Guest columnist Ben Tobin: Just saying ‘student-centric’ isn’t enough


Published: 06-24-2023 7:00 AM

The world of education is rife with feel-good messages and jargon: growth mindset, whole child, inquiry-based, social-emotional learning.

The learning will be rigorous and catered to the individual while also still meeting the requirements of state testing, but there won’t be teaching to the test. Kids will be able to explore and learn and grow and develop their creativity and forge their own individual path while conforming to a rigid set of standards. Teachers are guides on the learning journey.

It all sounds nice on paper. I also often hear the expression that this person is “student-centric” or that school is “student-centric.” Why would a school not be student-centric?

It should go without saying that adults are not supposed to be the central focus of a school for children, but it’s telling that the distinction needs to be made in the first place. As a student I always took certain things for granted — mostly that there were responsible adults ready to jump in when bullying arose and that what was being taught was being done so in a way that would benefit me. Much like a Gordon Ramsay show when he starts peeling back the layers of a restaurant kitchen, it has been a whole other experience peering behind the veil.

What I discovered relatively quickly is that this is not a system built for children, it is a system built for a handful of adults that describes itself as “student-centric.” In many ways, the students being in the schools is incidental. Early on in my journey, I often had the notion of “oh this will be easy, it’s common sense,” or “why wouldn’t anyone want to just identify this student’s disability?”

I learned that there is rarely a wise, benevolent figure ready to jump in to stop bullying or assess curriculum to ensure it is the best possible approach. It’s about the money. It’s about power and exerting control in a myopic microcosm.

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While I understand that the budget is not an insignificant factor, I know, for example, as a reading teacher, that you don’t need millions of dollars to follow the freely available research on how best to do so. Reporters such as the enormously talented Emily Hanford have laid this out brilliantly in “Sold a Story.”

One issue that I keep returning to is the required identification of students with disabilities that is part of the federal law. It’s not legal to deny students with disabilities services or evaluations to determine eligibility for services. However, many district procedures, rather than describing a robust, active process, refer to children having to first fail for an undisclosed amount of time before then being identified.

These procedures also don’t include students who are moving from grade to grade but still require services. Many teachers have faced retaliation for attempting to follow the procedures of identifying kids, especially older children where compensatory services are typically involved for all the years the student went unidentified.

This retaliation is carefully calculated and usually involves intimidation tactics, making the environment unpleasant enough that the teacher will want to leave or stay quiet the next time.

The system has become so abstracted and so far removed from serving children and so tied to money and imaging and branded content, hiring expensive consulting firms to craft a specific image, that students and staff are really not the focus anymore beyond the necessary images in promotional material.

The problem is not truly about finances, it’s about the will and motivation and courage to do the right thing, and in this system it can be costly to do the right thing. Simply identifying a student with a disability and following the law can be a career-ender for staff members, even though it is the law.

Ultimately, the choices of the adults are the burden that students have to bear in the future. If this system we have is truly “student-centric,” then it shouldn’t be so quick to seek retribution against families and teachers.

Ben Tobin lives in Williamsburg.