The Power of The Learner First Approach to Change the Education System for Everyone
Editor’s note: Did you know that in some school systems, it’s “OK” for 20% of students to fail?
For some people, that is NOT OK.
This is a very special guest post by Joanne McEachen of The Learner First, and author of 8 Must-Ask Questions to Get the Best Education for YOUR child – and How to Evaluate the Answers.
This is also a special opportunity to potentially replicate some of the outstanding results that Joanne produced for more than 400 schools in New Zealand.
If you are a parent of a struggling student, this can open up new possibilities for the future of your child. If you are a teacher, this might be a way to lead a significant and powerful change in your school, starting with your own classroom. If you are a leader in the education system, this might be a way to transform the education system in profound ways with amazing results. If you’re just curious what we can do to change our education system and help more students succeed, read on.
Without further ado, here’s Joanne …
Something wasn’t working for Eddie.
I was called yet again to come down to collect him from his room as the teacher was not able to control him. I found him in the boys bathroom sprawled on the floor crying. I picked him up in my arms and we sat on the floor and he cried for about an hour with his arms wrapped tightly about me. He told me how much school ‘sucked’ and how his teachers hated him and no one cared about him. That everything he learned was boring and he hated school.
He was seven years old.
That was a life defining moment for us both. I was the new principal to the school and he was one of my students and I was determined I was never going to hear that again.
Eddie was an underprivileged child with big hopes and aspirations. Eddie wanted to be a scientist. Sadly, with the education he had received for the first 2 years of his life things were not looking to good.
The education system had been underserving the children in that school for years. Something had to change. Something that was out of the box and dramatic enough to shake the teachers thinking, my thinking, the children’s thinking, and the parents thinking.
The curriculum that was being taught did not relate to the children and the teachers did connect to the children enough to know what is what they needed for their learning. But possibly worse than that Eddie was bored as what he was learning had no meaning or relevance to him so he was getting into trouble.
So we asked Eddie for his help. We asked him what he wanted to learn about. Then we asked his family what where their education aspirations for Eddie. He wanted to go to university but no in his family had been before so they didn’t know how to go about that. We found out that he knew all about electricity and was fascinated by electrons and how they moved. So we started off slowly by getting him to share his knowledge of what he was passionate about within his cultural context.
Eddie could see finally see himself – his identity, his language, and culture – reflected in what he was learning, how he was learning, and who he was learning with.
By working with Eddie’s teacher, we established a routine where Eddie could go to the local university once every three months to sit in on a science lecture so he could get used to attending a university. Next thing you know, Eddie was passionate about learning and his grades reflected it.
Eddie is now a high school graduate heading to a university.
We Have a Problem: It’s “OK” for Students to Fail!
Let’s take a school with 1,000 children in it. If that school is performing at what seems to be about the average expectation, then 60% -70% of their children are successfully achieving the academic goals. This means that 300-400 students are failing. That equates to 300-400 children every year cannot, and will not, be able to contribute to society when they leave as effectively as they could with a suitable education.
Multiply that across the country and that is a lot of kids, then start to look at who those kids are then we have a problem.
What If Students Did NOT “Fail” Anymore?
Imagine: a third of failing students changing direction and achieving in 6-8 months … Then the year after, another third. And then the year after that, another third, continuing until all children are achieving.
Using the example of 1,000 students above, what if we turned the tide and within 6-8 months we could 100-125 of the failing students to be engaged and achieving? And then in the next 6-8 months another 100-125 and then another 6-8 months until ALL children are achieving at their potential?
What difference could that make to our education system?
I Believe …
I believe every child is a jewel.
I believe that people come first, and that parents are partners, communities count, and teachers and leaders matter. Without them we don’t have our children or our schools. Prioritizing and building trust between all these groups and the wider business community is first and foremost.
My personal vision is that ALL children who enter ANY school can leave at the end of their education being able to make a choice about how they want to live their life, and to be able to contribute to better humanity, and have the skills, knowledge and confidence to be able to effectively do so.
I know what’s possible.
I’ve been there and I’ve done it.
I’ve been in the educational arena all my life, and I’ve seen some amazing things.
For example, I’ve had the chance to be a part of some powerful transformation at the national level. Specifically, I’ve helped get great outcomes for kids in the New Zealand education system with some outstanding results. We have seen kids and parents get the education they want and need, to be able to make a choice about what it is they want to do with their life.
I’d like to do the same for the U.S.A.
In my earlier days at the Ministry of Education in New Zealand, I was the equivalent of a Superintendent, in two different districts. I was responsible for monitoring the performance of over 450 schools and 400 early childhood education centers.
My next role was the National Manager of Parent and Families where I had the opportunity to develop planning and reporting resources for schools, engage parents and families nationally to ensure that they had a say about how to gain information about student progress and achievement to support student outcomes. Parents and families are an integral part of the education system and their input needs to be highly valued as educationally powerful partners.
