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What's Easier to Change: Location of a Cemetery or Curriculum?

Today's guest blog is written by Michael Corso, Chief Academic Officer of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations.

Last week the Quaglia Institute released its National Report on the state of our country's schools.

President Woodrow Wilson famously said, "It is easier to change the location of a cemetery, than to change the school curriculum." There is no record of why he thought this, though we do not disagree. Indeed the inherited, industrial model of school--married to the agricultural calendar--of the Wilson presidency largely persists despite several revolutions in our world, our technology, and our understanding of learning, human development, and the human brain.

Schools, curriculum and all, have proved difficult to change in any meaningful way. What is significant is that while the survivors of the moved deceased may be inconvenienced, the moved deceased suffer (presumably) no ill effects from the relocation of a cemetery. Moved or not their condition remains the same. This cannot be said of unchanged schools.

With the world around it changing at a staggering pace, the static nature of schools as systems produces a friction that can be measured. The Quaglia Institute has been listening in on school climate and culture in the voices of students and teachers--their aspirations and their sense of Self-Worth, Engagement, and Purpose--for over 30 years. Eight years ago, the grade 6-12 survey took its present form making year over year comparisons of key indicators possible.

Sadly, there are very few differences between the 2008 survey, those of its antecedents, and those found in this report. In fact, with the exception of a slight positive increase in student respect for teachers and seeing teachers as positive role models, most indicators have slipped in a negative direction. This is a measure of the friction of unchanging schools in a changing world. As we have seen in this report schools no longer work for at least half of those attending.

This friction has many labels: "School to Prison Pipeline," "Achievement Gap," a lack of "Adequate Yearly Progress," to name just a few. While those labels may capture this or that symptom of the phenomenon, we do not believe they address the underlying cause. The core problem is a failure, even an unwillingness, to listen to the students and teachers who are the very heart of every policy decision, curriculum implementation, superintendent firing or hiring, etc.

The standards movement initiated by No Child Left Behind and accelerated by the Race to the Top initiative has had virtually no impact on student enthusiasm for school and, many have argued, a fairly negative impact on teacher morale. One must wonder if it has even had the positive impact on academic outcomes it intended to improve.

It's as if policy makers have been doing surgery on schools having taken only the patient's academic temperature and having considered no other metric of well being--heart rate, blood pressure, lung capacity--to say nothing of the patient's own thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their condition. We should all be angry and frustrated by such poor science, to say nothing of such poor school-side manner.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains a glimmer of hope that perhaps, just perhaps, schools and school leaders will begin to listen to, learn from, and lead with the voices of students, teachers, and parents. For the first time in U.S. law, ESSA broadens the scope of what counts as an indicator of school quality or school success beyond metrics of academic achievement as measured by tests in language arts, mathematics, and various other disciplines. It offers six options for such measurement:

  • School climate and safety
  • Student engagement
  • Educator engagement
  • Student access to and completion of advanced coursework
  • Post-secondary readiness
  • "Any other indicator the State chooses that meets the requirements of this clause."

The first three of these require some form of student or teacher voice--hence the hope. The next two are simply more academic measures. The last is anyone's guess.

The law will require States to have schools measure something in addition to what they have been measuring, but what specifically that is they have left up to the States.

You have the option of waiting for your State to decide this matter or you can let your own voice be heard by your state commission of education, governor, or local representatives. Let them know you want to be heard. Let them know you want to amplify the voices of your students. Sound off about how engagement--yours and your students'--is a key to a healthy and person driven (not data driven) learning environment. Express a belief that a positive school climate and safety are necessary prerequisites to academic proficiency and excellence. Raise your voice with ours and together we can make ourselves heard, understood, and a part of the change that needs to come.

Connect with Michael Corso on Twitter

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