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Educational Reform: Take the Long View

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There are so many options to improve the school experiences for students within the parentheses that begin and end with the school day.  New programs, different methods, block scheduling, 10 period days, changing assessments, one-to-one initiatives, blended classes, online classes, the list is endless and the list is exhausting.

A longer school day is closer to becoming a reality in in Boston. The New York Times reported that Mayor Martin Walsh advocated for a 40-minute addition to the school day for students in Boston's elementary and middle schools. The premise:  students would have a better chance at success with more learning time.  The article also reports that the teachers' union president believes this will benefit the underserved areas of art, music, drama, and foreign language. Their plan is a roll out over the next two years according to Education Week.

A call for later start times in high schools has been on the table nationally since the early 1990's when the University of Minnesota conducted their landmark study shifting the start time in seven of their high schools from 7:15 am to 8:40 am. Their results continue to serve as a foundation for the movement that has followed and continues today.  Students slept more, less felt depressed, and felt less bouts of sleepiness during class, missed less classes and findings revealed a slight upward trend in letter grades.  It is a notion we have investigated and supported previously in this blog.

Exhausted from the changes that have taken place in these last years, no one can accuse schools of not trying.  Before there is little energy left, we offer a solution that is both simple and enormous.  Stop.  Stop adding programs, changing programs, and exchanging programs. Stop responding to external pressures as they arise. Start thinking about the system as a whole. What is the central purpose? It must always begin with the children. If we begin and end with the welfare of the children, keeping the environment up to date becomes an energizing process, rather than another task.

It seems an obvious thought...schools are about the children, but distraction by all the other immediate pressures easily pull attention away from the important. There are most certainly immediate issues to be addressed:  student assessment, teacher evaluation, how math and reading are taught and learned, school safety,  impact of poverty and mental health, length of school day, school start times to name just a few.  Where they are on our radar depends upon the local community, certainly. But they are important. Have educators become reactionaries in response to the demands of the day?  If so, we are losing our way. 

A step back to take the long view is worth the effort. Educational leaders must be visionaries. To be a visionary one must be able to look beyond the horizon. To be a visionary leader, one must be able to communicate what is beyond the horizon with enough passion and confidence and reason to engender excitement and a willingness to join the movement toward it. 

A colleague recently shared an activity that demonstrates this far better than words. Take a peacock feather and balance it on a finger and fix your gaze at the base. Note your experience. Then do the same thing but fix our gaze at the top of the feather.  The experience is very different. When fixed at the base of the feather, keeping it balanced is very difficult, and needs much moving about. When fixed at the top of the feather, keeping it balanced is easier and requires much less movement. Try it.

Rather than focusing on the issues that appear at our feet, keeping focused on our purpose, the children, fuels energy and creativity, and staves off the negativity that comes from implementation exhaustion. No matter what we have to do, leaders have the responsibility to translate the "have to's" into the purpose of the system.  Instead of focusing on the "what" focus on the "why" and the task becomes meaningful.

The reasons for any implementation must be shifted from "what" to "why." Starting with asking new and different questions like:

  • What values about educating all students can this change address?
  • How can we make sure this decision positively impacts all children?

If we are to teach young people to be leaders, we must model leadership. If we are to teach young people how to be innovators, we must be innovators. If we are to teach young people how to be life long learners, we must be life long learners. There is still time for educators to take hold of this reform tiger. But, first we must give ourselves time and the permission to look for a while at the top of the feather and, then, toward the horizon, away from everything that swirls urgently around our feet.

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