As my career evolved, I took on the role as the National Manager of Student Achievement Function and simultaneously, Professional Learning and Development. While I was there, I initiated, launched and implemented the Student Achievement Function which contracted 50 top educators (mostly current and past school principals and administrators’) in New Zealand to work in schools to raise student achievement using a newly developed methodology based on current worldwide best evidence and practice.
The focus of the team is on raising student achievement of students who have traditionally been underserved, by the education system. I led the redesign of the Professional Learning and Development budget and content to focus on targeting students with the greatest educational need rather than a universal policy setting.
During these years I managed and directed teams of up to 200+ educators and policy makers.
The Problem: It’s OK for 20% to Fail
It seems that there is numbness or an acceptance that it is ok for kids to be going through the school system and coming out the other end without the education they require to make choices in their life. To look at the goals for many schools and districts and to see them aspire to 80 percent success by 2020, turns my stomach, because they are condemning 20 percent of kids to fail before they even walk in the school gates.
That is not okay, because what if one of those children is your child?
The traditional school has to change and is changing. No longer do we need to see children being grouped by ‘age and stage’ and learning in subject areas that don’t seem to relate to life and its meaning. What we want to see is how children learn to interact with the world around them and how they find their place in it. How do they learn to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers to find solutions for issues that are challenging our world of today and tomorrow?
It is not by sitting still in a classroom and learning from textbooks and a static curriculum that is contextually irrelevant to children.
5 Root Causes that Hold Education Systems Back
The traditional approach to lifting achievement, schools and districts tend to focus improvement efforts on improving teacher effectiveness and subject matter competence. Kids have been given supplementary programs when extra help is needed. Yet progress is too slow.
The root causes of the problem show up at every level in the system and with every stakeholder of the school community:
- Learners don’t see themselves – their identities, languages, and cultures – reflected in what they learn, how they learn, or who they learn with.
- Parents and families’ expertise and support are not leveraged.
- Teachers don’t know how to effectively teach particular learner groups.
- Schools aren’t able to see clearly what they most need to change first and fast.
- Leaders buy solutions instead of leading systemic change that delivers equitable outcomes for all learners.
The Solution: The Learner Comes First – No Excuses and Zero Failure
The Learner First approach is to work with the districts and schools to create a really clear vision and set of priorities for accelerating the achievement of the kids who most need it. We will ensure that within the 6-8 months students are reaching their potential. No excuses and zero failure.
The Learner-First Approach
In order to effectively help schools to accelerate exactly the learners that have been left behind, there is a need for an approach that encompasses the following elements.
- The right focus: What is needed here is a simple but powerful way of identifying the core issues; one that cuts through the “noise” and focuses attention on what really matters.
- High involvement: Critical to buy-in is the use of a high-involvement process that leverages the expertise, energy, and commitment of teachers, leaders, specialists, parents, and students.
- Building capability for continued performance lifts: Rather than a “solution buying” or “consultant assistance” model, there is a need for a school-based, parent-inclusive change team approach that leaves diagnostic and change management capability in the hands of schools.
- Clear tracking of results: To ensure that all parties can be brought along with the change process and energized by its successes, the process will need to include an integrated, no-fuss way to capture and share concrete and credible evidence of change as it emerges.
The Seven Principles of The Learner First School
- The learner comes first
- All learners are successful here
- Everyone who is here chooses to be here and is acknowledged and accepted for who they are
- Parents are valued and active learning partners in the learning journey
- There are no learning boundaries or limits for our learners
- Teachers know and connect with their learners
- Leaders are unashamedly focused on learner acceleration
5 Capabilities Required for a Great School System
The methodology used is based on the inquiry cycle and articulates the five capabilities that schools need for every student to succeed. These capabilities are:
- Understanding the real problem. Using real, incisive evaluation and root-cause diagnosis to understand where the most important needs are, what needs to be done first and fast, what’s working for whom, and why
- Parents as real partners: Partnering with parents, families, and communities to understand who the kids are and help them achieve their dreams
- Leadership for accelerated change. School leaders (not just principals, but all who are in influential roles) who focus on learner acceleration, drive improvement, and get the most out of professional learning and development, etc.
- Teaching for zero failure: Teaching that genuinely connects with learners, their contexts, and what they need
- Culture of belonging and high expectations for all: A school culture that reflects and welcomes learners and believes they can all succeed
Our expectations are high and so they should be. Every child has the right to an education that is personalized to them and in our country we can do this and we will do this. The time for complacency and acceptance of failure is over.
How The Learner First Works
We can deliver a proven approach to dramatically lifting the performance of schools and districts within the U.S. and beyond, to accelerate exactly the learners that have been left behind by education systems all over the world. We do this by:
- Aligning the whole system so that it’s intentional around those groups of kids
- Run sessions to help people understand what it’s all about – training, strategic planning, prioritizing around the kids in need and the 5 key areas
- Work out the professional learning and development structure & resourcing that will be needed to lift achievement seriously across the system
- Think through a needs-based approach to professional learning and development & support for students
- Identify providers who can do the kind of work needed in schools
- Support to monitor & evaluate what’s working across the system
We start with specific groups of underachieving kids, who they are (identities, languages, cultures), and what’s stopping them from succeeding.
