After spending the first nine years of my career as an educator in schools serving low-socioeconomic populations, I became the principal in a high-SES environment in 2017. I immediately noticed a difference in how these different kinds of school systems approach their work with students. This contrast can be classified by two competing notions that both end up hurting students: “tough” vs. “fluff.”
This is by no means intended to diminish the fantastic work of educators. There are effective teachers, dedicated staffs, and caring parents in all school systems. There are high-SES schools that are “tough” and low-SES schools that are “fluff.” Rather than defend which is better, try to determine your school’s current reality and consider what needs to change.
I define “tough” as the process of engaging students in learning that focuses exclusively on improving their test scores. This process includes worksheets that promote memorization, limited exposure to non-priority standards (those that are not tested at the end of the year), desks in rows to help manage classroom behavior, and an overreliance on summative assessment data. This tough approach creates a system that is largely driven by the desire to have high(er) standardized test scores. In schools where the utilization of tough is the norm, the pressure to perform on standardized assessments often comes at the expense of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and cultural sensitivity. One point against Team Tough.
Which approach is better for kids? The answer can be found somewhere between these two processes."
In contrast, “fluff” is the process of engaging students in learning without working toward a specific standard or grade-level expectation. Seemingly innovative teaching practices that are clever but misaligned, seating options that are beautifully arranged but do not enhance student learning, and creative projects without much content can all fit this definition. In schools where the utilization of fluff is the norm, quite often, student test scores are perceived by the general public as high, but certain subgroup populations are overlooked. Students of color, students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, English-language learners, and students who receive special education services are often the exception to the high test scores. Still, with a majority of students high achieving on standardized tests, there is less relative pressure for schools to raise standardized assessment scores, allowing for additional time spent on the more popular aspects of learning 21st-century skills and competencies. This approach typically maintains student performance and opportunity disparities by not focusing enough on the performance of all student subgroups. One point against Team Fluff.
I have spoken with a number of educators on the tension between these two approaches. Those with skill sets that are more aligned to improving student performance on standardized tests expressed a desire to provide a more balanced educational experience for their students. However, they acknowledged that pressure from their district leaders stifles their ability to move beyond prioritizing test scores.
The educators that I consulted while writing this essay who have skill sets more aligned to innovation all expressed a desire to improve the student performance of specific student subgroups, but also acknowledged pressure from district leaders and local parents to avoid jeopardizing their school’s high-achieving reputation. This pressure often trumps the need to truly address performance discrepancies among groups of students.
In both cases, the perception of student achievement differs from the reality. There’s a popular misconception that all urban, low-SES schools have low student performance. While this may often be the case when overall proficiency percentages are compared to more affluent suburban districts, there are urban schools that are outperforming suburban schools when you compare their subgroup populations.
Which approach is better for kids? The answer can be found somewhere between these two processes. The “tough” model of focusing on quantifiable learner outcomes does not maximize students’ creativity or problem-solving skills, nor does it allow students to advocate for themselves and others. At the same time, many high-ranking public schools are considered elite because certain underserved student subgroups are only a small portion of their total population. These schools, which embrace the “fluff” model, are often hesitant to change systems and structures that create disparities for disadvantaged students, out of a fear of disrupting the same system that benefits the white, high-SES majority of students.
I have seen, however, how questioning these approaches can pay off, even in the face of significant adversity. In 2014, I became the principal of an elementary school down the street from where Michael Brown had been shot and killed earlier in the year. I invite you to challenge what you believe you already know about environments like these: low-SES schools with high populations of minority children. Some of the protesters that were on national television were also supportive parents who dropped their children off at our school just hours after protesting. And being so closely associated with what became known as the “Ferguson Unrest” did not stop our school from rethinking our previously “tough” approach.
At the time, our district was under state control with the implementation of a state-appointed board of education. We had to increase student performance measures or run the risk of lapsing as a district. While our philosophy started off using a 100 percent “tough” approach, every year of the three years I was there, we made changes that helped us get closer to a balanced approach. And in those three years, our school consistently increased student proficiency levels in English/language arts, math, and science, which also resulted in an increase of 200 percent on our state’s Annual Performance Report card.
Education should not be about taking sides, but rather starting discussions with others to benefit all students. If your school focuses solely on standardized-test data, how else could you nurture your students’ capabilities? If your school is highly ranked but ignores the subgroups of students who are not performing well, what would disruptions to your system look like? A lack of balance between improving student performance and exposing students to non-quantifiable skills is hurting kids. We must provide that balance to score a point for Team Kids.