Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There’s more to Education than Test Scores and Diplomas: The Whole Child Approach to Education

I am not the best test-taker. I need to study twice as long for an exam as many of my classmates do, despite having worked as hard as them in the class. On the other hand, however, I am active in organizations and find working in the community to be rewarding and, frankly, more valuable to my education than a multiple choice test. As a student and advocate of education, I find the government’s emphasis on these objective tests to be troubling, as I know there are many other students, especially in K-12 schools, in this position. There is much more to educational success than what is measured by standardized testing. Not only do these tests give an inaccurate depiction of students who do poorly on the test yet work hard, they also give an inaccurate depiction of people who do well on the tests yet could be lacking other crucial skills or struggling in areas that are not tested.

The misguided efforts of many recent educational policies that focused on raising test scores have led to a greater consensus among educational advocates about the need to address the out-of-school factors of a child’s development. The Whole Child Initiative, championed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), partners with the Coalition for Community Schools to address the multiple factors that influence each child’s ability and willingness to learn. These factors are much broader than the traditional jurisdiction of the school, and expand into every aspect of the student’s life. The holistic nature of the Whole Child Initiative allows educators not only to respond to students’ needs in the context of academics, but also to ensure that each student feels safe and supported. The five tenets of the Whole Child Initiative include the following:

  • Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
  • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
  • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
  • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment. (
ASCD recently held a symposium on the whole child, with the theme of “Choosing Your Tomorrow Today”. The discussion by the panelists in the symposium focused around the idea of choice and its criticality in fostering creativity. They emphasized the need to promote choice in the form of extracurricular activities, learning decisions, curriculum, and freedom of speech. Allowing students the true ability to make their own choices in education is a crucial part of helping students to become more invested in their own learning, and is necessary in the fulfillment of the five Whole Child tenets, as listed above. For me as a child, it may have meant the ability to participate in community activism, and for others it could be corporate shadowing or learning about the physics of a baseball game.

An important aspect in the implementation of the Whole Child Initiative is expanding the way we evaluate our students to include factors of health and engagement, instead of simply subject content knowledge. ASCD took the next step and collected data measuring how students in each state, and the country as a whole, were doing in all areas of a Whole Child education. ASCD’s Whole Child Snapshots show factors including the prevalence of bullying and obesity within the state, the percentage of children who have been to the doctor and dentist within the last year, the percentage of students who care about school and complete all of the assigned homework, and graduation rates. These statistics illustrate the broad range of factors that influence each child’s ability to learn, and explain why previous policies placing emphasis on content knowledge are not accurate indicators of a student’s success in education. In addition, the idea of teaching to the tests to improve scores ignores most of the student’s developmental needs for success in education. In a world changing as fast as this one, content knowledge quickly becomes irrelevant; it is the ability and willingness to learn and adapt that students need to remain competitive. These strengths can only be realized when students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged in school.

So what does a school that is educating with the whole child in mind look like? In order for a school to be able to influence out-of-school factors, it has to have a strong relationship with its community. Community schools are an effective way to engage the entire community in education and provide much needed support simultaneously. These community hubs can stay open longer hours, offer health and social services to address needs of children that impact learning, and host events to bring the community together. The success of the community school initiative is illustrated in Cincinnati, Ohio, which has 36 fully-functioning community schools and hosted the 2014 Community Schools National Forum. You can read about Cincinnati’s success here. A stronger community provides more support for its students in many ways, and promotes the whole child in a way that the government or the teacher alone cannot. The perceptions of education and success need to be redefined to include the general well-being of the student which requires more engagement from the community in ways that support the whole child, not just the part of the child that fills in bubbles on a test.

By Hugo Lawton, Intern for the Coalition for Community Schools

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