Putting Students First

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

How often have we heard the words ‘learner centred’, ‘personalised learning’ or ‘learner agency’ mentioned in professional conversations or policy documents in recent years? And yet, for all of the rhetoric, we don’t appear to have yet succeeded in achieving the vision of putting learners first to its fullest extent – definitely not as a whole system.

I’ve just finished reading a book titled Putting Students First that tells the story of a large, diverse, public-school district engaged in creating and sustaining a student-centred education system for more than 30 years – not in individual classrooms, or even individual schools, but as a whole school district.

Lead author Dr Marsha Jones has been involved on the ground in this journey for a great deal of this time, and this book records the narrative of what occurred, the actions taken (and the reasons for them) and the efforts to achieve a sustainable, district-wide focus on putting students first.

My interest in this book is because Springdale is one of the districts in Northwest Arkansas from which teachers and principals came to New Zealand in 2017 to see what was happening in our schools here. I had the privilege of hosting them and acting as their tour guide, and in 2018 and again in 2019 I have had the privilege of travelling to the US and spending time in their schools.

Springdale’s story began decades before the visit to New Zealand, so I can categorically state this post is not an attempt to claim credit for anything they have achieved – although it is pleasing to see acknowledgement of the NZ visit in the book as one of the numerous initiatives taken by the leaders of the district to bring in fresh thinking and expose their teachers to different ways of working.

The real reason I feel it worthwhile sharing the Springdale story is that there are a number of touch points within it that will resonate with many schools I’ve worked with in New Zealand.

Springdale is a community that has grown considerably over the past twenty years. In 2000 there were 15 schools, with around 20% identified as racial or ethnic minorities. By 2017 the overall student enrolment had doubled, with 30 schools now operating and 65% of students identifying as minority. The growth has been fuelled by cheaper housing and low-income job opportunities, which has also seen the district change from where there were negligible levels of economically disadvantaged families to today where more that 70% are reported as from low income families, and 40% of students are “emergent bi-lingual”, the term used in the State of Arkansas to refer to students acquiring the English language. In this time more than 3000 families from the Marshall Islands have been re-settled in this district, adding to the social and cultural mix of the community.

Understanding the context is important, given the incredible success these schools have had across all measures of achievement for their learners. Which brings me to the stand-out paragraph I read in the book, which for me sums up what appears to be the ‘tipping point’ for what this wonderful group of educators has been able to achieve:

Though it is hard to pinpoint precisely, ideas began surfacing nearly two decades ago when the population in Springdale began to rapidly grow and diversify. Educators were faced with a choice – they could stay the course and blame the ‘newcomers’ for failing scores, or they could find new, inclusive paths and move forward together.

Putting students first, page 37

Thankfully these educators chose the latter, introducing innovative practices into their schools, with a relentless focus on putting learners first and not accepting failure for any. Through an ongoing process involving community connections, professional development for teachers and inspirational leadership, this district has achieved what many other schools and communities are still only considering.

My take-away: it’s pretty much impossible to play the ‘blame game’ with students if we are truly committed to putting them first. Blaming students for their failure to learn can only occur if we’re focusing primarily on the structures, processes and systems we have in place to ‘deliver’ education to them. When this is the case we are inclined to regard our learners who come to us as ’empty vessels’ which we are obliged to ‘fill’. If there is a blockage, or a leak then we perceive it to be the vessel’s ‘fault’.

When we truly place learners at the centre the narratives change. They are no longer regarded as ’empty vessels’ – but as young lives already filled with experiences, passions, questions and interests. Their language, culture and identity shapes who they are, and must be integrally considered as we become partners with them, along with their parents and the community, in what we are seeking to achieve together. Failure isn’t an option.

In approaching our role in this way we recognise all learners as being capable and clever – it’s our job to identify how they are capable or clever and in what areas, and to then work with them to address their learning strengths and weaknesses to help them realise the full extent of that potential in their lives. This involves all dimensions of their lives – academic/cognitive, health/wellbeing, culture/identity.

I am grateful to Marsha Jones and her colleagues for taking the time to record the narrative of the Springdale experience, for both the stories and for sharing their ‘game plan’ in such detail, describing the deliberate strategies that have been embraced across all schools in the district to achieve a dynamic, sustainable approach based on putting students first. I know the telling of this story will be an inspiration to others.

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