Beyond Academics: Preparing Your Kids for Life

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 12 │Beyond Academics: Preparing Your Kids for Life

Wednesday, November 20, 2019



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Show Notes

Linda Darling-Hammond

Your child’s school helps prepare them for academic success, but are they also preparing students for success in life? From your kid’s schedule to the layout of their classroom, many aspects of school life have remained the same for decades. So how can you tell if your child’s school is supporting their long-term growth? Linda Darling-Hammond, president & CEO of the Learning Institute, gives her expert opinion. She shares what signs you should look for to see if your child’s school is fostering their holistic development, and what you can do at home to raise well-rounded lifelong learners.


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Transcript (Disponible en Español)

Intro: [00:00:02] Welcome to Notes From the Backpack: a PTA. podcast. This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents and real educators. So families can get the real behind the scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack. They tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast.

LaWanda: [00:00:41] Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your co-host, LaWanda Toney. Director of communications at National PTA.

Helen: [00:00:46] Hi LaWanda. And hello, everyone listening. I'm your co-host, Helen Westmoreland, director of family engagement at National PTA.

LaWanda: [00:00:52] Helen, can you believe this is our final episode of Season 1?

Helen: [00:00:56] No, I can't believe it. This season has completely flown by. We've shared so many resources and tips with families about different aspects of school. We've also talked about all the ways schools and families can work together to help kids thrive academically, socially, emotionally and even physically. Today, we're going to keep all of that in mind as we discuss if the current education model is working for all kids and what schools should be doing to help prepare our kids as learners, and more so as people.

LaWanda: [00:01:25] We have a great guest with us today, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond is the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. She's also the president of California State Board of Education. Previously, she founded the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy and Education. She's also the past president of the American Educational Research Association, where she received several awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Darling-Hammond has been named one of the nation's 10 most influential people affecting educational policy. She began her career as a public school teacher and co-founded both a preschool and a public high school. She also served as an endowed professor at Columbia University Teachers College and has authored more than 500 publications and several award winning books. We can think of no better person to talk to about how we can redesign schools.

Helen: [00:02:21] Dr. Darling-Hammond, thank you for joining us for this week's episode of Notes from the Backpack.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:02:26] Great to be here.

Helen: [00:02:27] Before we get started, we'd love to hear a little bit more about you. What made you start a career in education and brings you to where you are today?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:02:35] Well, I think I understood growing up the power of education to open up opportunities as well as just the excitement of learning. I had a brother who had some learning challenges and I taught him from an early age and got involved in after school teaching. I was a teacher's aide for a period of time. And when I got out of college, trying to figure out what to do, I was called to the classroom and hooked as soon as I got there.

Helen: [00:03:02] And so for our listeners who might not know about the Learning Policy Institute. Could you tell us a little bit about the organization and sort of your interests these days when it comes to different topics in education?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:03:14] Yes. And I think I'll connect it back to the question you asked previously about my pathway in. When I got into teaching. I taught in a big urban public high school that was very anonymous for many of the kids where I felt underprepared for teaching and where I saw the effects of unequal school funding firsthand. There were no books in the book room and in Camden High School, where a student taught, teachers had to buy their own materials and supplies. And I realized as I was teaching, there was so many forces outside of schools that affect what you can do inside the school. And those issues that I encountered - unequal school funding, inadequate teacher preparation, impersonalized school structures - are things I've worked on through policy ever since. So the Learning Policy Institute actually exists to carry evidence about what works for children and their learning into the policy arena so that we can create a setting that allows teachers, parents and children to do their best work and to thrive in ways that many policies today do not yet support.

