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The Many Sides of Back to School

September 02, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Today, students across Minnesota are going back to school. Some have already been back for a week or more, but starting today, pretty much every child will be in one school or another. It’s a yearly ritual for many people, with some new variation each year.

One such change this year is the expansion of all-day kindergarten throughout the entire public school system. This is the realization of legislation passed two legislative sessions ago, and it’s a major substantive change for many districts and families. Using new money from the state, schools have hired more teachers to add this service. For many families, this translates not only into more formal education for their children, but also less time taken off work or less money spent on child care. Of course, any academic benefits that come from this change won’t show up for a while longer, a stark reminder of the gap in time between passing legislation and seeing results.

As for rituals that stay the same, one is the buying of additional school supplies by teachers above and beyond what’s budgeted for them. Every year at Brooklyn Center, for example, I would buy dozens of extra notebooks to ensure that all of my students had what they needed for my class. Other teachers buy markers, pencils, folder, and many, many other supplies that students need for their classrooms.

When students are in those classrooms, they’ll be paying close attention to their new teachers. First impressions matter a lot in education, and establishing the right classroom presence can make a significant difference in how the school year develops. In part, this means establishing a combination of high expectations and obvious empathy that’s true to oneself. More pragmatically, it means describing and reinforcing the many different processes that can absorb more time and attention than the casual observer might think. Sharpening pencils, retrieving folders, moving to and from group work, falling quiet and paying attention when the teacher calls for it, and getting passes to the bathroom or the nurse are just some of the routines that must be established early and returned to as necessary if classrooms are to run productively and efficiently. Some teachers get by and thrive without these steps, but most spend appreciable time and effort laying these foundations.

For some students, these steps have already been taken. Some schools started last week, and others started weeks before that. Lengthening the school year is one way schools try to combat summer learning loss, albeit one that should be carried out thoughtfully (and with air conditioning). Whether that time was spent on academics or practicing the many procedures and habits expected of students, it’s time that gives many students a leg up as the school year starts. (Without care, though, it can turn into a wasted exercise.)

Regardless of whether a student’s first class started this morning or three weeks ago, though, last week that student’s teachers got a look at the grade’s MCA scores from last year. How much teachers can do with that information now is a matter of some debate, and it demonstrates the importance of knowing what information we want to get from each assessment we give. The MCAs are best viewed as a system-level snapshot, with other assessments—including but not limited to standardized tests—being far more useful for identifying and responding to students’ learning needs.

Whether it’s new kindergarteners meeting new kindergarten teachers face-to-face, hunting for meaning in MCA scores, or one of the time-honored rituals of starting the school year, each aspect of students’ and teachers’ experiences today will be affected by a mixture of state and federal policy, local context, and individual decisions. It’s a big system, and much more complicated than the simple image of 20-30 students taking their seats while the teacher stands in front of the blackboard. Changing any piece of this from the top-down will have ripple effects and unintended consequences. As a result, moving the system in a more equitable and higher-performing direction will take time and patience. It’s tough to reconcile that with the real sense of urgency many of us feel about improving educational outcomes, but it’s a reality we need to understand.

That’s not a reason to stop trying. It is a reason to take a broad view of schooling, considering the whole child and thinking bigger than test scores.

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