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Improving Schools for Every Student

More often than not in recent years, schools have had to go it alone in trying to meet the needs of our most underserved students. So it's encouraging to see a renewed emphasis on context, and on the kinds of solutions we've seen work in some of our neediest communities
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When one of the leaders of standards-based school reform and one of the products of one of the nation's most challenged school districts agree on something, I pay attention.

Paul Reville, who served as secretary of education in Massachusetts, is quick to defend the standards movement as crucial to establishing higher expectations for all students and maintaining public confidence in schools. At the same time, he argues that high standards and accountability are no longer enough to address the issues some of our students--too often, students of color and children from low-income families--bring with them to the classroom.

"We need a system that differentiates, braids health and human services, and levels the playing field of access to out-of-school learning," Reville, now a senior NEA Foundation Fellow and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said during a convening we held for educators and school leaders earlier this month.

The importance of addressing the challenges young people face outside of school jibes with the experience that Atlantic senior editor and author Ta-Nehisi Coates had as a teenager in West Baltimore. To him, school was too often a meaningless abstraction compared to the very tangible danger waiting outside of the school building.

"At least 30 percent of my brain was occupied with the safety of my body," Coates told us, repeating a central theme of his book, Between the World and Me. "By the time I got to Algebra, to French, to English, all of that was abstract. In this era where this great spotlight is on education, this notion that everything can be fixed by fixing what's happening in the classroom or fixing the teacher, people miss what's happening around us. It's all context."

More often than not in recent years, schools have had to go it alone in trying to meet the needs of our most underserved students. So it's encouraging to see a renewed emphasis on context, and on the kinds of solutions we've seen work in some of our neediest communities--things like expanded after-school enrichment, not just test prep, and in-school connections to community services such as medical and dental care, and even legal support for families.

But when we look at the countries around the world which have managed to deliver a world-class education to all of their students, we notice something else. One of the reasons Finland has consistently stayed at the top of international rankings in education is because it focuses on equity; poorer schools receive more funding than those in more affluent neighborhoods, according to Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland author Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. But, Sahlberg adds, that's only part of the reason.

"The key word is trust," he said. "Principals and educators say they feel trusted in their work. We can do the best for our kids and our communities because we are trusted--it's not about accountability, it's about helping people take accountability."

Finland has been picked apart by people on both sides of the equity issue; the makeup of that nation's students and ours are clearly very different. But even in our own hemisphere, we see that Canada delivers high-quality education with more equitable outcomes among all students than the United States. How? "They talk about the same things--teachers, leaders, collaboration, respect, and trust," Sahlberg says.

That's music to our ears. Over the past decade, we've worked with teachers and leaders in 35 school districts on solving problems in this way--through cooperation and trust. Like most efforts at reform over the past few decades, we've had some significant successes at the margins, particularly in individual schools, but nothing that's been able to be replicated at scale. But districts where teachers and administrators have worked together to identify key needs in teaching and learning seem to have found the recipe for, if not overnight change, sustaining the hard work that needs to be done over time.

That's not to oversimplify the tremendous task ahead of us all. There's no doubt that schools will have to change dramatically to meet the growing needs of their increasingly diverse students. That has ramifications all the way up to district, state, and federal levels, but in the classroom, it means that teachers need to learn new ways to reach every student where he or she is. Our work is built around working together to support teachers in improving their practice, and we're hopeful that we'll see more partnerships like the ones we've helped build in cities across the country focus on the hard work of teaching and learning.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Visit for more information.

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