Schools are complex environments, strewn with relationships amongst adults with a multiplicity of roles and allegiances, complicated by the volatile and competitive relationships of children striving to understand their place in the world. To work in a public school is to daily navigate treacherous political and interpersonal waters, work on various teams, alternately pressure and commiserate with parents in meetings and on phone calls, and conference with children to steer them through issues they encounter in their relationships with others.
Relationships comprise the foundation on which the real work of schools reside. Teachers meet with one another to plan curricula and assessments (or at least, they should), examine and share student work, analyze data, and share resources and ideas on how to manage children with challenging behavior or inadequate academic progress. Students often have strong relationships with multiple adults in the building, such as the security guard, the secretary, another teacher down the hall, or a trusted paraprofessional or school aide. Teachers use tricks to capitalize on these relationships, distracting students in crisis by asking them to deliver pretend “mail” to other teachers, or sending them to a corner or outside the classroom with a co-teacher or paraprofessional to “de-escalate” and engage in a problem-solving conversation.
As a special education teacher, my students often engage with a number of adults on any given day as part of their services delivered via their Individualized Education Program (IEP), such as counseling, speech-language therapy, one-on-one tutoring (SETTS), or occupational therapy. Many of my students are also English language learners (ELLs — gotta love all the acronyms, eh?), and are also pulled for small group English as a second language instruction. This year, I am teaching in an inclusion, co-teaching classroom, and my general education students are also sometimes pulled for academic intervention services (AIS) and dance practice for a school performance. Many of them also attend after-school programs most days of the week.
Now think of how many adults contribute to the education of the students I am responsible for. And the farce that is value-added accountability becomes apparent. How can you possibly disaggregate my individual impact on a student from the collective impact of the school environment and that individual student’s work with other adults?
I am tired of the endless iterations of the line that teachers are the “single most important factor in raising student achievement.” Yes, teachers matter. We are the adults that students spend the preponderance of their time with while in school, therefore we have the greatest impact on student learning. But what about all the other adults that students interact with, build relationships with, and work with? What about the practices, rituals, procedures, and culture of the school? What about the physical environment of the school?
The reality is, the whole school matters, and this quixotic exercise of attempting to disaggregate individual teacher impact on a child completely obscures the real work of a school in developing a positive environment that promotes well-being and intellectual and emotional safety, as well as in delivering a rich, coherent curriculum.
So what should we be measuring, then? How can we possibly hold schools accountable for the learning of the students they are responsible for?
My advice is to recognize the importance of relationships in a school in raising student achievement, and seek a means of measuring the context of a school, such as the trust and strength of relationships between the adults in the building, the ratio of positive to negative words used, and the quality of the physical environment. We can stop shelling out public money yearly to testing corporations, and instead adopt a randomized testing schedule, and we could put some of that money instead towards the much more important face-to-face accountability of leaders stepping foot into schools, rather than examining disaggregated data dissociated from its context. This could be coupled with some modified form of the inspectorate model currently used in the United Kingdom.
But contexts alone are not the only service that schools provide. Schools deliver content to students, and all too often, the critical importance of a strong curriculum is completely ignored. We can measure the strength of a school’s curriculum by assessing how well it is horizontally and vertically aligned, as well as in how well it targets and addresses student gaps in background knowledge.
Let’s stop pretending, therefore, that students are products. It takes a whole school to educate a whole child. And that whole school must have a strong, coherent curriculum that is delivered in an environment of trust and respect that promotes well-being, risk-taking, and empathy.