Schools need to focus more on relevance than rigor

Ed reform has gone stale and needs a reboot

IN THIS CRAZY, chaotic and often perplexing age we live in teachers are required, more than ever before, to fill a larger role in our children’s lives. Teachers have always been an important influence, but now the support they provide transcends the classroom as they help students find their way in this confusing challenging time. Cultural turmoil is inevitable. It seems that each successive generation bemoans the one that comes after it, holding hard to the way they did things. The same can be said for education.

Current “education reform” initiatives are stale and remain mired in the thinking of the past. We have a situation today where technology is often merely layered over what was previously done and presented in a new shiny package as innovative, yet the underlying pedagogy hasn’t changed. If we are seeking to change the system we must act holistically rather than tweaking simple delivery and assessment. Simply raising academic expectations and making core courses harder is not the solution to our educational dilemma.

With all the benefits that technology brings, it also often creates challenges for our students with simple human social skills. As a society, we now organize all aspects of our children’s lives and time for things such as unstructured play have fallen away. We worry so much about children’s development and safety that we structure their lives to such an extent that development is inhibited and safety compromised. We need to break through the present societal dichotomy whereby we provide too much structure for children’s social growth, effectively keeping them children longer, while artificially increasing academic rigor to treat them like adults. Systemic change is necessary if we are to effectively alter this dynamic and achieve appropriate balance.

In short, education needs to be less worried about rigor and more worried about relevance. What skills are relevant in today’s world? What supports are relevant to achieving the goal of fixing what all agree is a system that needs to change? Most importantly, how do we make education relevant for our students?

These big questions are more than acronyms like STEM or STEAM or SEL alone can answer. Change like this takes the willingness to listen and be open to a true discussion that leads somewhere other than a predetermined outcome.

I am hopeful about the increased state level focus on social-emotional learning as well as the new work around computer science as a core competency. The recognition that what we teach needs to change along with how we teach it is at the foundation of the current work around computer science. As always, the devil is in the details, as we can’t continue to layer more and more on top of what we are already required to do. If we are going to add a new, and necessary, foundational skill we must change the structure of public education that it supports.

It is time for Massachusetts to regain its place as the national innovation leader for change in public education. For too long we’ve rested on our laurels of improved test scores while achievement gaps in our most challenged communities remain. We’ve ignored the fact that “ed reform,” lauded since 1993, if left alone for too long stops being reformational and merely becomes the status quo. It’s time to transform education in the Commonwealth to meet the needs of today’s students and society.

We have new leadership at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and our new commissioner seems open to hearing from those in the field. At a recent gathering he openly espoused his belief that education is more than core academics.

We must provide opportunities for high quality enrichment activities and strive for a holistic approach to education. He seems to realize that one size does not fit all, either for students, schools, or communities, and policies must be flexible enough to encompass that reality. It will be interesting to see where we go from here as pressure from groups with entrenched interests is intense.

Meet the Author

At the core of this system are our teachers. They drive the learning which happens in classrooms every day. Everything we do as educational leaders and policy makers              must be to support their efforts in the classroom. It’s more than just resources, although those are important. We must change the current narrative to ensure teachers are valued as professionals and included in the discussion about how to change the system. They are the ones responsible for building the future each day and we count on them to help make it a better place than it was before.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.