Four Foundations for Schools

For more than a hundred years, K-12 public schools have struggled to make schools worthy of educating all children well. Learning in schools works for many students who love to come to school, sit and listen, think about what it means, and produce academic products like quizzes, tests, and papers. The dominant view or perspective of what our country thinks about schools is based on this very simple view of students who succeed in any type of school and in any type of classroom. This view is held by most parents of private school students, and maybe a third or more of public school parents. The century-long dominant view has slowly been overtaken with the non-dominant view that schools are failing all students.

A Nation At Risk (1983)

Since the influentiaA Nation At Risk report in 1983, many people acknowledge that schools are struggling to produce successful students and failing at helping the most vulnerable. With only about a third of students reading on grade level in fourth grade, for example, the numbers tell us how much we are failing—by this reading measure, about one third of our students are succeeding at reading proficiently, and two thirds are failing to learn how to read proficiency.

Solutions, At Scale

School reformers—those that work on strategies for improving schools—have for more than fifty years suggested a variety of small- and large-scale ideas for fixing our schools. These include a succession of large-scale legislative solutions:

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Information page

ESEA Flexibility: Information about flexibility from certain No Child Left Behind requirements that ED is offering to states.

Text of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by ESSA and the National Defense Authorization Act, 2017:

 Introductory materials — Title I — Title II — Title III — Title IV — Title V — Title VI — Title VII — Title VIII

Text of No Child Left Behind Act: For certain ESEA programs, the requirements of NCLB apply through the 2016-2017 school year.

Guidance and Regulations


Four Foundations of Schools

There are some very foundational ideas that support and undergird our work for improving schools that we need to keep in mind when we think about changing, improving, and creating new schools. They are personalization, academic and social emotional balance, quality of teaching, and access to quality schools.

  • Personalization—personalization is how much teachers know their students and how much students feel that they are known by their teachers. This foundation addresses how successful students thrive and challenged students are brought up to standards….because all of these students feel school is personally for them and their learning success. Schools who make education very personal are successful because students take ownership of their learning process and outcome.
  • Academic and social emotional balance—This idea acknowledges how most of the last one hundred years has been devoted to academic success, and less about social emotional success. Today, students are struggling with a pandemic, schools shootings, poverty, and food insecurity.
  • Quality of teaching—teachers are the keystone to student success in learning. Whether they employ direct teaching, group work, and portfolio defenses—or simply remediate a student’s need for help in the curriculum, take a call from a parent, and to lend an ear to a student who is struggling on the playground—teachers are the glue and the individual interventions in student’s lives that launch and sustain successful learners.
  • Access to quality schools—a back of the envelope way to figure out where the good schools are is to ask where are the good zip codes. Prices parents pay for their apartments and houses often determine the access they get for their children to a quality education. This may be the most dominant influence on access to school quality.

Changing the Foundations

Quite clearly, the four foundations determine much about the success or failure of our K-12 schools. Changing any of them requires deep thought, and the zip code foundation may be impossible to change. It may be that new legislation could provide zip-code-policy workarounds such as equalizing funding across zip codes, increasing and maintaining the quality of all teachers, re-balancing social emotional work into schools and personalizing all education for all students. But the real question is does the country believe that education is an equal right, or just something that the rich and smart —through zip codes—get to access. If we believe that every student deserves the best education, it is very much up to us to change this. If we educate all of us, well, our country might be twice as well educated, healthy, and productive than it currently is…and that future is something to work for.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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