Saying no to fads—in dieting and education reform

In a new documentary film, Joe Cross, an affable Aussie, who after tipping the scales at 310 pounds and contracting a rare auto-immune disorder, decides to spend 60 days drinking only fruit and vegetable juices. The film follows Cross as he traverses America, Johnny Appleseed style, to inform patrons of truck stops and small town diners about the wonders of an all-juice diet.

At first, Cross seems to be hocking yet another fad diet (unsuccessfully, judging by the puckered faces of juice drinkers) that’s based, like many fad diets, on a reductio ad absurdum: fruits and vegetables are good, so cut everything else from your diet. Other diets, of course, proclaim that protein is good, so eat as much meat as you want, just cut out carbs. Some food producers would have us believe that fat is the enemy, so eat what you want, as long as it’s fat-free (Voila! Guiltless cookies!).

The truth, we know, lies somewhere between: with a balanced diet and exercise.

Like the diet industry, education has had its fair share of fads, past and present, which similarly, have taken good ideas to their illogical extremes. Here are but a few:

  • Too much lecturing is bad; therefore, no lecturing is good.
  • Self-guided learning is good; therefore, classrooms should be completely open—free of uniform curricula, grade-level expectations, doors, and even walls.
  • Good teachers help most kids learn more, so better teachers alone will ensure all kids succeed.

SimplyBetterCoverSimply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success offers not a new “fad diet” for education, but rather the education reform equivalent of a “healthy lifestyle”—those things that decades of research says are most likely to have a big effect on student achievement. At the core of the book is the What Matters Most framework (a sort of “food pyramid” for education), which comprises five components that research shows matter most for improving student outcomes.

Guarantee challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction. The first key to student success is a teacher who challenges students, develops a positive relationship with them, and is intentional in his or her use of a broad repertoire of teaching strategies.

Ensure curricular pathways to success. Students benefit most from a curriculum that provides both challenging and personalized learning experiences to prepare them for life success.

Provide whole-child student supports. Good teaching and curriculum alone won’t help all students succeed; many need cognitive, emotional, and learning supports to address factors such as home environment, background knowledge, and motivation that are vital to learning.

Create high-performance school cultures. Great schools can help to overcome the effects of poverty by ensuring high-quality learning experiences in every classroom and providing a school-wide culture of high expectations for learning and behavior.

Develop data-driven, high-reliability district systems. To ensure consistency in student learning experiences, districts need to put data systems and standard operating procedures in place to provide real-time responses to student struggles.

One might look at these five components and see nothing remarkable or new about them. After all, haven’t we known the importance of something like good instruction for decades? What is remarkable, though, is the powerful effect that getting these five areas right could have for students.

Cross’ documentary ultimately clarifies that juice alone is not the key to good health: a balanced diet with plenty of exercise is. His interviewees all seem to understand this. What’s missing for them, though, is a belief that they can change their behaviors, stick to a better diet, and be happy. The most redeeming feature of Cross’ film lies in showing ordinary people who have changed their lifestyles and are happier now without all the funnel cakes, hot dogs, and stuffed-crust pizzas.

Like losing weight, when it comes to raising student achievement, the answer is not a magic pill or quick fix. Rather, it’s staying focused on simply doing better what we know must be done. The hopeful news, as illustrated in Simply Better, is that ordinary schools nationwide have stayed focused on what matters most, doing it well, and creating extra-ordinary results for students.

How well is your school addressing the components of the What Matters Most framework? Take McREL’s free, online survey to find your bright spots and biggest opportunities for improvement.

33 Comments

  • Amy Voorhies says:

    I really liked this article. I agree that schools need to provide an environment where all needs are met.

  • Darla D. David says:

    As I read your article it was clear to me that at one time or other each point you made was supposed to be the answer to the education dilemma. Those of us in the “trenches” know that all of the above together will help children succeed but the powers that be don’t always see it the same way. And unfortunately they hold all the cards and the money. The really sad part is that children are set up to fail with the standardized tests. Many of us feel they should be tested in the fall and again in the spring to see their growth. We want them to be compared against themselves. We know children learn at different rates but the education system expects them to learn at the same rate. :(

  • K Green says:

