Instruction alone is not enough to help all students succeed

Perhaps the greatest victory of the recently, much-maligned era of standards-based reform in US schools is that this new form of accountability made instruction matter. It was no longer acceptable to simply deliver instruction—and either the students got it, or they didn’t—and then regardless, the teacher just moved on.

Under the standards regime, it actually mattered if the students learned the material. And if they didn’t, we, as teachers, would have to try to teach it again in a more effective manner. In other words, standards-based school reform cut to the core of education, what Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Program has called the instructional core: the transaction between teacher, student and content. So many reforms of the past have avoided or simply bypassed the instructional core, but this time the reforms came straight at the central work: teaching and learning. This was a good thing.

This long-overdue shift in focus, away from topics like governance, structure and finance, was not always received with a warm embrace in a field that previously had only minimal accountability. Critics resisted the imposition of standards from the state level, while there was widespread resistance to measuring achievement and progress through testing. Many opposed accountability consequences for schools, educators and students. On the other hand, proponents of these reforms were sometimes transported by their own rhetoric, arguing that not only had instruction been overlooked as the most important part of the education equation, but that instruction was truly the only thing that mattered. Everything should be about and support high quality instruction.

The zealots asserted that in the spirit of the old real estate adage, “location, location, location,” education reform, must be all—and only—about improving instruction.

While no one would argue against the improvement of instruction as a central strategy for improving education, I would argue that it’s not the only thing we need to be doing. Just as a strong principal must be a great deal more than simply an effective instructional leader, so, too, must school improvement also focus on a variety of matters that may appear to be remote from the instructional core. (An obvious example is that polls regularly show that at the top of most parents’ lists of what they want from school are characteristics like “safety and order.”)

We must also pay urgent attention to the student part of the learning equation. Remember the three elements of the core: teacher, student and content. We have spent most of our considerable reform energy and resources on reforms affecting the teacher and the content. The field embraced countless strategies addressing the recruitment, training, pedagogy and evaluation of teachers. At the same time,  we have focused on content by debating and then  detailing ever more perfect standards, well-aligned curricula and classroom lessons to make sure all students were learning the right stuff, all the time.

However, we have spent much less time focused on the student, and in particular how to ensure that each and every student, in this era of gross income and opportunity inequality, comes to school ready to learn. Our current school system follows a one-size-fits-all model that does not account for differences in backgrounds, assets or opportunities. And so we tend to overlook strategies that are responsive to the differentiated characteristics of families, communities and schools. My concern is that an exclusively instructional focus optimizes teaching and content, but if the students aren’t present and able to concentrate then we’ll never be able to truly support all children on their path to realizing their full academic potential, which is the aspirational goal of education reform.  In other words, instruction alone is not enough to help all students succeed.

At the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Education Redesign Lab, we believe that for schools to be successful in educating all students to high levels, we need a personalized system of child development and education that meets all children where they are in early childhood, and gives them what they need—inside and outside of school—so that each student can be successful.

In other words, communities, not schools by themselves, must build personalized systems of support and opportunity that attack the impediments to student success. At the same time, these systems must level the playing field with regard to student access to critical out-of-school learning opportunities, including preschool, after school, and summer enrichment.. This is a tall order, an ambitious, but achievable goal, as mayors and their Children’s Cabinets in our By All Means initiative are proving every day.

In a society characterized by growing inequality and diminishing social mobility, human capital (skills and knowledge) are more important than ever before. Social capital (norms, learning opportunities, relationships/networks) is the gateway to human capital. If disadvantaged children are to compete with their more affluent peers, then our system of education has to compensate with health, mental health and other supports, coupled with preschool, after school and summer learning opportunities. Instructional improvement is a must for improving the quality of our schools, but until we attend to children’s whole lives by providing quality supports and enrichment, then we have no hope of succeeding in our aspiration to educate all of our students so that they may succeed in college and career.

Photo via Norton Gusky