Molly McCloskey

A Whole Child Approach to Education and the Common Core State Standards Initiative

A whole child approach to education is defined by policies, practices, and relationships that ensure each child, in each school, in each community, is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. It engages all stakeholders—educators, families, policymakers, and community members—in defying the "percentage proficient" culture of too many school reform efforts, to focus on each child. And it further raises the bar of accountability beyond narrow, single-issue "improvement" strategies to efforts that reflect the broad array of factors influencing long-term success rather than short-term achievement.

Within a whole child approach, we must raise questions about school culture and curriculum, instructional strategies and family engagement, and critical thinking and social-emotional wellness. We have an inherent understanding that no single program or initiative provides the silver bullet for school improvement, but rather that the application of child-adolescent growth and development theory in the context of learning within a specific community creates the opportunity for each child to succeed.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a crucial step toward ensuring such an approach. For too long in too many schools, young people have been provided a learning experience that so undermotivates, undereducates, and underprepares that they are left reaching for remedial preparation for the careers, further education, and civic participation they seek. In the worst situations, young people are neither healthy nor safe, neither engaged nor supported, and certainly not challenged.

In others, schools with seemingly impressive school climates (little bullying, supportive staff-student relationships, wraparound supports for families, etc.) fail to hold high expectations for each child and instead create an environment of academic pity, which fails to prepare even graduates for meaningful career, college, and civic next steps. And in still other situations, the emphasis on academic rigor is so disproportionate that students experience high levels of social-emotional stress, disconnection to school and the community, and boredom in a culture of rote memorization and repetition, such that they too are unprepared for anything beyond the world of multiple-choice exams. The narrow focus of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on standardized test results in only two core academic subjects has only served to reinforce this situation.

The Common Core's promise of higher and uniform standards among all states is in many ways a response to NCLB's consequences. Indeed, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has made higher state standards one of his top reform priorities. However, the standards themselves are necessary but insufficient for real improvement for each child. Standards, no matter how high, do not actually increase student achievement. Nor do they solve hunger. They cannot defeat bullying or boredom, or ineffective teaching or leadership. Only when implemented within a more comprehensive, deliberate school improvement effort will they exert the influence on student success that past standards movements have failed to achieve.

The newer, higher standards will require schools and communities to better and more comprehensively support meaningful student learning. Paired with greater attention to and support of all core academic subjects, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics promote a level of academic preparedness responsive to the requirements of further education, the work force, and civic participation. They compel school instructional staff to develop and deliver effective, engaging instruction reflective of individual student needs and strengths. Perhaps most important, they necessitate understanding of all the factors related to learning—health, safety, connectedness to school, family engagement, personalization, relevance, and so forth—to successfully effect the long-term success of students.

Read more (PDF) about issues to consider in implementing the Common Core State Standards within a whole child approach, including integration and alignment, a well-rounded curriculum, assessment, and sustainability.

True school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about high standards. It's about all of them, and more. Only a whole child approach aligned across curriculum and instruction, school climate and structures, and professional development and student learning can truly ensure that each child, in each school, in each community will be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged for long-term success in college, career, and civic life.



Download session materials and resources from a recent presentation on this subject, Common Core 101 with author and researcher John Kendall, Common Core Policy and Implementation with ASCD’s David Griffith and Efrain Mercado, and watch the archived presentations below.





You can find forthcoming and archived ASCD webinars at


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