Sunday, January 23, 2011

Academics Aren’t Everything

It is repeated like a mantra in K–12 education that our focus must be on “improving student achievement.” I doubt that anyone disagrees with that as our primary goal. But I think, sometimes, that our focus on academics alone may be a mistake.

Why? Because it leads us to concentrate too much on curriculum and teaching and not enough on building better students, future workers, and human beings. We need to pay attention to the nonacademic skills and habits that are just as important to success in school, on the job, and in life.

My perspective on this is informed by nearly 20 years of work for a university and for a nonprofit organization in education outreach — that is, outside groups and individuals trying to help K–12 schools achieve their mission. Over those years, these outreach activities evolved from teacher in-service, push-in classroom activities, drop-in tutoring, and group tours and events for children to almost all one-on-one mentoring. Our focus changed as we realized what was really needed: not just changes in curriculum or teaching methods, but changed students.

Over and over, we saw students from the least supportive backgrounds succeeding through sheer determination, while others with many advantages languished. The difference in outcomes was all about personality and character — and traditional academic support does not teach those vital attributes.

University researchers are now demonstrating that “noncognitive indicators” can predict young people’s success in college and on the job. (See, for example, Michigan State University’s Group for Research and Assessment of Student Potential.) The number one predictor of success is “conscientiousness.” When a teen works hard, perseveres through difficulties, shows up regularly, and completes work as expected, he or she will almost certainly do well.

The critical step is that teens must learn to take the initiative, to realize that no one else can determine where they will go in life. Mentoring is one route to that kind of “eureka!” moment. The programs I have worked with have had as their primary goal this transformation of children into self-motivated adults.

While many teens have accumulated appalling deficits in basic skills, they need much more than subject-matter tutorials. They need help with analyzing their motivational problems, with learning to set study schedules, with devising strategies to get out of the deep holes in which they find themselves. Many have no clue, for example, how to deal with being in over their heads except by denial: ignoring homework, cutting classes, and flunking out. They need to be led through determining what can be salvaged, and negotiating with teachers and counselors over the best step to take next: intensified tutoring, makeup work, alternative assessments, changes in sections or entire classes. They need to become convinced that they are not just victims, that there are things they can do to improve their situation. Moreover, they need to learn that only they can rescue themselves. Mentors can diagnose and work on gaps in basic knowledge, can provide hand-holding and confidence-building, but the students must internalize the fact that no one can pour knowledge into them. They are the only ones who can guarantee their own learning. This realization transforms them in a way that no amount of factual knowledge ever could.

I also know, however, that high-quality, long-term, one-on-one mentoring is very difficult to arrange and to sustain. It is not, however, the only solution to the passiveness that holds so many young people back.

We are now learning ways to structure project-based learning and various kinds of team-based learning to encourage just this kind of social-emotional development. The New Tech High program, for example, which we hope to begin at our high school next fall, offers one such format for developing truly college- and job-ready students. The program site I visited last fall in Indiana offered grades for “work ethic” and “collaboration” as well as for content mastery. One could not receive an “A” without behaving in a dependable and conscientious way. Letting down the team prompted conferences that were very like performance reviews on the job, leading the student through a self-analysis of how he or she had failed and what to do differently. The student-created cultural code also discouraged absenteeism, intimidation, theft, and other bad behavior that will not be tolerated in college or work environments.

The key to the success of this program, I believe, is treating students more like adults (and teachers more like professionals, but that’s another topic). People tend to rise to meet higher expectations, after all. Children and teens can grow enormously through taking on more responsibilities. They gain poise and are empowered by success in completing real-work projects and presenting their results. Nothing builds self-esteem and confidence like accomplishing something you thought was beyond you. Challenge and collaboration, when carefully structured, can allow students to risk failure by aiming higher.

You cannot excel if you never try. Trying and succeeding whet one’s appetite for more. Enthusiastic and self-motivated students can’t be held back.

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