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Sean Slade

Race to Nowhere: The Start of a Community Conversation

On Tuesday night, close to 300 people attended a screening of the Race to Nowhere documentary hosted by Alexandria (Va.) City Public Schools, the Alexandria PTA Council, and ASCD. Probably more remarkable than all these hardy souls venturing out on a very wintry night to view the film was the fact that they stayed for more than an hour after the screening to start a discussion.

The film reveals an issue that has widespread effect on our children's health, growth, and learning: In many communities, we have reached a saturation point in the amount of work, study, and practice our students can do and the amount of content knowledge they can absorb, understand, and make useful in their lives. And, as was stated by ASCD Executive Director and CEO Gene Carter in his welcome address, "In many cases this saturation point is being reached by our children before they enter their teenage years."

One of the key reasons ASCD became interested in the film—besides its support of a whole child approach to education—was the film's producers' determination to have the film catalyze conversation and, in particular, community conversation. We started this community conversation in Alexandria Tuesday night. It was a dialogue that involved parents, students, teachers, administrators, many Whole Child Partner organizations, local PTA, and local school board members. We were also fortunate to have not only Carter, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman, and Alexandria PTA Council President Karen McManis in attendance, but also the film's producer and director, Vicki Abeles, the film's educational consultant, Sara Truebridge, and our local Congressman and whole child supporter Jim Moran.

The conversation began last night, but we want the conversation to continue. To this end, we are posting many of the comments made last night in response to a series of questions we posed. From here, we want the conversation to continue—at a minimum—online.

Race to Nowhere screening

Question 1: Is stress and overscheduling a problem?

  • Many kids exhibit a pressure to be perfect.
  • Many kids feel the pressure to cheat.
  • A sudent in kindergarten expressed stress that he didn't do well on a quiz.
  • Why are we proposing an extended school day?
  • Proposing a longer day does not mean we are proposing more work or more homework.
  • A longer day can provide greater time to think and discuss.
  • The issue is what we do with the time.
  • We need greater emphasis on physical education, individualized instruction, and study time.
  • We need to connect kids with counselors.
  • We need increased attention on how we interact with each other and the children.

Question 2: What currently works to alleviate stress, or what would help to alleviate stress?

  • Our children need to be outside and play in the fresh air.
  • We need to teach our children how to solve problems through negotiation.
  • We as adults don't do a good job with conflict resolution or negotiating, and our children look to us to learn how to manage stress.
  • Some of us don't know how to relieve our own stress!
  • We tell students to sit down, shut up, etc., but they are in school ALL DAY long.
  • We say teach, teach, teach: but we have to model what we want for our children.
  • I appreciate the film tapping into the early education piece—tapping into the entire child.

Question 3: Should we focus most attention on reducing the stress involved with schooling (proactive) or increasing avenues to deal with stress (reactive)?

  • We have to start modeling the behavior we want our children to have.
  • I didn't see the issue of cyber bullying highlighted, but that's a huge stressor.
  • This is a time to consider how to help the entire child by having more time in the day.
  • We can do things with the time; make better use of the time we have (e.g., kids sit for 30 minutes in the morning in the gym while kids in other countries do yoga or physical activity).
  • Kids need to valued for what they are good at; forcing every kid down the same path is just wrong.
  • Why don't we test for multiple intelligences? How do we move in that direction?
  • Most of the progressive, so-called high-performing nations (Singapore, South Korea, Finland) are approaching the focus on learning entirely different than the United States. They are moving away from where we are headed.
  • Schools are reflections of what their communities expect.
  • It's not just the responsibility of the school; it's also of the responsibility of communities they serve.
  • School plays a vitally important role in providing the appropriate learning experience for each student.
  • School is only responsible for a segment of the learning experiment.
  • ASCD is focused on learning, not schooling.
  • If a child is not doing well, he or she deserves the opportunity to be reassessed (don't say "retested").
  • Our education system is upside down, and it won't change from the top down.
  • The U.S. Constitution [indicates the rights to] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: school is rarely about the third.
  • We need a greater emphasis on the first five years of life.
  • The desire for change needs to come from communities, communities such as Alexandria.

