In recent years, schools have begun deeply rethinking their work to embrace a set of skills, traits, and habits outside the traditional academic realm that is deeply associated with students’ success in school and in life. Whether you call them social-emotional or non-cognitive learning, or character education, or habits of success — they have been a subject of study in schools for years. They are increasingly at the fore thanks to the work of scholars like Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, and David Yeager, and of journalist Paul Tough, whose book on that topic, How Children Succeed, was a major bestseller translated into 27 languages, with a follow-up handbook. These ideas are, rightly, causing a deep reconsideration of what matters most in education, and how to help students achieve those skills.
Robert Runcie and Antwan Wilson have long been leaders in applying those ideas in ways that improve the lives of thousands of students. And that’s why I’m particularly excited that, in an article coming early in the new year, Runcie and Wilson will discuss the connections between that set of ideas and equity.
Runcie and Wilson, who are members of Chiefs for Change, are superintendents respectively in Broward County Public Schools in Florida, and Oakland, California. Wilson was recently named as the next Chancellor of Schools in Washington, DC. Each has made this area of learning a major focus in the schools he leads, and Wilson has already publicly promised to do so in DC.
Their approaches are intensive and thoughtful, but have taken markedly different forms. In Broward, Florida’s second largest school system, and the sixth largest in the nation, Runcie targeted the students likely headed for the criminal justice system. Galled by lack of progress reducing suspensions and arrests, Runcie worked with leaders from civil rights organizations, law enforcement, the courts, public defenders, social services agencies, and the legislature on a task force aimed at breaking the connection between “the schoolhouse and the jailhouse.” It is a vital step in a nation where, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, African-American male students are suspended at triple the rate for all students, with an even higher differential for African-American children in preschool suspensions.
The result of the Broward effort was the creation of a new brick-and-mortar school site where students who previously would have ended up suspended or in jail spent a handful of days receiving intensive intervention aimed at understanding and dealing with the issues that landed them there. The result has been stunning: behavioral referrals down by nearly a third, and arrests down by nearly two-thirds.
In Oakland, while the approach has been different, the results have been equally dramatic. There, Wilson has focused on training for educators throughout the school system to deepen their understanding of how young people develop the habits (such as self-regulation) that make them successful. Wilson also ended defiance as a reason for suspension and implemented a standard discipline ladder incorporating restorative justice practices districtwide, changing the key principle of discipline from punishment to finding resolution between perpetrator and victim. In part as a consequence of these efforts, Wilson said in his State of the Schools address, suspensions are down by nearly half — and juvenile felony arrests have dropped an astonishing 73 percent over five years — far outpacing drops in the surrounding county and state.
Wilson points out that leading businesses have found ways to diminish hierarchy, to create flatter organizations, and to reinvent work spaces and climates with the needs of real human beings in mind — and have profited as a result. Schools should learn lessons, he says. And they should invest in helping everyone come to a deeper understanding of behaviors that can quickly be classified as insubordination or disrespect, in ways that decrease conflict and punishment.
Runcie agrees schools need to be willing to change. For him, it’s a question of moving beyond the discipline strategies of the past, particularly zero tolerance, that can put young people on a path toward incarceration. And it’s understanding and dealing with the same issues laid out so dramatically in Tough’s book — that for students living in neighborhoods of poverty and violence, stress levels can rival those of soldiers in combat. Taking that on means that school systems have to be willing to adapt.
“We ask our kids to conform to our structures,” he says. “It has to be the other way around.”
Both Runcie and Wilson feel strongly that it’s not just students who need an approach that recognizes the emotional makeup of the entire person — it’s staff members too. Teaching, for all its rewards, can be hugely stressful — but resources to help teachers with the skills to deal with that stress are few. Both leaders are committed to helping to change that. And they’re not alone. Chiefs for Change members are increasingly exploring and pursuing similar strategies, tailored to the realities of their local environments.
Whether for students or for staff, it’s an approach that’s about changing systems, seeing whole people, and recognizing that when we help them build skills like tenacity, resilience, and patience, they — and our schools — are more likely to succeed. As we look toward the end of the year and the beginning of a new one, it’s a useful message to keep in mind.