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Back to the Future

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Following is a guest post from Terry Brooks who spent some three decades as a public school administrator in Kentucky as a principal and as a central office administrator. Since 2004, he has served as the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit policy group that acts as the independent voice for Kentucky's kids.

I do not go to the movies to answer life's questions. Instead, I prefer the excitement of a spy thriller or the laughs from a comedy. Maybe that is why I enjoyed watching "Back to the Future" with my oldest grandkids this weekend. That 1985 adventure of Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly racing back into the 50's does not cause deep soul searching, but it did prompt a "cerebral itch."

As part of the KIDS COUNT network, Kentucky Youth Advocates was involved in the recent Annie E. Casey Foundation release around reading proficiency at the 4th grade level. The numbers paint a dismal scene in which only one in three 4th graders meet national proficiency standards. Of course, other key indicators, like 8th grade math proficiency, reflect the same landscape.

I wonder what would happen if schools went "back to the future."

Currently, the website of any state department of education, the annual report of every school system and the table of contents for every national periodical reveal a singular obsession with what students must learn. Common core. Curricular alignment. Silver bullet pedagogies. Those topics monopolize the thoughts of educators. Yet that same analysis shows no attention to the learners themselves.

It was not always the case. A trip "back to the future" in the 1980s and 1990s would reveal a day when the "development needs" of learners drove the agenda. Back then, my home state of Kentucky launched an exciting innovation around ungraded primary classrooms as a direct response to developmental needs. Nationally, leaders like Conrad Toepfer and Joan Lipsitz launched a middle school revolution around development characteristics of early adolescents. Later, Ted Sizer and his Coalition of Essential Schools tackled secondary school reform by eloquently asking what older adolescents were like rather than creating artificially imposed content.

I am all for academic rigor. I want that for my grandkids and for every young person. But I have a hunch. If schools paid as much attention to who is learning as to what is learned, then student proficiency might become a K-12 reality rather than educational establishment rhetoric. Let's "go back to the future" and re-capture that day when educators really thought about what it meant to be six or twelve or sixteen. I believe that focus on learners will lead us to a new day of unprecedented academic achievement.

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