Some advocates say that public education in America began to change after the publication of the 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” which created a false perception that our public schools were failing children. Others point to the need for schools to shift their focus from child development to market-driven forces, such as longer school hours to accommodate working parents. Others might argue that economics have always dictated the priorities and organizational models that define our public schools — never child-development.
There is, however, one thing that all public education advocates would agree on today: Our schools are still not providing equitable access and outcomes.
And now we find ourselves at the crossroads created by a global pandemic. During all of the chaos and uncertainties that our districts and communities experienced in the last several weeks, our State Board of Education responded with clarity about how we will assess our K-8 students. These are children age 5 to early teenagers. According to the board’s press release dated April 23, 2020:
For elementary and middle school students, teachers will document individual student strengths and needs from both an academic and social/emotional perspective to ensure an effective transition from this spring’s remote learning to the 2020-21 academic year.”
This policy represents a huge shift toward student-centered assessment. The change considers that there is more to a child than grades and test performance when evaluating growth and proficiency. This could be a really good development. The clear intention to examine the whole child, including the “social/emotional,” moves the needle toward the equitable access and outcomes that have, for so long, been unattained in public education.
If we start looking at the social/emotional strengths and needs of students, we begin to pry open the narrow view that tested content is the only content worth pursuing in our K-8 classrooms. This widened view provides room for public schools to thoughtfully consider and invest time and resources in attending to the full complexity of children’s lives. We know that there are “low-performing” children who are also resilient. There are “low-performing” kids who are loyal and kind. There are ‘high-performing” children who crumble in the face of emotional adversity. There are both “low” and “high” performing children who need more practice resolving conflicts.
The COVID-19 grading policy acknowledges that our public schools attend to more than just academic “strengths and needs,” and we know this to be true. We know it because schools, districts and staff have connected children and families to food, learning resources, support with accessing broadband internet and technology, as well as adults who genuinely care about their well-being. Educators are not new to these non-instructional roles, but the pandemic has shown us the degree to which we rely on schools to serve and care for vulnerable members of our community.
District responses also reflect an increased awareness of students’ social/emotional needs. Before developing grading guidelines and procedures to deliver new academic content, schools and districts instructed teachers to check on their students and families by assessing their basic needs, such as access to food and housing. There are district superintendents in Wisconsin, Arizona, and even in North Carolina who understand the current role of education professionals. In an NPR interview from April 16, 2020, District Superintendent Joe Sanfelippo, of Fall Creek, Wisc., shared the directions his staff received from him as school moved off campus:
I want you to call people. And I want you to ask them two questions: How are you doing? And do you need anything?”
The intention behind Sanfelippo’s mandate suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for teachers to shift focus completely from the academic to the social emotional well being of students. When considering how to foster authentic relationships, these two questions make a lot of sense. Healthy relationships are based on a genuine interest in the response to these questions. We also know that children do better academically if they are socially and emotionally well, and if their basic needs are met.
Our continued, collective work might not be merely to compensate for lost academic learning in reading and mathematics, but to begin making up for decades of lost emphasis and attention to the social and emotional learning that leads children to become healthy, productive and successful adults. Perhaps we should concern ourselves with making up lost access to curriculum outside of reading and mathematics; in this way we can begin to see the value in “low-performing” children who excel at playing an instrument, who can skillfully analyze the outcomes of historical decisions, or who help their friends work through tough situations.
As we consider what school will look like in the post-pandemic world, we should reevaluate what kind of adults we want children to become. Sure, we want them to be able to read and live within their means, but if we continue to standardize their school experience, we will continue to limit children. We limit their ability to seek creative solutions to problems — learning that is embedded in our arts curriculum. We limit their understanding of their time and place in the world that comes from engaging both science and social studies. Most tragically, we will limit their capacity to develop healthy relationships and self-care habits — skills that come from experience participating in caring relationships, nonviolent conflict resolution, reflective practice, self-evaluation, and other indicators of social emotional “proficiency.”
Each spring, near the end of the academic year, Jen Bourne writes in opposition to the policies and practices that lead to the over-testing and standardization of children, as well as the consequences of our cultural addiction to quantifying everything. She and her husband are educators living in Charlotte, with their non-standardized children and two dogs. Jen has been advocating, teaching (and learning from) children and adults since 2002 in various contexts, including: public charter schools, an urban school district, private preschool and community colleges. She looks forward to the day that we collectively honor and respect the work of educators.