The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Starbucks classrooms,’ plus six other new approaches in education


Parents often view school policy the same way they consider the greasy secrets of their garage mechanic or the tax-form calculations of their accountants. All but the most diligent are a bit puzzled at times by the techniques and terminology.

Because today’s parents, teachers and students are busier and more distracted, the family-school connection is more tenuous and parental awareness about education is slipping, says Carol Tomlinson, an education professor at the University of Virginia and author of dozens of books and articles on instruction.

A lot of parents just don’t know what is happening in school — and they feel out of touch,” she says. “There are probably many reasons for it, but regardless, it is unfortunate for both sides.”

Here is a primer about some of the most visible initiatives and trends in K-12 education.

Facing down trauma

Trauma has for a few years been a hot topic among educators concerned about students who never get on track because of past traumas — and those on both sides of bullying and violent incidents. Now it’s, of course, an even bigger priority.

“A trauma-informed approach is critical for schools,” says Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology at University of Connecticut who has researched the topic. She says the new push helps school staffs identify and provide counseling for the estimated one-half to two-thirds of students who, according to the Education Law Center, probably have experienced trauma. In an all-too-familiar cycle, such students are much more apt to suffer, fail or even lash out at classmates and others, experts say.

Disciplining differently

Many districts have adopted restorative justice practices for disciplinary infractions. These generally involve non-punitive measures, such as mediation, community service or peer counseling, according to Sarah Guckenburg, a researcher at the Justice and Prevention Research Center. While critics of this approach charge that offenders may not be adequately punished and back in class too soon, Guckenburg says a report she co-authored shows that, if done carefully, restorative justice can cut suspensions and expulsions and improve behavior and school climate.

The Fairfax County Public Schools’ “offender accountability” restorative philosophy supports victims, too, says Stefan Mascoll, district coordinator of student safety and wellness. “Parents also are fully involved and given a voice in the outcome, whether their child has been harmed or has harmed someone.”

Shifting the center

Popular learner-centered and personalized approaches are designed to move classrooms away from a one-size-fits-all approach toward teaching that addresses individual needs, strengths, and interests. “It’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning that begins where the student is rather than with a prescribed plan that ignores their differences,” Tomlinson says.

Precise definitions of these approaches can be difficult to find, and terminology overlaps. (The U.S. Education Department developed a definition for personalized learning but notes that there are 10 other good ones.) Heather Hurley, personalized learning supervisor for Arlington County Public Schools, says parents should know that with differentiation, teachers use material and instruction suited to various student needs, and in personalization, they’re “facilitators” for students working more independently and potentially moving at their own pace.

How can we prepare our kids with special needs for a school crisis?

Some critics worry these initiatives could result in too much computer time (one approach involves computer-based instruction) or less teacher direction, especially for successful students, but Tomlinson says it should have the opposite effect and that computers can be “used as a tool that can augment rich class discussions and teacher-student interactions.”

“The goal of personalization, whatever form it takes, is to engage and challenge every single kid,” she says. “We hope teachers are spending as much time pushing the high-achieving one down the road as they are helping the one who is in a hole and struggling to get out.”

Making the grade

New methods of assessing students also have been developed by educators, concerned that the A-to-F and 100-point systems are unfair, imprecise and demoralizing.

Standards-based grading (SBG) provides ongoing evaluation of students’ strengths and weaknesses, allows multiple chances for them to demonstrate their understanding, and eliminates what advocates call “extraneous grades” such as homework and extra credit, according to Matt Townsley, a top school administrator in Iowa who helped his district implement SBG. Grade books note strengths and weaknesses and report cards typically show whether a student is making progress, is proficient or is exceptional, rather than utilizing traditional grades.

Montgomery County Public Schools backed away from an SBG initiative this school year because of parental concerns, but Fairfax schools use the system in elementary schools and have made other adjustments to grading at higher levels. According to Steve Lockard, Fairfax’s deputy superintendent, the district has separated out work habits, allows retakes and eliminated zeros for no credit. The goal is to keep students engaged, he says. “More traditional grading practices do not always allow for continuous improvement. Instead a student, regardless of their subsequent achievement, is unable to reach an overall passing grade.”

Competency-based learning, which advances students based on mastery rather than on seat time, also is growing in popularity, though there is a debate about how it works with the college application process and how it should address traditional final assessments and grade-level boundaries.

Putting projects first

Teacher Laura Dembo is responsible for getting project based learning (PBL) into all the classrooms at Drew Model School In Arlington, a big task that she relishes.

“The project is the meat of the lesson,” she says “Traditionally students have been given a lesson and some background knowledge and then sometimes a project. This puts the project at the beginning and the lesson ingrained in it.”

Schools are increasingly using PBL to teach critical concepts because, advocates say, it excites kids, taps into a variety of learning styles, flexes different skills, better shows student understanding and prepares them for real-world work. It is similar to the maker movement, which is often used in STEM classes.

Reversing lecture and homework time

Jon Bergmann, co-founder of the Flipped Learning Network, stumbled upon this idea as a high school science teacher when he put videotaped lessons online for students who were absent. Other students liked being able to view lectures and explanations at their own pace online, too, and soon he found he could provide support by having students complete “homework” in class after they had viewed a lecture, to assess how well they had absorbed the lecture. A review of some 30 research papers showed positive results with this approach.

Stacey Roshan, a math teacher at the Bullis School in Potomac, says it benefits parents because they hear fewer complaints from their children about not understanding homework and because they can learn alongside them and better help.

“It also shifts everything to a student-centered classroom,” Rosham says. “Now students help each other after they have heard my lecture, or work independently, and I can move around the room to help others as they need it.”

Making seating special

Rather than rows of desks in Kate Roscolli’s classrooms at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, there are tables at different heights, balls big enough to sit on and rugs. “As long as they are working, I don’t care where they sit,” she says.

While the research is not conclusive about flexible seating, many teachers report it improves attention, learning and behavior and gets students excited about being in the classroom. Variations on flexible seating practices — sometimes called “Starbucks classrooms” — have moved to high school, and the concept seems to be growing in popularity. Stephen Merrill, an editor with the education website Edutopia, says, “We asked about 1.2 million educators on Facebook about the one thing they’d like to try next, and flexible seating was among the top two responses. … And those who converted said they were never going back.”

Facing a counselor crunch

School counselors, whose role is sometimes a mystery to parents but who are often critical when needed, are now busier than ever, experts say — faced with growing caseloads and expanded responsibility.

“Our school counselors on average have 482 students,” says Blaire Cholewa, a counselor education professor at the University of Virginia who recommends a caseload of 250 if schools want to raise grades and high school graduation rates.

Busy counselors unable to conduct intensive counseling now teach problem-solving skills and use efficient methods such as solution-focused counseling, which asks students to envision a positive outcome, then outline the behavior needed to reach it.

Though they may have less time for some tasks, counselors are encouraging students to start career and college exploration earlier, according to Lateefah Durant, a college and career specialist at Prince George’s County Public Schools, which now has 40 career and technical education options. Schools increasingly provide elementary programming about jobs and middle school classes that thoroughly explore “career clusters,” such as the health sciences and information technology, though there is a debate about when students should commit to a post-high school plan. Schools are also rethinking the merits of a “college for all” philosophy vs. encouraging a wider array of pathways.

James Paterson is a freelance writer and illustrator, and a former school counselor. You can find more of his work at

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and balancing a career. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading:

How parents can help introverts thrive (without trying to turn them into extroverts)

Nine ways parents can empower a child who has learning issues.

Seven ways to build an alliance with your child’s teacher