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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

Comfortable Learning Environment: Soften the Blow of Accountability?

By Peter DeWitt — October 30, 2014 4 min read

Today’s guest post is co-written by Glenn Robbins, Principal at Northfield Community Middle School (Northfield, NJ), and Barry Saide, a 5th grade teacher in Bernards Township (NJ).

In this day of accountability through reform, standards, testing, and mandates, one facet of education is now more important than ever to us: that educators need to take the time to engage students in academics by creating a comfortable learning environment.

In New Jersey, we are gathering more data than ever before with Student Growth Objectives (SGO’s) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGP’s). SGO’s are learning targets for individual students or groups of students. SGP’s measure student growth from year to year on standardized tests. Both get scored, weighted, and factored into each teacher’s evaluation.

Administrators are partly evaluated on how their staff perform on these measures. With new initiatives and mandates, it’s understandable that the focus for many administrators and teachers is on raising test scores, making sure instruction is aligned to what may be on PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests. You can’t blame their thinking. But, from a social-emotional perspective, you can believe the thinking is a misguided approach for being standardized testing successful.

What we know from the research is that if a student is in an environment they feel comfortable in, they will do their best work. When a student feels that an educator has a vested interest in them as a person first and learner second, that student will make an investment in themselves, too. When a student feels they belong, the work becomes more significant, and the student begins to have fun.

These feelings of significance, belonging, and fun will galvanize a student to push forward when the learning becomes hard. This is what enables students to produce at a higher level. They are not accepting failure. They are appreciating their environment, themselves within the environment, and reacting to it. Unlike SGO’s and SGP’s though, measuring belonging, significance, fun, and perseverance is much harder to quantify.

Can you codify it?

Where’s the rubric and corresponding formula for that?

What if we flip the question? Wouldn’t it make sense that if there is more academic stress put upon an educational environment, it is of even more importance to stress student well-being so they are prepared to handle the ramping up of the academics? Additionally, doesn’t it seem obvious that if students are going to do their best work, they need to be in an environment that’s more student centered than ever before? Because if we want students to dive deeply into academics, shouldn’t the foundation be on solid footing?

Student Voice

What if the foundation was solidified by students designing the look of the school environment? Have students draw murals and paint the walls, design the artwork and create the posters that go on the walls. Recycle the old motivation posters that are up there right now (and probably have been for years).

In classrooms, have students decide how the desks and shelves should be arranged. How about students create the room floorplan? Give them a voice in school committees. They probably know a thing or two about what a safe school or harassment, intimidation, and bullying looks/sounds like.

Provide them the technology they need, so integrating and utilizing technology becomes as easy as sharpening a pencil. Connect them to their peers in other schools through Skype, and politicians through Google Hangouts. Flip the script with inquiry-based lessons, overarching, essential questions that rely on cooperative groups, teamwork, and shared accountability to solve.

Questions to Ponder:


  • Check for understanding with Poll Everywhere, or backchanneling. Wouldn’t students do their best work in schools like these?
  • Wouldn’t students feel more passionate about their learning, instead of feeling that they take risks by exploring unfamiliar topics?
  • Wouldn’t this then feed into the challenges that ramped up standards, standardized tests, and guidelines provide?
  • Wouldn’t we love to be held accountable as educators in an environment like that?

We bet that if we create classrooms and buildings where we shake each child’s hand each day, eat lunch with them on a regular basis, make positive phone calls home, reach to teach them with the technology they use, focus on teaching them how to think versus what to think, we are telling them in actions and words that they matter, and this will show a greater impact on SGO’s, SGP’s, and standardized testing.

By modeling the passion we have for them, and for learning, we’re stating that we will do whatever it takes to make sure students feel significant, that the work is relevant, and they are having fun when learning. Creating student buy-in by changing the narrative to the school fitting the child instead of vice versa will produce the growth measured by standardized and data driven accountability.

This begins with making sure students are in the best possible position to be ready to learn by their involvement in creating a learning environment that works best for them.

Common Core, PARCC, Smarter Balanced tests, Data Driven Decision Making, Poll Everywhere, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Northfield Community Middle School, Bernards Township

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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