When I was in elementary school, I remember enjoying immensely our daily music appreciation class (Imagine that! Even in the 1960’s at the height of the “Space Race”, it was understood that there was an integral place for the arts in education!). In 3rd Grade, our music teacher, Mrs. Courtney, introduced us to the amazing legacy of Negro Spirituals. What a tremendous experience for us to embrace this wonderful musical tradition, apply it to our history studies, get to actively speak about the current events of civil rights happening in our midst, and best of all singing while we learned. Hindsight lets me realize how the seed of blended learning, cooperative learning, infusion approaches to lesson planning, team teaching, backwards design, and curricular cohesiveness all had their roots in the work of these dedicated teachers! So it’s no wonder how clearly I remember our Science teacher showing up at Ms. Courtney’s music class the day she was prepared to teach us how to sing “Dem Dry Bones”. What great fun we had learning that “the foot bone’s connected to the heel bone. The heel bone’s connected to the ankle bone…”. Then, the Science teacher explained how we would just crumple to the ground if all we had were “dem dry bones”. That was her lead-in to teach us about muscles, cartilage, ligaments and all things dealing with connective tissue. We touched each bone as we sang about it and jumped around excitedly. A true blend of visual, tactile, kinesthetic, and musical learning that I still remember to this day when so much other “stuff” I learned has disappeared from my brain.
I’ve just read the most recent Carnegie “challenge” paper: “Opportunity by Design: New High School Models for Student Success”. It’s a very thorough and insightful study that promotes a “push to redesign how schools actually work for students and teachers”. The paper synthesizes a great deal of background studies and then outlines the plans of The Opportunity by Design Initiative. According to the authors, this bold, new initiative (cue up the classroom teachers who in their role similar to that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy cry out in unison: “Oh no, not another initiative!) will lead to:
the creation of new schools.
the development of district capacity to engage in school creation independently.
the articulation of principles to guide other districts and states in reorienting their assets to develop, support, and sustain innovative new designs that meets the needs of all their students.
The paper then proceeds to put forth an effective secondary school design that incorporates 10 integrated principles to meet the demands of the Common Core. The usual “ingredients” are present in the principles: rigor, efficiency, continuous improvement, data-driven, real-time feedback. I am impressed by the work of all who participated in this paper. And I am left with one fundamental question: Where’s the connective tissue?
In my role as the Director of Education at the National School Climate Center, I have become accustomed to hearing from district leaders, principals, and teachers that this emphasis on social/emotional/civic learning and school climate improvement are the “soft side” of education. Even when there is a modicum of acceptance of the now myriad studies (highly rigorous, data-driven, and with real-time feedback!) proving that by concentrating on how school climate will deepen and broaden encouragement, support and rewards for student development and achievement, there is a relegation to the dustbin of “extras” for all things school climate based. Many still view school climate as merely “window dressing”.
For a while, the value of school climate improvement was embraced by some simply in the guise of anti-bullying efforts. Quickly, these disjointed, “one off” initiatives showed that bullying was and is pretty much a “canary in the coal mine”. School communities rapidly figured out that if there were issues of bullying, it pointed to deeper issues of power, privilege, social inequity, lack of transparency, lack of student voice, teacher dissatisfaction, a lack of students feeling safe and supported, undue emphasis on standardized tests, and data that is used to punish and demean (in direct contrast to our approach at NSCC to use data as a “flashlight” rather than as a “hammer”). And yet, it is quite evident from the Carnegie challenge paper that we still might not be ready to approach school climate improvement efforts as an integral part of school reform that can only serve to promote innovative and successful secondary school designs. This is, in fact, the “connective tissue” that brings together the disparate elements of incorporating the Common Core, using human capital strategically, giving schools robust methods to integrate positive youth development, and promoting student engagement in their academic success.
It is disheartening to see that strong research and bold attempts to create new high school models for student success don’t capitalize explicitly and systemically on the principles of school climate improvement. It’s still remains personally disheartening for me to work collegially and rigorously with schools on social/emotional/civic education only to be “disinvited” from the building during the “high holy days” of standardized testing. Our Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI), a powerful tool that measures school climate across eight different dimensions and captures the voices of all students, family members, and school staff, inevitably elucidates shortcomings by not incorporating this connective tissue in a school or district. And it also provides a pretty clear road map of just how to capitalize on this most important element of our schools so as to improve academics, increase graduation and school success rates, and create school communities where all are given the chance to excel. Additionally, The National School Climate Center (NSCC) just launched a series of School Climate Practice Briefs—Practices for Implementation and Sustainability— that present the latest in research and best practice for effective school climate reform from leading experts. The 11 issues selected to be included in this set of Practice Briefs are based on NSCC’s decade-long work with the entire academic community—teachers, staff, school-based mental health professionals, students and parents—to improve a climate for learning. The Briefs and the CSCI also have a fairly apparent intrinsic message…something is amiss with education reform that ignores the context of relationships and teaching/learning. Something is quite wrong with refusing to recognize that the important competencies our students and graduates need to secure/enhance college and career readiness are the social-emotional, civic and moral skills. If we continue to launch initiatives that promote only thin portions of the entirety of school reform needs and ignore the role of school climate, we do so at our own peril. We are setting ourselves up to have our efforts crumple into a pile like “dem dry bones”.