If one picks back through the sedimentary layers of educational gurus, one who stands out in my mind is Larry Lezotte. Lezotte and his colleagues identified the seven correlates of effective schools that we still use today. Lezotte often said that schools are designed to perform three basic functions: 1. Custodial care of students, 2. Sorting and selecting students and 3. Teaching and learning. He often lamented that the public generally prioritizes these functions in that order.
He philosophized that if we focused on teaching and learning, we would have greater success at eliminating the achievement gap and improve learning for all students. But schools are designed around making sure kids are in a place during a fixed period of time. Many educators who have attempted to make significant changes to their calendars, or even start and end times bear scars of failure.
An equally touchy subject with the public is that of sorting and selecting. Schools have long identified the students who win and those who lose. In 1976, the year I graduated from high school, 68% of the U.S. population did not have a high school diploma, while 18% had at least four years of college. As the stakes get higher, the function of determining who wins and loses in schools has increased in importance. Ever try to change a grading system, implement standards-based grading, or otherwise tinker with the grading tradition? In the words of President Lyndon Johnson, “I’ll show you my scars.”
Yet here we are, a few weeks into this new way of doing business, wrestling with two fundamental aspects of education. Critics are standing on the sidelines, eager to pounce at the first sign of a mistake yielded by this unprecedented educational experiment. Educators are in the arena, trying methods and strategies they have never used before, figuring out how to meet the goal that has now become primary- teaching and learning.
There are 286 school districts in Kansas, and every district is using a unique approach, based upon the needs of their students and the culture of their communities. Every teacher comes to this new arena with a different set of knowledge and skills. Every student and family has individual strengths and challenges. Everyone is doing the best they can in what are, and I am going to overuse this term, unprecedented times. Teaching and learning are now primary, but the teaching part requires a whole new skill set. There will be setbacks. It will be hard. Grace will be required. Sitting in the stands waiting for an opportunity to condemn is the opposite of grace.
When this is over, hopefully in June, every teacher, every principal, every superintendent, and every school board should go through a formal process to figure out what we have learned. Which adjustments worked, and which ones did not? That is the time for a critical analysis of this fundamental change in the prioritization of the functions of our education system. A time to explore the opportunities that we discovered when custodial care and sorting and selecting took a back seat to teaching and learning. In the meantime, let’s be constructive, let’s see what we can learn, but most of all, let’s give some grace.