The following questions were not asked last night due to time but are posted here to elicit responses.

Question 4: Are there things that we could focus on in each family, classroom, or school?

Question 5: Are there things we could focus on at a local, state, and national level?

Read the questions. Read the responses. Submit your comments. Continue the conversation.

Sean Slade

PE Criticism and Responses

This year has seen a lot of debate, scrutiny, and op-eds on and around education. And physical education (PE) has not been absent from this debate. More often than not, it has been those education leaders or commentators who believe that we need to increase our emphasis on standardized testing who have led the criticism of PE, physical activity (PA), and even recess.

For example, Jay Mathews, an educational journalist from The Washington Post, wrote an article in December 2009 denouncing the worth of PE:

The bill's physical education requirements are its worst part—a nifty-sounding reform that many of the District's best principals and teachers will declare one of the dumbest ideas they ever heard.

At the moment, D.C. students from kindergarten through 8th grade have two P.E. periods a week of 45 minutes each. High-schoolers need just a semester and a half of a similar P.E. regime to graduate. The new bill would require every public school student in kindergarten through 5th grade to have 150 minutes of P.E. (30 minutes a day). Sixth- through 8th-graders would be required to take 225 minutes (45 a day).

Why is this a bad idea? Because, as Mathews puts it, it would reduce time—or rather not allow more time to be dedicated—for academics, saying "I know we haven't finished that chapter yet, kids, but hey, it's time for push-ups." Previously, Mathews had followed a similar vein regarding recess where he stated that he "realize[s] most people don't know how poisonous recess can be for urban schools with severe academic needs...."

This year Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City's public schools, appeared on the The View. When the conversation turned to the issue of merit pay for teachers, he said, "I have to pay math teachers and science teachers the same as I pay my physical education teachers," a statement that, in context, suggested that math and science teachers should earn more than PE teachers.

Many education leaders spoke out against Klein's comments and in defense of PE and PA, including Paul Roetert, CEO of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance:

We believe, and scientific research supports, that educating the "whole child" is vital to a child's overall academic success. Studies have shown that regular physical activity improves academic performance. The solution to improving our nation's public education system is not to pit one teacher against another by claiming that one is more important than the other, and should thus earn more. The solution is creating an environment that motivates all teachers to be the best they can be, that honors and rewards our outstanding teachers, that improves the status of the teaching profession, and that acknowledges that academic success is built from achievement in all subjects, including physical education.

Charles Basch, a guest on this month's Whole Child Podcast on PE, Recess, and Beyond: The Implications of Movement, outlines many of the beneficial links of PA and health to academic achievement in his outstanding publication Healthier Students Are Better Learners:

If children can't see well, if their eyes do not integrate properly with their brain and motor systems, they will have difficulty acquiring the basic and essential academic skills associated with reading, writing, spelling, and mathematics. If their ability to concentrate, use memory, and make decisions is impeded by ill-nourishment or sedentary lifestyle, if they are distracted by negative feelings, it will be more difficult for them to learn and succeed in school. If their relationships at school with peers and teachers are negative, they will be less likely to be connected with and engaged in school, and therefore less motivated and able to learn. If they are not in school, because of uncontrolled asthma or because they are afraid to travel to or from school, they will miss teaching and learning opportunities. If they drop out, perhaps because they are failing or faltering; or because they are socialized to believe that, even if they complete school, there will be no better opportunities; or because they associate with peers who do not value school; or because they become pregnant and there are no resources in place that enable them to complete school while pregnant and after they have a newborn, it is not likely that they can succeed. If they cannot focus attention and succeed socially, it is unlikely that they will succeed academically. (p. 77)

And, as Basch stated on the podcast, "If you see the goal of schools as trying to help young people grow and develop as healthy people, as well as educated people, then paying attention to physical activity as well as other dimensions of health is an important part of that overall development."

