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.
Simply 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.