LaWanda: [00:04:20] Can you talk a little bit about what's working for students in school?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:04:24] We could talk a little maybe first about how people learn. And so we know a lot from the science of learning from neuroscience now. But what matters for learning, among other things, relationships matter greatly for learning. Emotion and learning are completely connected in ways that I don't think we understood previously. If you are in a setting where you feel attached, where you have secure relationships, where you feel supported, where you are not feeling bullied or stigmatized or threatened in any way, where you're feeling positive emotions about the people and the content, you will learn more effectively. And if you are distracted or fearful or traumatized, either inside the school or outside the school, you will have impediments to your learning. So one of the things we know is that in environments that really work to create a positive school climate, where there are opportunities for teachers and kids to really get to know each other well, then you get a much more effective learning environment. For example, in many countries, teachers loop with their students; the same teacher stays with the same students for two, three or four years, in the elementary school and sometimes for a couple of years in the high school as well.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:05:30] And so we see that in schools that do that. Relationships are stronger between families and the school as well as for every child, including the ones who are harder to get to know in a short period of time. High schools that are succeeding and you can see this especially in New York City, where they've overhauled all the high schools. They're smaller, usually about 400 students, not 2400. They have advisory systems where there's an adviser who stays with the same child over multiple years and is the outreach to the family. So they create their own family unit in those schools. They teach social and emotional learning, conflict resolution, ways to recognize your own emotions and maintain calm and have strategies for both focusing and collaborating. That can happen when you have these kinds of advisory settings, but it also then creates a safe environment and creates a family environment. It creates a loving environment. It creates an environment where problem solving can occur. Those are places where children thrive and achieve at higher levels because the way in which human beings develop and learn is being attended to.

Helen: [00:06:34] I think that's so true, and we've talked about it a little bit this season in that critical role of socio-emotional development and all these sort of nonacademic things. One of the challenges I think as a parent is that we don't always know what's happening inside these policy conversations. Could you give us a little bit of that behind the scenes? What is being discussed about generally the opportunity to redesign schools? And what kind of insight could you give parents about things that they might be able to nudge on even in their own communities to make schools a better place for kids?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:07:08] Well, there are, of course, conversations going on all across the country. And I would say in terms of redesigning schools, you know, one major conversation is about how to create positive school climates and create these kind of settings that are more personalized. Remember that our current schools were designed for the most part in the early nineteen hundreds in the era of the factory model, which was all the rage - you know, Henry Ford's assembly line - and we're having to redesign them to create more opportunities for adults and kids to spend more time together over a longer period of time in groupings that allow for that personalization. Another conversation is about how to move schools towards 21st century skills, rather than sitting and memorizing a lot of information that you could be Googling if you needed to find a fact. You need the broader concepts and deep understanding of the fields and you've got to be able to problem-solving and think critically. So redesigning the curriculum, training teachers and school leaders so that they're able to create these kinds of settings with the kind of focus on 21st century skills are among the important conversations. They play out in local school boards as they're deciding what kind of training to provide for educators.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:08:17] Often the conversation about professional development is, well, are we going to have to have some teacher days? And those will be awkward for us to figure out how to sketch. In fact, in some places they're redesigning the school schedule so that part of every workweek provides opportunities for teacher and principal learning and collaboration and planning together. That is common in other countries, not common in the way we've designed U.S. schools. So redesigning the schedule, creating the opportunities for bringing in those kinds of social, emotional learning programs, for example, thinking differently about how kids will demonstrate their learning and infusing projects and exhibitions of learning that are much more robust and meaningful than just prepping for multiple choice tests. Those are all going to be discussed both at the state level and at the local district level. And parents can be involved in both places, pushing for the kinds of environments and the kinds of learning opportunities that are exciting and engaging and meaningful for kids and preparing them for the world as it is becoming, not the world as it was.

LaWanda: [00:09:26] I want to talk a little bit more about the parents’ role when they come into the school and they want to have conversations with the teachers are the principal. What kind of things can they ask to see what type of school this is?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:09:39] Well, when I go into school, and I have three kids and now I have two grandkids, so I'm looking closely all the time, I look for several things. But I look to see what's on the walls. Is there work from children on the walls, and does it represent a rich curriculum? Do you see kids writing essays and doing their science inquiries in artwork? I want to see that this is a school that's about children and their work. And that work is exciting and engaging in obviously promoting thinking and problem solving. I look to see that kids are getting equitable access to that kind of work, that there's not a tracking system in place that's giving some kids boring worksheets while other kids are getting exciting opportunities for thinking and problem solving. I look to see that there's multicultural imagery all around the school. So the kids are seeing themselves in the curriculum, and in the opportunities. Then when I get in the classroom or talk to a teacher or principal, I ask about what their learning goals are for students. I ask about what is their approach to social, emotional and academic development. Do they have a specific way that they're approaching that and how do they do it? I look to see, for example, whether the kids have come together and their own constitution for the rules that govern the classroom, where they've participated in thinking about how should we behave together to be a good community.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:11:00] Because if they're doing that, that means that they're deeply understanding how to become socially responsible and how to take care of one another. And you want a school which kids are learning to be good citizens in an active way, not just being told if you do this thing wrong, we're going to do this thing to you, which really sets a very different climate and tone. I look to see whether the strategy for handling student misbehavior, if you will, is one that's supportive and restore order that relies on kids having the opportunity to reflect and problem solve and make amends and be part of the community rather than one that is saying, oh, now you've lost your recess or you've lost your library time without any support for learning and keeping kids connected in the community. There are all kinds of questions you can ask about those things and really listen carefully for the kinds of responses that you get.