So why do we need PE, PA, and even recess? Is it just about giving students a break from academics? Is it just about developing fitter kids who can then do better on standardized testing? Or are PE and PA key to developing us as whole individuals—socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically as well as cognitively?

Sean Slade

A Big Week for Health and Well-Being in DC

It's been a big week for health and well-being. On Thursday, December 2, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released Healthy People 2020—the nation's new 10-year goals and objectives for health promotion and disease prevention. Key words: promotion and prevention.

As HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stated, "The launch of Healthy People 2020 comes at a critical time. Our challenge and opportunity is to avoid preventable diseases from occurring in the first place."

This was echoed by Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh, who stated, "Too many people are not reaching their full potential for health because of preventable conditions. Healthy People is the nation's roadmap and compass for better health, providing our society a vision for improving both the quantity and quality of life for all Americans."

Added for this decade are several new topics that have direct links to a whole child approach to education, including

  • Early and Middle Childhood, which plans to document and track population-based measures of health and well-being for early and middle childhood populations over time in the United States;
  • Adolescent Health, which aims to improve the healthy development, health, safety, and well-being of adolescents and young adults; and
  • Social Determinants of Health, which recognize that we all have a part to play in youth health and well-being in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.

Later that same day, the U.S. Congress passed a child nutrition bill, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This bill, once signed by President Obama, would boost spending on child nutrition $4.5 billion over 10 years and raise federal reimbursements for school lunches more than the inflation rate for the first time since 1973. It also would require for the first time that free drinking water be available where meals are served.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, "Today, Congress approved a bill that will make the most significant investment in the National School Lunch program in more than 30 years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will increase healthy choices in school cafeterias across the country. These changes will help schools fight our country's childhood obesity epidemic and give students access to the nutritional food they need to help them learn. I look forward to working with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to provide students with the healthy foods they need and deserve."

While these are two separate releases, they certainly coincide. It would be difficult to achieve the Healthy People 2020 goals around adolescent health or social determinants of health, for example, without the passage of a child nutrition bill, and hopefully the passage of Healthy People 2020 provides a framework for Congress to consider around prevention, health, and well-being.

Sean Slade

Positive Youth Development?

Many people get overwhelmed by what may seem to be new terminology or new approaches—however, more often than not, these phrases explain what people have done or known for quite a while. Take "positive youth development"—not a new term, but one that I'm sure still gets presented every now and then to glazing-over eyes.

What does "positive youth development" mean? Basically, it's actively helping and supporting kids as they mature and grow—not just academically (cognitively), but socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It's being proactive in setting up some supports and structures that we know kids need as they progress through childhood and adolescence.

Sound difficult? It shouldn't, because it's what teachers and educators have been doing to varying degrees for decades, and at its foundation is the development of safe, caring environments where kids feel supported, cared about, and heard.

Research has consistently shown that adult caregivers such as teachers and educators—or, in fact, anyone who interacts with kids in the school-community setting—are key to developing positive youth and safe, protective environments (Benard, 1991, 2004; Goldstein & Brooks, 2005; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Masten & Coatsworth,1998; Werner & Smith, 1982, 1992, 2001, 2005).

Last year, Bonnie Benard and I wrote a chapter in the first Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools to highlight how kids themselves knew that an adult cared about them and wanted them to succeed. The chapter summarized a decade's worth of sessions that Bonnie and colleague Carol Burgoa had held with students across California, asking a simple question: How do you know if someone cares about you?

The results remind us that it's not difficult and it should not be overlooked. So what did the kids say? Here is a synthesis of their comments from more than a dozen sessions across California over a decade.

Getting to know me:

When I'm bothered, they help me by listening and encouraging me ... they talk to me as a person and friend—not just as a student.

They take the time and ask me, "How was your weekend?"

