Educational Reform for Individual Students’ Success

August 15, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on August 15, 2013.

Earlier this month, reported The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Brenna R. Kelly, as Leonard Allgeyer was preparing for his first day as an eighth‐​grader at Tichenor Middle School in northern Kentucky, his mother, Staci, complained to his teacher: “He spells so many words wrong.”

What was Leonard’s mother’s immediate course of action? She explained her concerns to the teacher and a counselor when they came to her home.

This direct educational reform was possible because, according to the Enquirer’s Kelly, “several Northern Kentucky school districts are sending teachers out of the classroom and into homes to get to know their students and their families” (“N.Ky. schools build relationships by making home visits,” Kelly, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Aug. 8).

These schools are evolving, one student at a time — but deeper.

And dig the result of this commonsense approach to understanding how individual students learn:

“Experts say teacher home visits can result in increased attendance, decreased discipline problems, more parental involvement and — ultimately — higher test scores.”

Another valuable benefit, I would add, is that the individual teachers learn a lot more about how the home lives of each student affect the degree to which they can enjoy the surprises and pleasures of learning.

Before these visits, the at‐​risk population of the Tichenor School had doubled, according to principal Bryant Gillis, who told Kelly: “Probably a lot of our parents didn’t have a good experience with school.”

In addition, Kelly, citing an interview with Newport (Ky.) Independent Schools Superintendent Kelly E. Middleton, reported that “research shows that students work harder when they believe that teachers care about them.”

Furthermore, Middleton told Kelly that this care manifests itself in “not just the home visits; it’s the relationships.”

By getting to know the students, teachers and counselors are showing parents that schools can reach these students more wholly than tests can.

Meanwhile, amid all the stormy debates about teacher evaluations — and racial learning gaps experienced by black and Hispanic students — most of us hear little, if anything, about education reform among Native American students.

A recent story from southwestern Washington state found that “a new program offering mental health services for young people with Native American and Alaskan Native heritage will be offered in the Kelso School District this fall” (“Kelso schools add counseling program for Native American students,” Leslie Slape, The (Longview, Wash.) Daily News, Aug. 4).

I’ve reported on the need in school districts with diverse student cultures for diagnoses and medical treatment of certain students with mental health problems. But this vacuum is seldom mentioned in most media coverage of education, including stories about the “school to prison pipeline.” I’ve known kids who are dangerous to themselves and others when they’re “off their (temporarily prescribed) ‘meds.’ ”

Kelso has searching education programs in other areas. But The Daily News’ Slape, citing Chris Lange, the mental health counselor with Cowlitz Tribal Health Services, reported that “the difference between traditional counseling and the type Tribal Health will offer is that theirs is culturally based.

“The tribal culture of the student will be ‘a big part of their treatment,’ even for those who have not been raised to know their own heritage and traditions.”

But growing up among other students who are consciously affected by this heritage, even students with this background but not versed in this heritage are shaped by them.

“This ties in a lot to suicide prevention,” Lange told The Daily News’ Slape.

“Research shows that being ‘tied to something, such as a tribe, is a great preventer of suicide.’ ”

Also of educational worth to students joined to other cultures throughout this land is how Lange and his colleagues at Cowlitz Tribal Health Services are working to deal with their particular needs.

They “will offer therapy for individuals, groups and families; art and outdoor therapy; parenting classes, home‐​based services, trauma and grief counseling and medication management. In addition to schools, sessions may be held at the Cowlitz Tribal Services Center …”

Last week, Kendal Gapinkski of the Daily (West Chester, Pa.) Local News reported on another example of creative critical thinking in education reform that is connected to Pennsylvania’s new Common Core Standards. This particular reform can be applied on its own in any state:

“Math in Focus teaches math through a ‘concrete‐​pictorial‐​abstract progression’ (“Great Valley switches math curriculum,” Gapinski, Daily Local News, Aug. 7).

This “means each math skill is first demonstrated with visual material, such as blocks and pictures, before moving into an abstract level using only numbers and mathematical symbols.”

As a kid, I had a very frustrating time in school trying to become part of algebra and more advanced math. I wish I’d had illuminating visual material to guide me.

You can find a wide range of these educational breakthroughs from ASCD SmartBrief, a free daily email service providing access to direct school sources and education news sources. I have recommended SmartBrief to teachers, students, principals, parents and legislators. (But I don’t include Barack Obama because he’s much too busy disintegrating the Constitution.)

I never miss a day of SmartBrief on ascd​.org because it does so much more than just give a customary emphasis on collective evaluations of students.

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