By Richard M. Long, executive director, Learning First Alliance
Looking out into a classroom full of kids—some alive with curiosity, some tense with anxiety, some wondering about their next meal—is the immediate challenge for nearly every teacher. So asking you to take time to study a new publication on successful schools may seem a bit counterproductive. Yet, we believe it’s important to see what others are doing and to build a framework for discussions that will ultimately improve your practice and working conditions. This is one reason that the Learning First Alliance, of which AFT is a member, undertook the task of bringing together the best research from practitioners into a compendium that defines what we know about the practices of successful schools.
Our compendium, The Elements of Success: 10 Million Speak on Schools That Work, isn’t small in scale. It brings together a spectrum of professionals and parents who work in schools and agree on basic elements for school success. This is the profession speaking—not another think tank report. Teachers know what school quality is, how to define it, and how it fits together.
We want to show that teachers and other educators know what they are doing.
From this process, we culled research and found six intertwined elements. These elements of success are incorporated differently in every building and by every educator. So, like many others, we have found that successful schools have commonalities—but most important is that what they also have is a mixture of these six elements unique to each school.
The six elements of success can be transformed into a set of questions that all educators can use in reflecting on their practice. As you think about your daily work, consider: “How is my classroom, school and district… ?”
- Focusing on the total child: How are we supporting each child’s needs—inside and outside the classroom—to help the child become an effective, empowered learner?
- Demonstrating our commitment to equity and access: How do I personalize the needs of all students?
- Engaging with families and the community: Effectively engaging families and communities in support of students.
- Distributing leadership: effectively having a wide range of decision-makers, as well as shared decision-making.
- Creating and maintaining a strong, supported teaching force and staff: Staffing schools with educators who are well-educated, well-prepared and well-supported, and providing continuous learning opportunities to them does this.
- Building and supporting a relationship-oriented school climate: By creating a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility among staff and students, and with families and communities. These schools are safe, welcoming and respectful to all.
Is this an aspirational list? Perhaps in some places, but these elements are realities in many schools. They establish a set of principles for continuous improvement. They also do something else—they provide ideas about how education, when practiced well, is a team effort. Schools are large organizations made up of many different professionals with different roles and ideas, and The Elements of Success provides individuals in each part of the profession a stronger sense of how their goals and ideas can fit together.
For example, many school counselors talk about strategies to address social emotional learning, but their definition and goals may be different from those of a district administrator or school board member or a parent. These elements provide a tool to integrate such a concept with actual definitions that can be used by teachers, parents and principals as well as supported by superintendents and school boards. It also is a guiding light to discuss how leadership by teachers fits into the overall administration of a school community. And, it provides insights into how technology is a component of effective schools when it is integrated into practice and ongoing professional development.
Over the next several months, the Learning First Alliance and its members will be discussing many of the ideas in this compendium. But we will also be expanding on these ideas and using them as calls to action. We have used the elements of success to support the actions that school leaders are taking to broaden the public support for schools. Because, when teachers say their students need more support for social and emotional learning, they are talking about having the resources to improve students’ lives and their opportunities to learn. When technology educators talk about using 3D printers and virtual reality to make lessons more impactful for students, they are talking about how to use one of the six elements. When teachers talk about needing and wanting to continue to become a more effective educator and having access to professional learning, they too are talking about components of these six elements. In all of these examples, the success of the core idea is when it is integrated into a range of activities (and elements) to make them work.
The six elements can be used to reflect on your practice, in discussions with your colleagues, as part of presentations with parents, or simply to conceptualize how complex change is and how it needs to be managed if your ideas are to be put into practice.
We look forward to continuing this discussion. Please share comments below.
Richard M. Long
Richard M. Long is Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 national education organizations including AFT. Dr. Long is a nationally known advocate, writer and commentator on pre-K-12 issues and federal policy. Prior to joining LFA, he spent the past four decades working in education policy, including 37 years as the Government Relations Director for the International Reading Association. He also concurrently served as Executive Director/Government Relations Director for the National Title I Association from 1995 to 2014. He earned bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees from George Washington University.