They greet us and ask, "How are you doing?"

They take time to say hello.

They listen when I'm talking and give eye contact.

They get to know our stories.

Essentially, students highlighted simple acts as ways they knew their teachers cared. They identified actions that take place in many classrooms across the nation every day—actions that should take place in every classroom every day. These include acting friendly, smiling, saying hello (especially outside of class), taking an interest in the student, and noticing when the student is troubled.

When asked what adults can do more of for them, the answers were remarkably similar and succinct:

We need understanding.

We need adults to "be there" for us—you're our second parents.

Be there for us and believe in us so we can count on you.

I need an adult to believe in me.

Positive youth development is not difficult; it is often done, but all too frequently ignored as nothing special or consequential. However, both education researchers and students themselves remind us that people matter and relationships matter.

"At a time when the traditional structures of caring have deteriorated, schools must become places where teachers and students live together, talk with each other, take delight in each other's company."

—Nel Noddings, 1988

"School is a community; it's not a building but about people."

—Anonymous student, 2004

Sean Slade

What's Next for Coordinated School Health? Moving from Rhetoric to Sustainable Action

This session was held at the recent American School Health Association Annual Conference in Kansas City, Mo., on October 16, 2010. The session was intended to start a discussion about what coordinated school health (CSH) has and has not achieved over the past 20 years, and then further that dialogue into discussing the next moves for CSH.

Below is a summary of that presentation. We have posted it here to elicit comments and engage in a conversation around this topic.

Health and well-being have for too long remained the sole domain of health experts. For too long it has been siloed both geographically and philosophically apart from the school and the educational context. Rarely has health been included or required to be an integral part of the school's educational process—but when it has, the results are surprising. Schools that work purposefully toward enhancing the health—mental, social, and emotional, as well as physical—of both their staff and students, frequently report results that principals and administrators want to hear: higher academic achievement of students [1], increased staff satisfaction and less staff turnover [2], greater efficiency [3], the development of a positive school climate [4], and ultimately the development of a school-community culture that promotes and enhances student growth [5].

So what has held educators back from wholeheartedly embracing health and well-being across their schools and systems? The answer is somewhat twofold—on the one hand there are schools that hold a belief that they are there only to educate the child academically—however the overwhelming evidence that shows that a students' physical, mental, social, and emotional health plays a significant role in determining what students can learn cognitively dispels this notion [6]. On the other hand there are schools that appreciate the effects of student health on student growth and learning—so why haven't these schools done a more comprehensive job in aligning health and education? Ultimately it may be the existence of CSH itself. The fact that there has been a section of the system that has been designed to cater to the health needs of students has in fact allowed education to ignore or push health aside. It has perpetuated the siloing of health and education.

First introduced in 1987, the eight component model of coordinated school health introduced a broader and more defined approach to school health, incorporating aspects that had not previously been organized and coordinated together, such as family and community involvement, counseling, psychological and social services, and a healthy school environment. The key, however, was to have all eight entities aligned and coordinated across the school.

A successful, sustainable coordinated school health program requires a high-quality level of planning, implementation and institutionalization. But achieving that degree of support is difficult when school health is seen as a programmatic issue, rather than as part of a systematic approach to addressing school improvement. Programmatic changes tend to be tried and rolled back or become the project of an individual staff member or department—and when that person leaves, there is usually no one else willing or able to take charge.

This health-centric CSH approach has undoubtedly had some success—it has been adopted by 46 states and has versions adapted into Mexico, Canada, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However it has never had the broad encompassing success and influence over the whole-school environment that had been envisioned. It has always been viewed as a health initiative by educators and too frequently by health professionals themselves. In fact this discussion is not new but has been around since at least 1998 and has arisen every 3 or 4 years.

