Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Voices From the Field

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Education reform debates increasingly belong to a relatively small number of very loud voices. Hundreds of thousands of other voices get lost in the din. They belong to students and teachers, and their vision for our nation’s high schools varies dramatically from the content in mainstream education reform discussions.

The College Board recently released a supplement to Phi Delta Kappan that highlights key thoughts from students and teachers on both school reform and student engagement.  The results are worth summarizing and repeating mostly because the takeaways are remarkably uniform with regard to recommendations and advice for education reformers. The main message is that we need a long-term commitment to a well-rounded, multi-pronged approach to school improvement.

Both students and teachers consider the national education discussion too narrow, focused mainly on charter school expansion, standardized test scores and teacher evaluations. They also believe reform will only be successful if we expand the discussion to include other important issues, such as creating stimulating learning environments, increasing student engagement and individualizing instruction. Students and teachers are unified in this perspective; if we do not take these needs and desires into account, we will fail to establish successful reforms that produce any long-term gains in student achievement.

Regarding high school, participants see a purpose beyond academia. Students and teachers see high school as a place to gain skills beyond the traditional emphasis on academic success. They believe it is about building a skill set to assess options in life, manage important life decisions, make informed choices and ultimately become responsible citizens. A successful high school will offer experiences, both in and out of the classroom, that connect with the real world. Learning will be individually tailored to a student as much as possible. There will be technological training, a focus on lifelong learning skills, and an emphasis on globalization and cultural awareness and sensitivity. These non-academic skills are an important part of college success, as the successful transition to higher-education requires more than just strong academic abilities. And teachers who work with low-income students emphasize life skills, such as budgeting and bill paying. In sum, high school should be, as one participant noted, more of a portal than a place, regardless of where that portal leads for the student.

When participants discuss the shape of a school, they make several suggestions that are closely connected with the envisioned purpose of high school. Most educators know that one size doesn’t fit all and provide specific suggestions to facilitate a more individualized, flexible learning environment: offering more courses, more ways to assess student progress, and less rigid time frames for graduation or advancement, to name a few. Other key features they believe are needed for a successful school include small class sizes (fostering a more customized learning environment) and a strong connection to the real world through a focus on ‘relevancy,’ such as connecting classroom material to current events or fostering closer connections to the local community. Participants also expressed a desire for diversity in learning opportunities and teaching formats – from hands-on to project-based learning – to help learning become more engaging and accommodate students with different learning styles.

Other recommendations that teachers and students offered for improving schools include: providing greater exposure to global issues and cultures through offering languages, guest speakers, or perhaps travel; connecting students to adults who motivate and guide them, creating rewarding personal relationships that support individual student needs; building schools that are functional and aesthetically appealing, providing a warm and inviting learning space that is clean and light with connection to the outdoors; equipping schools with up to date technology to adequately engage students where they are and prepare them for the 21st century; and finally, making high school generally more like college in enabling students to take a more active role in their own education.

But because school reform is so incredibly localized and complicated, teachers and students alike recognize that changing one or two components of a school will not solve anything. Moreover, making these same recommendations, especially on a national level, will not fix problems that vary from district to district, indeed even school to school.  Education professionals, who support our public schools, know this more intimately than most. Still, like students, their voices are often ignored or overlooked.

No one or two silver bullets  will automatically increase student achievement outcomes. No national rating system is going to address the incredibly nuanced and complicated dynamics that exist in schools. Education professionals know what works, and the ultimate stakeholders in the conversation – students – echo these sentiments loudly and clearly. It is time for those at the top to start responding to the voices of the true experts.