LaWanda: [00:11:54] I need you to go with me to the next parent-teacher conference. (laughs)

Helen: [00:11:57] I know! I'm like, that's the most incredibly comprehensive list of look fors.

LaWanda: [00:12:01] Yeah, they're great.

Helen: [00:12:02] I wonder if when we don't see those things necessarily going on in schools, what's your understanding of why are we still using the same model that we were in the nineteen hundreds. What's holding up our progress collectively compared to some of the other countries that you've been researching, that have done so much work to advance all kids education?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:12:22] Well the thing that's going through my head is that song, (sings) "Tradition!"

Helen: [00:12:28] (laughs) It's hard to change.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:12:29] Tradition is part of it that people just get used to things being a certain kind of way. But a lot of what holds that tradition in place is the lack of access to opportunities for learning for educators. We need to really invest in the training of principals and teachers. And when we do, they're much more ready to institute these kinds of strategies. States should be putting funding into that. Local districts should be. In addition, I think sometimes parents want things to be the way they were when they went to school. It's a process of moving a whole community to thinking about different ways. I think it's important for people to be able to get out of their community and go look at schools that are very successful that have these strategies and get a chance to talk to people, educators and parents alike, to say, OK, how did you do this and how might we take some steps in this direction? And then, of course, we have to be acknowledging of the fact that the accountability systems that are put in place often shape the behaviors in schools. And during the era of No Child Left Behind policy, where so much of the emphasis was on having to make a test score target every year or be declared failing, as was the case for many public schools, particularly in states that adopted very punitive policies that would hold kids back if they didn't achieve a certain test score, they would make decisions about teacher firing and pay based on scores, big decisions about whether schools would stay open or closed based on scores.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:13:52] What ended up happening was people just focused on, "Let's drill everybody to get the scores up," and they stopped thinking about - but didn't feel they had room for - a much more robust way of educating kids. Which is very ironic because when we look at the science of learning, actually there are a number of things that promote brain development. One of them, as these strong, very positive relationships actually promote brain development, physical fitness and activity promotes brain development. Other languages, music, and art promote brain development. And in a lot of schools, when it up happening during that era is that all of that was considered frills. So we said, "Oh, you know, we don't have time for recess. Forget about science, social studies, languages, music, art." And what we were actually doing was starving children's brains and just trying to focus on this kind of drill and kill approach. We're still coming out of that era and trying to put more measures into accountability systems. So there are a number of states, for example, that have now in their accountability and reporting system, school climate.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:14:54] Kids are taking surveys, parents are taking surveys, teachers ... to say, "Does this feel like a place where I belong?" "Am I getting opportunities to learn these kinds of skills and strategies?" "Do I have a place I can go if I need help?" "Am I getting a rich, thoughtful curriculum?" As we move accountability so that it's not focused only on test scores, but it includes things like getting kids to school and making sure they have a positive climate to come to, and that we're looking at indicators. In fact, in Connecticut, they include music and art as part of their accountability indicators. You know, to make sure that every school is offering a rich curriculum. Then I think we can begin to build these environments that are much more supportive of children, their expressiveness, their happiness. Remember, happy children learn better. So we have to think about how -.

Helen: [00:15:42] They behave better at home, too. (laughs)

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:15:43] They do. It is not just about getting the test scores. And of course, the Phi Delta Kappa poll just this past year asked parents what was the indicator for them of a good school? And the number one indicator was student engagement. It was not, you know, having high test scores. And I'm all for us knowing that kids are progressing academically. But we really have to have a balanced approach to what it is we're trying to do in schools.

