate. For example, within one grade level in an elementary school, you might find one class where every child is given the same, very long, nightly homework assignment, while in another class, homework is minimal. One teacher might primarily feature whole group, teacher-directed instruction, while another creates ability groupings within the classroom.
Teachers also seem to be on their own regarding issues like the implementation of inclusion for special needs students; how to address social-emotional issues like bullying or mental health problems; and decisions like the withholding of recess as a punishment. Teachers of kindergarteners have different policies about welcoming children into a formal school environment and the role of play in their classrooms. All of these inconsistencies are confusing for parents and children alike.
That there are different approaches to every aspect of the children’s education beyond the Common Core reading and math standards simply makes no sense. With all of the emphasis on educational standards and high stakes testing, an important ingredient for successful schools has been largely ignored – specifically, a commitment to devising consistent policies that lead to the creation of appropriate learning environments for children. Perhaps it’s time for school districts to spend less time focused on standards, and more time examining their policies to ensure they are consistent across, as well as within, schools.
Here are eight important policy areas I believe every school district must research and debate if we hope to render our schools effective at meeting the needs of their students.
1. Differentiation of instruction: How to ensure that the diverse learning needs of students (e.g., children with special needs, children who are gifted, children with challenges due to poverty or family stress, and English language learners) are met. If the school district as a whole does not embrace regrouping children based on ability, how are individual classroom teachers supposed to differentiate their instruction to address differences? Why do so few schools and school districts encourage collaboration between educators teaching the same grade level to devise adaptations for the different learning styles and abilities of their students? There has to be a consistent approach to this important issue. Just saying educators differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of their students is not enough. Parents deserve to know how this is done and children deserve to be taught in a way that meets their needs.
2. Starting school: How children are introduced to the school environment as kindergarteners to ensure they feel positive about attending school. Again, within my local school system, there are tremendous variations. Some schools host welcoming events prior to the start of the school year and others don’t. This mostly seems to depend on the resources of the school’s PTA and the wishes of individual principals. The testing of kindergarteners may take place at an individual meeting prior to the start of school or in the early weeks of school. In some schools, teachers administer these initial assessments, while other schools employ someone else to do it. Some kindergartens are more play-based, while others use play as a reward for completing the work. It’s impossible to know what to expect. Is it any wonder parents are anxious about sending their children to kindergarten?
3. Homework: When it starts, what is assigned, how much is assigned, its quality, and its impact on student learning. Many studies show that homework in early grades is of limited value. In fact, it may backfire and create a negative attitude about school. It can disrupt home life and be the source of parent-child conflict. In my community, some children receive homework in kindergarten to prepare them for homework in first grade. While the 10-minutes/grade level rule is unofficially in place, there is no checking in with parents to see if this is enough time for their children to complete the work. I suspect, depending on the child, the same assignment for second grade could take one child less than 20 minutes and another far longer than an hour. The quality of what is assigned is also a huge issue. Repetitive, uncreative, and outdated worksheets are busy work that often does not align with what was taught in class. Homework reveals nothing about what a child has mastered or needs to learn unless the child does it on her own and the teacher checks it to see what she does and does not understand. This rarely happens. The usual argument given to support homework is that children need to learn how to do it so they can do more and more of it as they progress through school. The only defense of homework that makes sense to me is that parents see what their children are learning. Maybe.
4. Assessment: How teachers can use assessment, including portfolios that contain examples of students’ work, to inform their instruction for a given child. Meaningful assessments are created by classroom teachers to gage the effectiveness of their instruction and devise strategies for helping children who do not perform well on them. They are given throughout the school year to monitor and improve student learning. These kinds of assessments are totally different from the high-stakes standardized tests given in late spring to assess school and teacher performance; those tests never impact individual instruction for specific students. School districts and schools need to think about how teachers should carry out meaningful assessments, and how they should use that information to inform their instruction for individual students and their communication with parents.
5. Recess/play breaks: How many opportunities children are given for free play, which enhances their ability to attend to instruction. Study after study confirms that making children sit for hours on end is counter-productive to learning. Giving kids opportunities for breaks that incorporate free play has a positive effect on their ability to concentrate and learn. Recess is also the only place where students get a chance to develop the so-called “soft skills” that enable them to succeed in school and beyond. These foundational skills that are linked to free play include memory, emotional self-regulation, oral language and literacy, perspective-taking, and social competence.
6. Teacher-directed vs. student-centered learning: How much time is devoted to whole group instruction (where a teacher lectures the entire class using a set curriculum) vs. how much time students are permitted to work in small groups, learn from one another, and have input into curriculum. There are very few policies that advocate the use of student-driven projects to encourage learning across subject matter about a topic of high interest. There seems to be limited time and inconsistent support for group work that teaches important skills like collaboration and perspective taking. Sadly, creativity and joyous learning often take a back seat to teaching to the all-important standardized tests.
7. Bullying: How the social-emotional needs of children are met and how exclusionary and hurtful behaviors are addressed. Some classrooms employ peace circles, buddy benches, or models of restorative justice that help children work out problems. Others in the same school district, or even within the same school, do not. There are so many wonderful resources for addressing these issues, but often no consistent policy within schools or district-wide. Some schools have rules for behavior and ways to reward or punish children who break those rules. But telling kids to “be respectful” is not enough. Children need to learn how to navigate the social waters and how they can effect change when they witness incidents of bullying or exclusion. School districts need to make a thoughtful examination of programs that address these issues and choose a consistent approach and vocabulary for all schools in their district.
8. Developmentally appropriate practice: How understanding the way children learn at different stages of development informs instruction. Rather than starting with standards for the oldest students and working backwards, schools and school districts should take into account what experts in child development know about how children learn at different ages and stages of development. Students in younger grades (kindergarten through second) need to receive their instruction through a play-based approach. As our country has increasingly embraced the academic orientation of the educational reform movement, educational standards have now become the sole driver of curriculum and instruction for our youngest students. Unfortunately, the classroom practices and teaching strategies used to implement these learning standards are often inappropriate for young learners.
If we think of standards as the goal posts and school district administrators and principals as the coaches, well thought out and consistent policies are the game plan for scoring those goals. Ideally, teacher, parental, and student input would be part of the policy development process, so there would be buy-in all around.
In education, how things are done matters. Standards without consistent policies about the best way to achieve them make no sense. Creating a caring community of administrators, educators, parents, and students is essential to successful schools. It’s time for school districts to get on the ball.