Doing What is Best for Students

(Originally published on LinkedIn.)

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of folks talking about “doing what is best for students.” I’ve even said it myself. In fact, the first time I heard something along these lines it was about 15 years ago in the context of comprehensive whole-school reform and the full statement was something along the lines of:

Are we doing what is best for students, or what is easiest for adults?

Over the past 15 years I have come to develop my own belief that some of what is best for students is also what is best for adults: creating school climates and cultures that are flexible, adaptive, inquiry-based, welcoming, nurturing, caring, and supportive of developing the whole person.

The first time I heard this statement I understood it as a reflection of the messy and hard work of comprehensive school reform.

Over the years I have also begun to realize that it is far too easy for us to toss around these kinds of statements without taking the time to have clarifying conversations about what we believe is best.

Here are a few examples of how different educators, with different educational philosophies and different motivations, might interpret “what is best for students”:

  • Focusing on teaching to the test so the students can pass the test (if passing the test is how we define academic success)
  • Focusing on providing a rich arts-infused learning environment
  • Creating a student-driven, personalized learning environment where progress is competency-based
  • Delivering instruction in a teacher-centered and direct instruction approach
  • Providing a technology-rich 1:1 learning environment
  • Developing and creating career or interest-based pathways that allow students to explore personal or career interests prior to graduating from high school
  • Increasing number of minutes of physical education during the school day
  • Implementing later start times for high school students
  • Lengthening the school day
  • Eliminating age-based grade levels and moving to a 100% competency-based approach where learning is the constant and time becomes the variable

Some of those concepts listed above contradict each other while some can easily co-exist and complement each other, but it is very possible — and in my personal experience probable — that within any given group of faculty there will be quite a few people who hold contrasting ideas around “what is best for students.” It is also very easy for some of the contrasting ideas to exist together in a way that may not be intentional. For example, a technology-rich, 1:1 learning environment can be teacher-centered and focused on teaching to the test, and a personalized, competency-based approach can be done without any technology. This isn’t always addressed in articles, blog posts, and keynotes that promote “transforming our learning environments!” Without engaging in dialogue with one another we can easily use phrases like this — or other terms such as rigor, relevance, and academic success — while completely misunderstanding what we each believe needs to happen next in our school or within our district in order to implement “what is best.”

Let me share a more direct example of how this might affect campus-based decisions. Let’s assume you have two campus administrators who are involved with making decisions on the master schedule and scheduling decisions for the students. One of these administrators believes that the at-risk students benefit most by having access to a variety of electives where they can explore their interests. This keeps them engaged in school and gives them motivation to attend school on a regular basis so they are present for their academic core courses as well. The other administrator is more concerned that the at-risk students are not passing the state standardized test and sees the elective courses as “fluff” that take time away from more tutoring or teaching to the test. This administrator wants to remove the students from their electives and place them in additional math and ELA classes — a move that the first administrator fears will result in some of the students becoming less engaged in school resulting in skipping and potentially dropping out completely. These differing beliefs can lead to conflict between the two administrators, but the conflict can be avoided if the administrators have an honest dialogue with one another around what they believe, why they believe this, and how they might come up additional solutions that address all of their concerns.

What is “best” for students is rarely a single, narrowly-focused approach, and it can and will differ depending on the ages of the students, the culture within the larger community, the needs of the community, and specific issues that impact the students at any individual campus.

I share all of this because of my concern that we do not have enough dialogue with one another around these kinds of statements.

I encourage you to take some time today or this week to begin a discussion with your colleagues.

Ask yourselves to clarify your own definitions of the statements and terms that you use frequently on your campus or across your district. How do each of you define “what is best” for students?

Do you share similar definitions? Do your definitions differ? If so, why?

Where can you find common ground?

How does understanding these differences affect your thinking or your approach to the work you are doing in your classroom, on your campus, or within your department?