Life, Learning, & the Pursuit of Supports-Based Reform

In early June, two declarations for a more plausible type of education reform were published: one on our site by third graders from public schools in New York City, and one by the Education Opportunity Network signed by 50 education leaders and thousands of others. Here, we compare the two declarations.

Both documents dash many of the ideas behind corporate reform models proposed by politicians, philanthropists, and leaders of great American corporations. They differ in a few respects, mostly because one was written by 9-year-olds, but for the most part, the two documents that specify what kinds of reforms are needed in the schools overlap. Both were written in response to a school climate that, these days, seems much more like a test-prep factory than any nurturing environment where learning happens.

What’s funny about that is the Common Core tries to promote deeper understanding in both math and English/language arts, and the culture of testing doesn’t give students any opportunity to learn at that level. Both documents address this aspect fairly well.

Things in the EON declaration not in the Grade 3 version

Equitable Funding and Resources. The EON declaration calls for “school funding freed from over-reliance on locally targeted property taxes” and investment “in out-of-school factors affecting students, such as supports for nutrition and health services, public libraries, after school and summer programs.” Keep in mind that 9-year-olds tend to focus on what’s happening in their own classrooms without considering differences between their classrooms and those of other students.

Better Assessments. The EON declaration calls for “high-quality diagnostic assessments that go beyond test-driven mandates and help teachers strengthen the classroom experience for each student.” The third graders simply call for “not so many tests!” saying they need time to learn the material being tested. Kids are not likely to demand tests, period, so I suppose this is a predictable difference.

Early Education and Grade Level Reading. The EON declaration calls for guaranteed access to pre-K programs for every child, while kids tend not to realize all the time how they got where they are. Their focus is more on their immediate environment.

Things in the Grade 3 declaration not in the EON version

Recess. At many public schools, recess has been eliminated to allow teachers more instruction time. Yet adding recess to a child’s day can result in learning gains not achievable (in some students) without the recess (research). This is particularly true for younger children, and I believe the EON declaration was written more with the end goal of college and career, not with the process of getting there, in mind. Although the EON declaration makes reference to health supports for children, it seems to imply nutritional support, including in students’ homes, and medical care, rather than physical activity during the school day.

More Art, Music, Theater, Creative Writing, …. Kids demand specific programs and subjects, many of which have been eliminated or strongly curtailed in their schools, while the EON declaration focuses on general academics and funding requirements for schools. It doesn’t list specific subjects, instead focusing on overall school reform, so it’s possible this demand by kids should be considered by the blanket statements in the EON version.

Indirect overlap

Discipline. The EON “Education Declaration to Rebuild America” calls for the elimination of discriminatory discipline policies that take students out of school; acknowledging the need for discipline, kids say, “Our school community should respect each other—and not too many strict teachers! And no bullies!” Third graders use lots of exclamation points in their writing, in case you haven’t noticed. Adults tend to use fewer. But beyond that, the demands are similar.

Student-Centered Supports. The EON declaration calls for “personalized plans or approaches that provide students with the academic, social, and health supports they need for expanded and deeper learning time.” The third-grade version calls for more field trips as an example of academic supports, “time to play with our friends” as an example of social supports, and allowing students to “move our bodies more in the fresh air” as an example of health supports. Different words, same meaning, with specifics filled in for students in New York and generalities to the community filled in for the education professionals.

Strong overlap between the two documents

Teaching Quality. While the EON declaration calls for the “recruitment, training, and retention of well-prepared, well-resourced, and effective educators and school leaders, who can provide extended learning time and deeper learning approaches,” the kids have some less global concerns in this area: “We should have teachers who can be themselves and be funny and be serious!” they write. That comment about “funny” really means, to an educator, the same thing as “deeper learning approaches.” Humor is often a sign of synthesis or sometimes evaluation, and teachers who can be themselves are found where they are well-prepared to manage their classrooms and have enough resources and time. Kids just say teachers should “Focus on Learning!” That’s what it means to a 9-year-old, I’m pretty sure.

Resources, Technology, … Under the call for equitable funding, the EON declaration says teachers should be equipped with “better data systems and technology.” This is a very general term, but the third graders also call for “computers and technology” in general terms. Both documents seem to place technology in the role of supporting other school or learning activities, since neither document specifies a precise role of technology. And that de-emphasis on technology may have been seen as appropriate by the two groups of writers, given the spirit of the overall documents.

Effective, Engaging Learning. The third graders list several demands that suggest the schools are not engaging them in learning: “We should not have to do BORING work! We should have more HANDS ON lessons!” they write. The EON version generalizes this a bit: “Learning must be engaging and relevant,” the document says. “Learning should be a dynamic experience through connections to real world problems and to students’ own life experiences and cultural backgrounds.” That part about “connections to … students’ own life experiences” means the same as “not BORING,” in my opinion.

Learning from Creativity, Not Tests. The EON document adds, “High-stakes testing narrows the curriculum and hinders creativity.” While the third graders don’t mention creativity, “high-stakes” testing, or the narrowing of a curriculum in their document, their purpose in writing the document, as we reported, was to reduce the amount of time schools occupy with standardized testing. My evidence for this conclusion is the end of the third graders’ “Declaration of Education,” where they write, “Focus on Learning” in all capital letters, prefacing it with, “Let us learn, and not so many tests!” I think the sequence at the conclusion of the third-grade version sums it up very nicely. The Education Opportunity Network simply gave the idea of reduced high-stakes testing the official words and general principles.

The most striking similarity

Both documents refer to the respect students and communities have for teachers. Yes, the EON declaration refers to autonomy, professionalism, and like concepts, while students simply say teachers should be able to “be themselves.” But make no mistake: What third graders mean when they say teachers should be themselves is that they shouldn’t have to build every single minute of their day based on orders from score-hungry districts. That’s precisely what autonomy is.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.