    In working in a very real situation, the five core components mentioned are eye openers and something that all teachers in the school really need to take into consideration when working in a school.
    Guarantee challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction. The first key to student success is a teacher who challenges students, develops a positive relationship with them, and is intentional in his or her use of a broad repertoire of teaching strategies.
    Ensure curricular pathways to success. Students benefit most from a curriculum that provides both challenging and personalized learning experiences to prepare them for life success.
    Provide whole-child student supports. Good teaching and curriculum alone won’t help all students succeed; many need cognitive, emotional, and learning supports to address factors such as home environment, background knowledge, and motivation that are vital to learning.
    Create high-performance school cultures. Great schools can help to overcome the effects of poverty by ensuring high-quality learning experiences in every classroom and providing a school-wide culture of high expectations for learning and behavior.
    Develop data-driven, high-reliability district systems. To ensure consistency in student learning experiences, districts need to put data systems and standard operating procedures in place to provide real-time responses to student struggles.

  • Mona says:

    As a new administrator, I am driven to be intentional and purposeful when I plan professional development for our learning community. Using school data and promoting a positive school climate will ensure that teachers are emotionally and cognitively rejuvenated.

  • Loren Decuir says:

    I remember a time in education when every new year brought a new program/strategy (fad)to try – ignoring programs that were used the year before.In the last 5 years or so, a real change has taken place in out district. We now stay focused on sound research based pedagogy, building on our skills as teachers each year. As teachers, as a district, I feel that we are living or at least working toward “healthy” teaching. Now some of us need to work on the diet!

  • Patricia S. Douglass says:

    Fads for dieting and education has one thing in common ,they bring you right back to where you started.
    We try new things to discover we did this before in another form or name.

  • Gre Chromy says:

    Fads in education drive me nuts because they are money driven and are set up to be the next best thing. These fads do not have the teacher and student in mind. It makes more work for the teacher and takes away from the quality of instruction. Teachers can’t get good at teaching anything when they have to change hoy they teach every year to satisfy admin and these fads.

  • Corinne Downey says:

    I agree with Darla. What ever the “fad”, one size does not fit all. We want them to be compared against themselves to measure growth.

  • Denise says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. We are always bombarded with “new” ideas and programs to magically fix all that is wrong in education. We need to stay focused and remember that we must always keep the students in mind and do what is best for them to be successful not just for today but for a lifetime.

  • J Arceneaux says:

    I am a proponent of shaping the school culture. Administrators and faculty can help direct students to hold their education important. It’s all a matter of attitude. For example, we have created a culture of reading at our school by implementing a school-wide reading program. The result shows in our library’s increased circulation data. Many students have now become “readers” because they have read enough books to find ones they enjoy.

  • David says:

    I find that many times “fads” in education are pushed through the system without looking at the sustainability of the programs. Just like dieting, you can not fall for the quick fix. You must find programs that are a “life style change” which will continue to produce long term successes. We must find programs and teaching strategies which have produced results and will continue to produce results in the future. We must also create a system which will allow us to analyze our data and make responsibile decisions which will help to improve both teacher instruction and studnet comprehension.

  • Kim says:

    As an educator it does become overwhelming at times the “programs” that are thrown our way and we are expected to use them and see success with our students. I feel those of us who want to see our students succeed will do what it takes for them to do so. The components mentioned are key for students to succeed–teachers who want students to succeed do these naturally!

  • Nicole says:

    I agree that diets and education need to be balanced!

  • Pamela Ellis says:

    It seems that every few years we are adopting a new fad in teaching- many times it is something that we used to do, only it has been given a new name. I think we should stick to the three R’s and stop jumping on the band wagon of every new thing that comes around. We are pushing kids to hard and too fast- for what? All I see is that we are having more kids fail who would have been successful before. Let’s stop the madness!

  • June Kennedy says:

    After so many years of being an educator, it has become apparent to me that education has become a business. Instead of focusing on the child and who he/she is and what is actually being learned (which is truly impossible to test), the focus has turned to standardized tests to prove or disprove a child’s learning. So much is missed in the testing process, yet so much emphasis put on these outcomes based measures. Everything has been reduced to numbers. It makes me sad and discouraged, especially since I remember a time education was more child centered.

  • Jennifer says:

    I believe that education should be balanced and teachers should be focused on new educational strategies and reform. However, they should be slowly introduced into the school district and give teachers a chance to get used to the changes.

  • Mary T. Christiansen says:

    The article was interesting. I feel fad diets like fad educational strategies should be reviewed critically.

  • Amy says:

    I think it is important to pick and choose what works for you and your students. Not all fad diets work for everybody. Providing whole child student supports is of utmost importance. The child needs to be ready to learn before trying the latest fad.

