Coming Full Circle

This post was coauthored by Rick Miller of the California Office for Reforming Education.

For decades, k-12 education had a laser-like focus on academic success as measured by standardized test scores. While this was happening, educators struggled to find ways to provide the well-rounded educational experience for students they knew was important. Many were forced to let go of programs such as the arts, science, and a whole range of enrichment experiences we know make a difference in learning and school engagement. Alongside this challenge, important partnerships were dismantled or avoided altogether, including with community-based organizations that provided after school and summer programs offering the very supports and opportunities that schools were missing.

As the pendulum has swung back - pushed by the requirements of Common Core education - schools have reconsidered their focus and are thinking more holistically about the set of skills young people need to succeed in school and beyond.

The CORE districts in California have had the added benefit of flexibility in their federal funding through an NCLB waiver, and have been able to push the envelope even further in innovating around instructional practices and accountability models. Many of these districts are starting to think more strategically about how to leverage the expertise of partners who can help provide strong after school and summer - now commonly known as expanded learning -- opportunities that not only bring enriching, engaging learning experiences to students, but also provide an additional 115 days of learning time.

A recent publication, Student Success Comes Full Circle, gives a boost to this movement. The report is based on research in social-emotional learning and outcomes of quality expanded learning programs. It clearly defines specific social-emotional outcomes that are well-aligned to youth development expertise, and it links these outcomes to California's newly adopted quality standards for expanded learning. With an easily digestible framework, the report defines these outcomes as I am (self-awareness and self-management), I belong (social awareness and interpersonal skills), and I can (self-efficacy and growth mindset). And, it puts these outcomes in context of the positive learning environments young people need to experience at home, in school, and in their expanded learning time.

The CORE districts are picking up on the expanded learning resources on many of their school sites. To reach their goals, they are actively thinking about the set of practices and instructional strategies that have to be in place in order for children to improve their social-emotional skills. While some curricular changes are necessary, the heart and soul of this work is in the interaction between teachers and students, and specifically the ways in which teachers make time and effort to nurture these skills in young people. It is a radical shift from past efforts to singularly push academic content in order to increase standardized test scores.

And as recipients of $220 million of the state's $700 million in after school resources, these districts have good reason to look to their expanded learning partners. Besides the money, these partners are experts in creating safe, welcoming environments, building strong relationships between adults and youth, and making learning meaningful - the very strategies that their school-day peers are working to implement.

Not by accident - but very fortunately - this effort aligns well with the types of skills and style of learning required by the Common Core State Standards, and in California, it is also supportive of the student engagement, school climate, and student achievement priorities of the new Local Control Funding Formula.

Collaboration takes work. Right now, the CORE districts are modeling this work by finding the time and space to set up effective infrastructure and coordinate their strategies from the district level across their school sites. As their efforts move forward, we encourage districts across California and the country to watch their progress, learn from their successes and failures, and think about how they can work together with their expanded learning partners to help every student experience a full circle of support.