Back to Basics: From Quick Fixes to Sustainable Change
School improvement conversations usually focus on quick fixes, those strategies thought to make immediate improvements to student achievement. While this model may work well for some, kids (and their teachers) remain unconvinced because their needs were never really considered to begin with—just their test scores. Even so, schools are encouraged to implement these overly simplistic strategies in spite of the fact they contradict most everything great teachers know to be true and effective.
Teachers know effective teaching connects students to their learning by creating purpose, meaning and enjoyment. They also know effective teaching allows students to feel a sense of accomplishment by using their learning to affect the world around them. At best, quick fix models are short sighted. At worst they are negatively affecting the school experience for large groups of kids who yearn to be motivated, engaged, and have purpose for their learning. In this way, the cycle of disengagement, low test scores, and new quick fixes is perpetuated. To remedy this, we need to replace quick fixes with long-term, sustainable changes aimed at teaching kids in their entirety, not just their data profiles. In short, we need to get back to the real basics of education.
Here are three entry points for teachers to get back to teaching with kids in mind:
Trust your teaching. There are great teachers everywhere. They teach next door and down the hall. These teachers get up and go to work every morning to make a difference in the lives of their students—and they do. They believe that if they can instill a love of learning in their students, they can change the world—and they do. These teachers also understand that low student achievement is deep-rooted and impervious to quick fixes. They know that the only road to improvement passes through the hearts and minds of their students by instilling a sense of belonging, purpose, and engagement.
However, due to policies that compel schools to improve student achievement with unrealistic rapidity, even the best teachers have begun to second-guess their collective wisdom. This has to stop. Teachers must trust that the only fixes in education begin with themselves and that they won't be quick. Teachers too must remember that even after a lot of dedicated work the gains may be small. Put simply, teachers don't give themselves enough credit. Teachers must reestablish trust in what they know works with students and have faith that it will improve student achievement.
Create the conversation for change. Once teachers reestablish trust in their teaching, they can begin to shift the conversation from quick fixes to sustainable gains by acting on their long-held beliefs. Instead of waiting for an invitation or permission from policymakers to discuss and do what is truly best for kids, teachers need to create the conversation themselves.
Fortunately this can be accomplished right from the classroom if teachers are willing to lead by example. I believe that if teachers take the initiative to engage and teach kids for success in life—academic, social, emotional, health and well-being, and otherwise—that others will be eager to follow. Those pioneering teachers will in essence be giving their colleagues permission to shun quick fixes and get back to the real basics of education. I feel that this is what many teachers are waiting for: permission. The conversation about getting back to the basics of education must start in the classroom and it only takes one teacher to lead the way toward real sustainable change for all.
- Let social and emotional learning lead the way. If we are to get back to the real basics of education and truly prepare kids for a successful future we must begin to think beyond academic skills. Social and emotional skills are critical in preparing kids to thrive in a diverse world that requires creativity, collaboration, and compassion. Quick-fix approaches to school improvement suggest there is no time for these so-called "soft skills" and that students need more time devoted to math and reading. What the proponents of this approach fail to mention is that strong social and emotional skills are actually linked to improved academic achievement in part because they make students available to learn. Getting back to basics requires that teachers develop all aspects of the students they serve and starting with social and emotional skills is a great place to begin.
Quick-fix strategies have undermined great teaching and planted seeds of doubt in the minds of even the strongest and most-experienced educators. The only ones being hurt are those that the strategies are supposed to help: kids. Teachers need to get back to basics, back to a place where students themselves (not only their test scores) are at the center of education. My message to teachers is this: The only person capable of improving student achievement is you. Trust yourself, trust your colleagues, and let kids and their learning lead the way.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.