  • Skuter Anak says:

    I agree that child education must be balance. Environment affecting children so much. They often know things not from school. We shall give them explanation whether what they heard in the environment are good or bad.
    Sometimes I give my kids present when they had good mark or winning something. :)

  • igel kostüm says:

    Your post is very interesting. it is very help full to me Thank you

  • Charlee Howell says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. It gave insight into an area that I have been struggling with in my own classroom. I agree that we, as educators, need to set high standards in our classrooms if we want our students to succeed. I believe we should also set high standards for ourselves.

  • Lisa Eltham says:

    I really liked this article. I agree that as a educator I have to consider and use all 5 core components within the classroom and school.

  • barry russo says:

    I totally agree with your views on how to engage students and the analogy of the Australian on a a specific diet was a good one. A variety of tools and situations need to be implemented to ensure a well rounded education. It doesnt work if you put all your eggs in one basket.

  • Jess says:

    None of the components are new but they have been brought together and outlined coherently. These principles guide effective educators and schools world-wide. I really like the idea that we should be building on what we know works for both students and teachers. I don’t think that we should reject new ideas or strategies but that these should adopted only after critical rigorous evaluation.

  • Chris Lodge says:

    I found your article quite interesting. New Ideas and programs are great, however we must never forget the basics of teaching. A well balanced curriculum is imperative. It is very important to treat each class as an individual group and select what works best for them, as not all strategies will apply to all classes.

  • I too saw Cross’ documentary. Two themes emerged for me if we’re drawing educational themes from it. One – balance. By the end of Cross’ story, he wasn’t just drinking juice. He was running, swimming, in the gym and working hard. The juice was his starting point. In classrooms, balance is important. There’s no one single teaching practice or instructional strategy that will improve student learning…it’s finding the balance which is important. For teachers, this involves a complex journey characterised by dilemmas, problems and reflection in and on practice. Second, Cross’ story was secondary in the end to the story about the trucker Cross befriended on his travels (I can’t remember his name). Long story short, Cross returned to the US to help his trucker friend who needed Cross to turn his life around. With Cross’ influence and motivation, he enabled – empowered really – the trucker to be able to take control of his own life, change some habits and so on. In the end the trucker lost an incredible amount of weight…not just by drinking juice but also by realising the importance of balance (juice, swimming, running), realising that he could do it himself (self-belief thanks in parr to Cross) and taking responsibility for his health, his life and his future.

  • Lose Fat says:

    Very great post. I especially found it useful for teenagers. Like articulation, i hope that we need to take some steps for teenagers.

  • Aisha Dixon says:

    The article explained my feelings for new strategies taking place each year without time to implement these strategies, so we cannot see any growth of learning for our students. Fad diets promise you that within a given time that great results will take place. Educational reform tactics creates the same feelings in state, local, then administrators who force their staff to meaningless professional learning days. The five components (Guarantee challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction, Ensure curricular pathways to success, Provide whole-child student supports, Create high-performance school cultures, Develop data-driven, high-reliability district systems) to the book “Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success” stated that their strategies are from decades of research. I agree with a previous blogger that balance is key and I feel implementation of each of the five components with administrative, parental, and teacher support.

  • Well stated, Aisha. Balance is key. When it comes to school improvement, it’s far better to do one thing well, than many things poorly.
    Bryan Goodwin

  • As someone who is currently in the middle of a physician-demanded diet, the key in making any change is monitoring and adapting so that the desired change continues on the path to success. While I embrace the idea of “long term goals and planning”, it is essential to be attentive to the small things…daily looking at the process and making the changes that need to happen to effect improvement. At some point (as exercise buffs will relate), changes in the workout must happen for the body to go into overload and change. Likewise diet and educational reform. The “same old, same old” will not work over time. Data-driven is the term most folks use.

  • Clare says:

    My two interests- film and food, usually together. I like your linked analogy to teaching, in that they both need to be balanced!

  • Karen says:

    This is a really well thought out piece that portrays the educational system down to a tee. We need to look at this analogy in depth.

  • Nofian says:

    It seems that every few years we are adopting a new fad in teaching- many times it is something that we used to do, only it has been given a new name. I think we should stick to the three R’s and stop jumping on the band wagon of every new thing that comes around. We are pushing kids to hard and too fast- for what? All I see is that we are having more kids fail who would have been successful before. Let’s stop the madness!

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