LaWanda: [00:16:09] Can we talk about what parents can do at home as we're trying to help support that whole child experience? Are there things that we can do once they leave a classroom to help encourage that?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:16:20] Yeah, I think that's such a great question. Lots of playtime, lots of interaction with friends and parents. We have to be careful not to overload kids with either too many structured activities - a balance is a good idea - or too much additional stress, too much homework. The child should come home from school. You know, I think about the old Dick and Jane readers that we had in mind, you know, and have a snack and, you know, have some time to play with siblings or others. Having an after school activity is fine, and there may be after school programs that are providing physical activity and arts and other things. And that's terrific. But really, kids need the opportunity to inquire into the world, to explore, to interact, to play. They learn a lot through play. They can have a little bit of homework, but we have to keep it all in balance. And it's not great for kids to get too much screen time. We're seeing the results of too much screen time. So again, a small amount, but carefully selected. I have to say, I'm a big fan of Sesame Street -

LaWanda: [00:17:29] So are we.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:17:30] - and my grandson is deeply into it. But everything has to have its limits so that you're getting a well balanced approach to the world. That's helpful for parents and educators to be talking about that. What should be happening after school? And a lot of schools are becoming more mindful about keeping homework within some parameters that are reasonable rather than making it yet another stressor of four hours of homework after you get home from school. And so those are really important conversations for parents to have with teachers and school administrators.

LaWanda: [00:17:59] That definitely makes me feel better. When my son started kindergarten, we had our first parent teacher conference and we asked, like, what should we be doing at home? What should he be doing? She's like, you should play. You should read together. You should go for a walk. Take him to the library or the museum. And really, is that it? Well, we do that already. That's great to just like let them have the balance. Let them be able to be a kid, because a lot of times you feel this, I don't know, self-imposed pressure to want your child to be the best and excel in everything. So I appreciate that.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:18:30] And I think that's another good point, that it's funny at our competitive society how quickly kids learn to do things becomes like a big deal. Are they walking yet? Are they talking yet or are they doing this thing? Yeah, that is a whole conversation about potty training.

Helen: [00:18:45] Oh yeah. I'm in those years right now.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:18:47] Doing any of those things sooner than later has no benefit later in life. Right?

LaWanda: [00:18:53] It's true. You're going to eventually know how to do it.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:18:56] They're going to know how to do it and it's going to be fine. And letting kids develop and supporting their development, but not pressuring them and making them feel less than from an early age and anxious, because we breed anxiety and anxiety can become debilitating. We have a rash of young people suicides. We've got to be really thoughtful about how do we support kids to develop and grow. Give them lots of opportunities for learning and supports for learning, but not this anxiety that I'm not good enough, which can begin at a very early age.

Helen: [00:19:27] I think that that's such an important point for our listeners and it goes back a little bit to I think what you are sharing about our accountability system. I think as a parent, sometimes you feel like, "I have to do everything possible to help my kid get ahead." I'm already in the rat race with the kindergartener about test scores and placement in classes and extracurriculars. And I've noticed from some of the great resources, Dr. Darling-Hammond, on your website that you use a term that seems very intentional around deeper learning. Is that rat race real? Like when you talk to employers, when you talk to folks new in the workforce, in colleges about what kids most need. Are the things that we sort of think, as parents, they need like, really showing up later in life or those sort of what you said sort of artifacts of our own tradition and expectations?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:20:17] That's a great question. I'm going to start by telling you a story about Google, which is right up the street from me here in Silicon Valley. Google, as you know, is a giant enterprise that kind of represents a 21st century kind of tech industry. Right. And they used to collect all the test scores and grades and every piece of information about their employees, put them into a giant database, did these massive analysis of what predicted success at Google, and what they found was that none of those things predicted success at Google; not the test scores. And what they decided was really the predictor of success was what they call learning ability. It is your ability to come into a problem, space, access resources and information on your own, figure out what you need to know in order to solve a problem, work collaboratively with a team to develop a solution or an answer or whatever, and figure out how to test that, figure out if it's working, revise it and make it better. That's what they think of as learning ability; the ability to apply what you know and learn new things to solve problems. And that's not necessarily reflected in the way we test in this country. Our tests are much more limited than many other countries. They're multiple choice, almost exclusively. There is no job you're going to go into as an adult where they're going to say, "Here are five answers, which one is right?" They're not going to do that. You're going to have to figure it out. And so schools that allow kids to learn to figure things out, to learn to inquire into things, to find and research questions and put it together and think with each other about, "Does this make sense? How could I improve it?"

