Is student-centered the latest catchphrase? Not if we can help it.

on Sep 25, 2018
Boy in classroom

Lately, I have been getting very excited as I hear more and more leaders and organizations talk about “student-centered initiatives.” Often I hear this phrase about putting students in the center only to later feel disappointed when the follow-up conversations are really about putting student data in the center or, worse yet, launching another professional learning initiative masquerading as student-centered.

Are we making the idea of being student-centered as trite as the other catchphrases that came before? Can it be that the new student-centered miracle is actually the same one that was Common Core-based, or focused on personalized learning, or a must-have for your teacher accountability system? I don’t raise these questions to demean the great work that many in the education field are doing to ensure that improvement efforts remain focused on students. Instead, I want to push for the term student-centered to have real meaning. Our field’s understanding of student-centered should be powerful enough to change how students learn and what we accept as outcomes not only for students, but also for teachers, school leaders, and central office leaders.

Whether or not student-centered is turning into a catchphrase, here at CEL we are more eager than ever to join with school and school system leaders as well as other peer organizations to push an agenda that will help our field answer critical questions related to what it means to work with adults with an intended impact on students. Driving our work are two assumptions:

  1. Doing student-centered work must start with a powerful vision of student learning and the experiences we want every student to have in and beyond our schools. Too often, we see educators jump to test scores as the guide for student-centered work. For us, being student-centered means ensuring that student learning experiences encourage and develop student agency, pushing for deeper meaning and understanding of the purpose of public education beyond the school walls, and focusing deeply on what we want for students, families, and communities in the short and long term. While test scores are certainly a way to measure progress, we want more for our students than simply success on standardized tests to drive our student-centered work.
  2. Doing student-centered work means that we are always paying attention to students and their learning as the beneficiaries of work with adults. No longer can we teach practices and skills to teachers and leaders and then applaud when we see them in action. After all, a well-executed literacy initiative is not one in which teachers make all the right moves on the right pace, but one that deepens students’ abilities to read and make sense on their own. Let’s hold the applause until we see what students are able to do as a result of changes in adult practice. Better yet, let’s get ready for standing ovations when teachers and principals more readily explain their decision making in relation to specific issues of student learning that they are addressing.

Ultimately, what we are pushing for is the alignment of adult learning and practice with what we truly hope happens for students in and beyond our schools. As we move our own practice to a much deeper student-centered orientation we are raising a number of questions for ourselves. Questions that, for us, drive our work with leaders in schools and in school system central offices.

To help us answer these questions we are excited to introduce a yearlong blog and interview series called The Throughline. This series will bring forward the best ideas from leaders across the country about ensuring that the work at the central office level, at the school level, and at the classroom level is in service of a powerful vision for what we want for students in and beyond school.

Some common themes we’ll explore in The Throughline include:

  • How can we best work with adults from a powerful vision of student learning and the experiences we want every student to have in our schools?
  • What are the attributes of ideal adult learning and performance cultures that can best impact what we want for students?
  • How do we measure our impact when we work with adults – but our ultimate goal is changing the students’ learning experiences?

We hope you enjoy the series and send along feedback as you have it.



About the author

Max Silverman is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) where he provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students.
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