What we’re doing is not working.
“We” means the global we: the education sector. What we’re doing in education is not working. If our goal were what it once was - educate a relatively homogeneous population so that we can effectively sort children into appropriate domains of work - then we’re not far off. But our goal has changed. We now want to educate everyone to a common level of proficiency to afford them equal opportunity and choice in lives of their choosing. And we’re nowhere near that, despite changes in standards and curricula and assessments and districting and funding.
Richard Elmore once described this macro change as a storm over the ocean. It rages fearsome, but it only effects the top layer of the ocean. Sea life, safe from the storm, carries on in unaffected waters. Big changes in education feel this way. They rage something fearsome and they exhaust and frustrate educators and administrators alike, but they rarely change the core of what we actually do: we group children by their age, ask them to learn and prove they’ve retained basic skills and common content, and we move them forward with very little regard for what they’ve actually learned. And, no matter how many years go past with American proficiency scores trailing other nations and achievement gaps widening, we have not changed this essential equation.
The students we serve at Launch are anywhere from three to five years behind grade level. AND they are remarkably smart. Talk to them about big ideas and they will share complicated questions and reasoning. Ask them to create art or dance or design books or tell you about internal combustion engines and they will astound you. So, it stands to reason that the traditional approaches to education they experienced in their first years of school were not working, right?
We founded Launch to create community-driven learning environments that could operate beneath the raging storm and make meaningful change down with the fish. Put differently: we started by naming that what we’re doing is not working, and then we started trying to do things differently. Specifically, we challenged a few big assumptions in the public education equation.
We have to group kids by grade level and teach them grade level content. No, we don’t. Grade levels are convenient for adults but don’t make sense for kids. Kids learn different things at different rates, and we can help them learn best if we have the flexibility to group them by where they are in their learning, not how old they are. And yes, we want to get kids to grade level, but we have to get there by first meeting them where they are.
There is a right way to teach and one set of things worth learning and these work well enough for all kids. Um, what? Kids learn by building on prior knowledge, including cultural knowledge and lived experience. Kids learn best when classroom environments - including teaching practices - reflect their homes and communities. Simply put: culturally relevant teaching and learning are of paramount importance.
Academics come first and the rest happens if you have time left over. Yes, of course we want all kids to develop academic knowledge and skills. But kids can’t learn if they are experiencing the cognitive impairment caused by trauma. And kids can't learn if they are bored out of their minds. Kids need to attach learning to meaningful activities and their own personal strengths. Trauma-informed care and strengths-based learning must be part of every classroom, every day.
We’ll be the first to say it: we didn’t get it all right, and it’s hard. In no particular order, here are a few of the things we’ve already learned about trying to do this work differently.
Moving to new ways of operating require “unlearning” old ways for students, teachers, and families. Plan for this. Invest in orientation upfront. Communicate early and often about expectations. Leave time and space for students to participate in creating the classroom environment.
Go slow with the transition to multi-age environments. Even by third grade, kids are attached to grade-level identities and it takes time to get used to a different way.
Carve out time (and have a staffing strategy) for “dipstick” assessments on where kids actually are in different content and skill areas. Do this before the school year starts and then as a regular part of instructional practice. It’s hard to get kids moving on personalized pathways if you’ve not allotted enough time for regular formative assessment.
It isn't enough if your content is culturally relevant and your instruction is culturally relevant if your students can’t identify with you. Prioritize hiring teachers and recruiting partners who reflect students’ identities. Show students that all staff - across roles and races and genders - are part of a trusting and collaborative team in order to help students develop trust and relational connection with teachers who don't look like them.
Trauma-informed care is hard. Train your staff in advance, and provide opportunities for continued coaching and development. Align all support and service providers around a shared strategy for student and classroom supports; haphazard and reactive supports are counterproductive when trying to create a consistent and coherent environment.
Strengths-based learning is hard. Don’t build the plane while you’re flying it, planning your lessons on the daily as you discover what your students are good at and love. Learn this upfront. Bring your students in over the summer for camp or family events or other opportunities to learn what they are good at and love. Take the time to build out the projects before the school year starts: integrate standards, identify opportunity for intensive interventions, and organize community partner organizations and other necessary resources.
So, we’re learning. We the teachers, we the students, we the parents - the ones down with the sea life - are actively working together to get it right. It’s slow and hard but we’re comforted by the fact that at least we are trying something new.
What’s amazing to see is the pushback. The gut reaction to something new that says, “this is unfamiliar, it’s not working yet, we must go back.” Don’t get me wrong. We understand the urgency people feel for us to improve. We feel it too, more than anyone.
But if we are brave enough to admit that the “old” way was not working - that it left brilliant kids years behind their classmates across the city - then we have to be brave enough to resist the temptation to go back. We also have to be humble - humble enough to challenge our own assumptions about new ways when they are not working, and to continually reinvent and reinvent and reinvent until we’ve created something new that works.
We’re in this water together and we’ll keep swimming, reminding ourselves to be brave and humble and to never cease in our reinvention.