  • "[T]he promise of a coordinated school health program thus far outshines its practice." (Marx, Wooley, & Northrop, 1998, Health Is Academic, p. 10)
  • "In sum, if American schools do not coordinate and modernize their school health programs as a critical part of educational reform, our children will continue to benefit at the margins from a wide disarray of otherwise unrelated, if not underdeveloped, efforts to improve interdependent education, health, and social outcomes." (Kolbe, 2002, The State Education Standard, Autumn, p. 10)
  • "Insistence on alignment of programs under the "health" banner is detrimental to the purpose and mission of both school health and school improvement." (Allensworth, Bartee, & Hoyle, 2009, Journal of School Health, p. 165)
  • "Though rhetorical support is increasing, school health is currently not a central part of the fundamental mission of schools in America nor has it been well integrated into the broader national strategy to reduce the gaps in educational opportunity and outcomes." (Basch, 2010, Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap, p. 9)

A change in how we view health and education is required—a change in how the two operate, align, and integrate in the school and community setting. However the biggest change may be in how education views health. Improvement in health, well-being, and climate must be understood to be part and parcel of the school improvement process. It needs to be viewed as not only foundational for the growth and development of students but also as foundational for teaching and learning and school effectiveness. Therefore, the conversation must be directed not toward health professionals but toward education professionals. It must outline and define the educational benefits of healthy students, healthy staff, and a healthy, effective school—for education's sake.

Where there was a need 20 years ago to target the health and well-being of students via a separate and distinct structure in order to focus attention and resources towards health, there may well be a greater need today to combine, align, and merge these structures so that systems work in unison. We do not have the time nor resources to continue the current push me-pull me environment, and neither do our children.

So how do we go about aligning health and education? How do we set out to overlap and interlink these entities that have traditionally been divided and siloed?

The first step is belief.

The second is action.

Later this year ASCD will be publishing a monograph outlining these actions required to better integrate health and education. In the meantime, these steps or 9 levers of change are described in Learning, Teaching and Leading in Healthy School Communities.

1. Basch, 2010; Case & Paxson, 2006; Crosnoe, 2006; Hass, 2006; Hass & Fosse, 2008; Heckman, 2008; Koivusilta et al., 2003; Palloni, 2006.

2. Grayson, 2008; Byrne, 1994; Dorman, 2003.

3. Bergeson, 2005; Harris, Cohen & Flaherty, 2008; Lezotte & Jacoby, 1990.

4. Basch, 2010; Benard, 2001.

5. Battlin-Pearson et al., 2000; Bond et al., 2007; Fleming, Haggerty, Catalano, Harachi, Mazza, & Gruman, 2005; Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999; Klem & Connell, 2004; Nelson, 2004; Rosenfeld, Richman, & Bowen, 1998.

6. Basch, 2010; Case & Paxson, 2006; Crosnoe, 2006; Hass, 2006; Hass & Fosse, 2008; Heckman, 2008; Koivusilta et al., 2003; Palloni, 2006.

Sean Slade

Race to Nowhere and the Whole Child

We are about to enter the season of the education documentary. Much has been written about the four films coming out for theatrical run and community screenings this fall–Waiting For Superman, The Lottery, The Cartel, and Race to Nowhere–with their takes of the current state of U.S. education. But less has been mentioned about what comes next and what form the conversation should take after the screenings.

One film, Race to Nowhere, is worth a mention here because the filmmakers have planned follow-up discussions and ongoing dialogue. Producer Vicki Abeles was interviewed last week on CNN about the film and in particular about what parents and schools can do. The first step is to start a dialogue with your kids and your school.

The film's producers have made it a point to continue the conversation; to start a dialogue among the audiences and communities where it is being screened; and to seek answers, discussion, and understanding from those at the local level. It has taken the premise that the film is the start of the conversation and not the end. The Race to Nowhere team has also made a point of designing direct actions and discussions that involve—guess who—the students themselves.