We drill down from high-level learner needs to identify specific capability requirements for teachers, leaders, and schools as a whole. We prioritize such that the most important needs are addressed first and fast.
We produce whole school change, targeting behaviors, attitudes, and practices. And we leave schools with the capability to do their own strengths and needs assessments, enact the change, and self-review the impact.
We simultaneously apply this breakthrough thinking at the district level. This helps ensure a crystal clear shared understanding about what really matters and what it’s going to take to achieve it right across the system.
Stories of Changing Schools
I had discovered that by putting the learner first and focusing on who the child is where they are from and finding out what they need first made more of a difference than anything else. Teachers can be absolute specialists but without the connection to the child, who they are, where they are from and the relationship with what they need there is little point in even beginning the teaching and learning experience.
Taking this thinking and scaling it up to a system-wide level relies on getting all parts of the system aligned and everyone working together. By getting clear on what the real issues are in our education system and using real, incisive evaluation and root-cause diagnosis to understand where the most important needs are, what needs to be done first and fast, what’s working for whom, and why, we can identify who are our children most at risk and prioritize them.
Having the courage to name the groups of children that we were underserving makes a difference too.
By partnering with parents, families, and communities to understand who the kids are and help them achieve their dreams we found an unending source of inspiration and help. School leaders (not just principals, but all who are in influential roles) who can focus on learner acceleration, drive improvement, and get the most out of professional learning and development, are able to see rapid changes. Teaching for zero failure, teaching that genuinely connects with learners, their contexts, and what they need is the only acceptable expectation. Having a culture of belonging and high expectations for all children is a must. A school culture that reflects and welcomes learners and believes they can all succeed.
One School’s Journey
No school purposefully chooses to fail its children. Everyone wants to do the best for their children so when a school finds itself in a place where children are failing the questions have to be asked. Why are so many children not succeeding? Is it the children or the system? Once a school starts to ask these questions then they begin the journey of change. One of my favorite schools was undergoing a big change in its direction. It wanted to provide an education that was relevant for ALL their children. When I first met the principal, they asked me point blank, “What can you do for us?”
We had our work cut out for us, but there was a teacher — let’s call him “Bill”, that was excited by the potential of this different way of thinking about teaching and learning, and immediately began to think differently about ‘who’ he was teaching and then ‘what’ he was teaching . Next thing you know, the momentum was contagious. Soon, let’s call her “Sherry” was running her class in a way that each student was able to have their learning program meeting their needs. For most of the class there were some minor tweaks to but for the children who had not been passing their programs changed dramatically because it became about them learning and not just receiving the curriculum.
The school shifted its focus to prioritize children who developing programs for children who were failing, because let’s face it, those who are not failing the system is working for them-right? Once they did that they were able to drill down and find out what was stopping the children from learning and find out how they need to change what they were doing. They reorganized their resources to focus on these children, they stopped programs that were not getting the results they needed, they provided professional development once the teachers knew what they needed to learn to teach the children they had in their classrooms right here and right now, so these children could be successful and they were relentless and did not give up on any child. They believed that every child could and would be successful.
How YOU Can Get Involved
Dramatic acceleration and true educational success can be a reality, including exciting results for minority and indigenous learners and those with special education needs.
We do not have to accept the inevitability of 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, or even more of any group of learners failing in the system. It can be made to work for them; it must be made to work; and the time to take action is now, before one more jewel is lost to our world.
As adults we get to make choices each day about how we live our lives. Children don’t. They have to go to the school. Therefore it is up to the adults to make school relevant, real, and a place where ALL kids want to be and want to learn. The future of our country depends on it, our economy depends on it. We must act now before any more children hemorrhage from the education system without the world class education that our system can provide should we choose to be brave enough to provide it.
If you are an educator and want to be involved in changing your school so that the learner comes first then the first step to take it to identify who are the learners who are at risk of failing and target designing programs for them.
Think about five capabilities required for a great system, and remember it is about the system changing and not the kids.
Parents can start by ensuring that they are confident that the school recognises the importance of their children’s identity, language and culture in their learning and that the curriculum reflects this. Make sure they are involved in decisions about their children’s education and are informed of what they can do to help their children’s learning. Parents can also read 8 Must-Ask Questions to Get the Best Education for YOUR child – and How to Evaluate the Answers you can use to start a learner-focused conversation with your local school.
Dramatic acceleration and sustained educational success can be a reality, including exciting results for minority and indigenous learners and those with special education needs.
We do not have to accept the inevitability of learners failing in the system. It can be made to work for them; it must be made to work; and the time to take action is now, before one more child’s potential is wasted.
To make the changes we need to make, it starts today. We need to create a system where each child counts, and is challenged to become the best person they can be, to think about their place in the world and how they will eventually be able to contribute to it.
We need to create a system in which students are not allowed to wait until the school day is over before their life and learning can begin.
Joanne McEachen is president of The Learner First. Check out her book 8 Must-Ask Questions to Get the Best Education for YOUR child – and How to Evaluate the Answers on Amazon.