SALT LAKE CITY — Utah parents, raise your hand if you have more than one child.
“How many of you noticed that they tend to differ from each other? In some profound ways, right? And these are your own children,” said Scott Palmer, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, a mission-based education consulting firm dedicated to significantly improving the U.S. education system.
Palmer, who addressed Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s Education Summit on Tuesday at the University of Utah, noted that “variability is the norm when it comes to human development. And yet we have schools and systems that are too often based on age-based cohorts.”
Humans are “profoundly individual,” not only how they differ from one another but how they learn, he said.
“Think about the implications of that for personalization and competency-based learning, for things like advisories and student plans. Think about what that means for the role of teachers and differentiation and also what it means for agency and choice and fit. Again, (these are) very profound implications for our education system,” he said.
Palmer, who spoke on transforming education by elevating the science of learning and development in policy and practice, said there is a pronounced moral, economic and democratic imperative to educate all children to high levels.
“The fact that we’re dealing with long-standing equities and changing demographics only increases the urgency. For example, for the first time in our public schools, a majority of our students are students in poverty, and a majority are students of color in our country,” he said.
The demographics differ somewhat in Utah, but the Beehive State has a sizable portion of students who live in poverty, have disabilities and are English learners, he said.
“There’s a lot of diversity and challenge here. These are the sets of kids, all of our kids, that we need to educate to their full potential,” he said.
But systemic change in public education is hard to come by “for a host of reasons,” Palmer said. “I would say one of the biggest problems is, I will say, that it does not tend to function like a learning system.”
Contrast that to Palmer’s experience when he had to go to the emergency room for stomach pain while he was visiting Virginia on business. He was diagnosed with appendicitis. In fact, his appendix had burst.
An emergency room physician told him that five to 10 years ago, he’d be immediately admitted for emergency surgery. Instead, he was given high doses of antibiotics and instructed to return a few weeks later for a 20-minute laparoscopic procedure instead of undergoing a four-hour emergency abdominal surgery.
“And that’s what we did,” Palmer said.
He noted that the emergency room doctor did not participate in any of the eight to 10 studies that resulted in “movement in the standard of care.”
“How do we cultivate that kind of learning system in education is, I think, important to all of us. Right now, moving, changing the education system is hard,” he said.
He likened attempts at education policy change on the federal level to the game Plinko, a staple on the popular television game show “The Price is Right.”
Contestants earn chips and release them from slots at the top of the game board. The chips eventually travel to slots at the bottom of the board labeled with varying amounts of money, including zero dollars.
“That’s been a lot of our education reform agenda. I don’t mean certainly in Utah or even state or district, but certainly national, right? Accountability assessment standards, Common Core, let’s drop that in and let’s see what happens. I think we need a much smarter systemic strategy,” he said.
Palmer, a partner in the Science of Learning & Development Alliance, which aims to elevate science, advance equity and transform education, said science indicates that academics and socio-emotional learning, along with other types of learning, are inextricably linked.
“If, and only if, you build the rich kinds of applied learning experiences, the kind of trusting environments, the kind of systems of supports, are you ever going to be able to get a full array of outcomes you want, including the academic outcomes?” Palmer said.
For a child who comes to school facing profound adversity, “it’s like trying to pour water into a closed vessel, right? It’s simply not possible. And until you have tried to attend to the whole child, you’re not going to be able to get even the academic outcomes you want,” he said.
Trust and human relationships are foundational. In an environment of trust, students are more willing to take risks in terms of pushing beyond their current knowledge or skills, Palmer said.
“I don’t think these things are not known or respected in education. But I would suggest that they are often seen as again secondary. ... The reality is more and more we see from the science that if what you’re trying to do is advanced learning with human beings, these things need to be much more central,” he said.
Palmer shared that his son, who is in the fifth grade, is thriving in school this year. His son attributes this to his teacher “who gets it.”
“He feels like he knows he’s smart ... . He knows he belongs there as a learner. He knows his quirky sense of humor is appreciated, and he feels really confident to put himself out there in ways he didn’t before. You can see how all of this is bound up,” Palmer said.