The film fits with ASCD's commitment to a whole child approach to education, and healthy school communities in particular, but it was the commitment to ongoing dialogue that prompted ASCD's executive director, Gene Carter, to write the foreword to a facilitation guide that will accompany the film. It was a recognition of the filmmakers' desire to move the conversation out of the movie theater and into the schools, classrooms, hallways, and homes of each community. Dr. Carter writes

Challenges, when discovered, need to be addressed. Problems, when they arise, need to be solved. This is never so true as when we are talking about our children—their health, their growth, their education and their development. It is not enough to alert people to issues and then walk away. It is not enough to uncover problems and then neglect to work through them. It is not enough to lay blame and then move on.

Learn more about how your school and community can schedule a screening of the movie, preorder the DVD and facilitation guide, and find resources at

Sean Slade

Classrooms or Communities? Or Both?

A piece I wrote for the Washington Post last week got a fair bit of feedback. It was a summary of thoughts around a comment made at the recent Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C., and concerned a phrase used by one of the presenters, who described classrooms as a "community of 30." As I wrote in the article, the concept is not too remarkable...except when you consider the implications.

"Community of 30" is the idea that the school—and, more so, the classroom—is a place where students learn cognitively as well as socially and emotionally. Children are there to learn not only how to read, write, add, and subtract, but also how to work together as a group, a team, and a community.

We already have the structures and settings to guide this. Children test out behaviors in the home, typically a safe and finite environment to grow and practice social interactions. Interactions take place between a regulated number of people—immediate family, then extended family, friends, and neighbors—and around a fairly fixed set of issues.

In my thinking, if schools and classrooms are geared to be places where we not only learn skills and content, but also places where we learn to socialize, cooperate, collaborate, and work as a community, then surely we should be making a more overt effort to do this. Basically, if socialization is key to student growth and if we have environments designed to foster its growth, and if a lack of socialization skills can have detrimental effects on another key aspect of the school environment—cognitive development—then why don't we do a better job of articulating this?

At least, as Dr. Rodkin stated, it should be necessary for every teacher to understand what "this society of children is like at your very own school."

What do you think? Read the article and feel free to post a comment.

Sean Slade

Arne Duncan and a Whole Child Approach

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said some phrases and words that could have come directly from ASCD's Whole Child Initiative talking points while headlining the Bullying Prevention Summit yesterday in Washington, D.C. The phrasing bodes well as we look to ensure our students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Key phrases around positive climate included:

  • "a positive school climate is foundational" and
  • "schools need to develop a culture of respect" and a "culture of trust"

Duncan highlighted that, to make a difference, "every adult at that school that interacts with the kids is part of the solution" and that "school leadership matters" in improving school climate. He talked of the "broken window" that can symbolize kids no one cares about or has taken ownership of in the school.

Throughout the summit, Duncan spoke of the need for kids to learn and grow and, in doing so, he started the conversation that school is about more than just learning content. All in all, a very whole child talk, and one we are very happy to hear and be part of.

Sean Slade

A Gym Class Makeover?

A recent article in the Washington Post, "Shaping Up PE: The Rise in Childhood Obesity Prompts a Gym Class Makeover," highlights new physical education programs to combat obesity levels. This is all very nice, except this "new PE" has been discussed and labeled as "new" since the late 1980s.

Everything cited is great—maximum individual participation, range of locomotive skills, varying activities, engagement, fun—the only worry I have is, What are other schools doing in the name of physical education? If it was new in 1988, it is a slight worry if it's still considered new to many 20 years later.

Sean Slade

It's All About Relationships

There was an interesting piece in ASCD SmartBrief last week that told the story of teachers who are making it a priority to get out and meet students and their families before school starts. As we know and have read before in countless research articles, it's all about relationships.

"Success in schools is all about developing relationships with families," says Tamarack Elementary School teacher Allison Coomes. "Students won't be successful in class unless they have a relationship with their teacher, and that family has a relationship with their school."

The semantics may change, but it's about developing relationships, connectedness, and a sense of belonging and caring between student and teacher, school and community.

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