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:21:51] That kind of deeper learning, really deeply understanding, not just memorizing something and spitting it back on a test and then forgetting it, but really applying it and using the knowledge to solve a problem or create an idea or a solution is what we have to use in this 21st century world. The other piece of where we are today is that knowledge is changing at such a rapid rate. There was more new knowledge created in the world between 1999 and 2003, according to one study, than in the entire history of the world preceding. Think about that; four years. And we have got an exponential increase in knowledge going on. Technology knowledge is doubling every eleven months. So kids are going to have to use knowledge that hasn't been discovered yet and technologies that haven't been invented yet to solve big problems that we have not managed to solve. They need to be flexible thinkers. They need to be self initiating thinkers. They need to be able to find and use resources of various kinds and put them together and make sense of them. And they should be doing that in school. If you're in a school where it's sit and get, memorize the stuff at the end of the chapter and spit it back on, it's just you are not being prepared for the 21st century.

Helen: [00:23:05] Amen. (laughs)

LaWanda: [00:23:05] So good. You've given us so much information today; lots of tools and resources that our parents will love and our listeners will love and be able to take back and share. And I think the big takeaway is just, like, chill out. (laughs) Let your kid be a kid, but also pay attention to their educational surroundings; asking the right questions to see if there are things that you can do to encourage that whole child experience at school.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:23:34] And give them lots of opportunities both in and out of school for inquiry; for exploring and inquiring and figuring things out and doing it themselves, you know, with help. But, you know, not getting spoon fed the facts so much as figuring out because inquiry is the most fundamental human learning strategy. And if you think of everything that exists in this world that human beings have created, ranging from the microphones we're speaking into, to all the amazing recipes we use to cook with, the airplanes we have, the rocket ships, satellites, buildings. It's all because of inquiry. Every single thing has come about because human beings say, "I noticed X, I wonder what would happen if I did Y." "Oh, let's see if I do this this way. It actually allows me to produce this kind of vehicle." "It allows me to create a new recipe," whatever. Human beings are creative enterprisers and inquiry is the fundamental skill that we need for survival as a species and as individuals. And as we go into this very uncertain future where jobs are going to be changing regularly, climate change is going to be a challenge that has to be surmounted by every individual and by people in the society where everything about our systems of government and ways of working is going to be changing, inquiry and the ability to problem solve are going to be the things that enable people to succeed and survive. So every chance you can get to let your child inquire, test things out, try things out, look at things, make sense of them, speculate and then test their conjectures is really building their capacity to be both joyful and engaged and an excited learner, but also to be a successful adult when they get to that point.

Helen: [00:25:20] You have given us and our listeners so much incredible food for thought. If there is one thing you would encourage parents and others listening to really nudge on, right, in their school community, one piece of advice when action that they could take, what would that be?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:25:39] I think, you know, again, trying to make sure that schools are joyful and engaging places and really asking the questions that find out how people are organizing the classroom and the school community to enable kids to be deeply engaged in their learning in these ways would be the one thing. And to get to that, a lot of times the strategies are professional development for educators and opportunities to see and learn what other schools are doing. There's always things to learn. There are always ways that individuals can learn and that schools can get better. So I think that that's the most important thing. It's also, of course, important to have the right kind of intellectual content in schools and so on. But almost all states now have learning standards that really are trying to press in that direction. So being able to use those in a way that engages children in their learning gives them some ownership of their learning so that they want to be there so that their brains are on fire with excitement and engagement. That's what's going to produce the outcomes in the long run. And so I would say look to figure out how to make your school a joyful, engaging place.

LaWanda: [00:26:54] Dr. Darling-Hammond, are there any resources available for parents that you might suggest?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:26:59] Well, one thing that could be of use to parents is on the Learning Policy Institute website, is a report we did called Educating the Whole Child. And it talks about the things that you would hope to see in schools and the policies that can help ensure that they're there.

Helen: [00:27:15] Dr. Darling-Hammond, before we go, can you tell us your website for where parents can go to learn more about your work?

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:27:21] The website is It's all one word.

LaWanda: [00:27:27] Thank you again for all the work that you've done. We really appreciate your time today. It's been a great conversation.

Dr. Darling-Hammond: [00:27:33] Thanks so much. It was great to talk to you.

LaWanda: [00:27:39] This is the last episode of season one. But you can stay connected to us on social media via our handle @NationalPTA or using the hashtag #backpacknotes.

Helen: [00:27:49] Are you already hoping for a second season? Then leave a five star rating and a review on Apple podcast to help us get there.

LaWanda: [00:27:55] We hope to be back sharing more information, tips and tidbits with you soon.

Outro: [00:28:00] Thank you for tuning into Notes From the Backpack: a PTA podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media at @NationalPTA and online at


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding to advance family engagement and whole child learning through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.