Kevin Parr

Approaching Student Achievement Like a Forest Fire

It has been another active fire season here out West and once again firefighters have been attacking the fires systematically and efficiently. As a teacher it is interesting to look at the way these fires are attacked. The contrast to the way problems are attacked in education is staggering.

In wildland firefighting when the problem (the fire) becomes big enough, a two-pronged attack is launched. Firefighters coordinate their efforts to fight the fire from both the ground and air. In contrast, when the problem in education (student achievement, mainly) gets big, the most common response is to narrow the range of approaches. By and large this usually means demanding more time strictly devoted to teaching the critical academic subjects (math and reading) at the expense of everything else.

In this sense, we could learn a lot from our wildland firefighters. Mainly, don't assume that doing more of just one thing will make things better. Instead, schools should embrace a multifaceted approach to improving student achievement that includes social and emotional learning, something ignored by the dominant response to lagging student achievement. It's a shame, too, because strong social and emotional skills help students cope with issues that limit their learning. From my experience, these issues include an incarcerated or deported parent, bullying, emotional abuse, and low self-esteem. Social and emotional skills also help students succeed in classrooms where teachers are increasingly telling students to "turn and talk," "work with your group," or some similar collaborative task without being taught the skills to do so effectively. In fact, strong social and emotional skills have a positive impact on student achievement (PDF).

By no means am I trying to compare the professions of firefighter and teacher or suggest that increased time spent on math and reading won't positively impact student achievement. Nor am I suggesting that teaching social-emotional skills will guarantee gains in student achievement. What I am saying is this: although increased time spent teaching math and reading makes perfectly good sense on the surface, it ignores the issues that underlie low academic achievement, including issues students bring to school with them every day and how they are required to learn and demonstrate their learning in the classroom.

You see, there seems to exist this notion that it is one or the other—that we are either "tough" on academic skills or "soft" with social and emotional skills. We really need to abandon that notion. We assume that if someone begins to teach social and emotional skills that they are getting soft on academics. This simply isn't the case. It is diversifying the attack on the problem—targeting underlying social and emotional skills on the ground and academic skills from the air.

Right now elementary school students across the nation are "buckling down" (or, are being "buckled down") to focus on their math and reading skills through more instruction and practice. Meanwhile, thousands of homeowners adjacent to these raging forest fires are benefiting from both air and ground support. It must be a harrowing experience having your house threatened by fire, but what a relief it must be when you see people on the ground and hear the helicopters overhead. And just as the homeowner is relieved to hear the helicopters fly over the house in support of the men in yellow shirts, wouldn't our students feel relieved to know that their social and emotional needs were being acknowledged and addressed along with their academic needs?

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master's degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.

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