A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

A Moment in Education, Pregnant with Opportunity

Part 3 of 3: Schedule for Equity

Since we are driven to deliver on the promise of public education, I want to see three seismic shifts explored and launched over the next two school years.

Catch up on this three part series:

  1. Becoming Competency Based
  2. Multiple models for Learning
  3. Schedule for Equity

It’s becoming clear that a return to school will not include the entire student body, at one time.  In fact, recommendations from the San Diego County Office of Education advise a phased in approach to welcoming students back on to campus. While this approach will provide safeguards for students and staff, I think it will provide educational benefit to students who thrive with small group instruction and personalized, differentiated support.  This article suggests students may be more focused, productive, and primed for learning, given a shorter school day.

What if student “time on campus” was dictated by their need for individualized support?  We now know that all students can access a lecture, multimedia presentation, or primary source documents on their own, as they do now during distance learning.  But some students need more space and opportunity to discuss viewpoints, revisit articles, and frame arguments.  

What if the reason students came to campus was clear, purposeful, and targeted?  Imagine a group of twelve students, working in groups of three to conduct a chemistry lab, then returning home for a write up.  Consider a group of fourth grade newcomers, gathering with their teacher for a twenty five minute designated ELD lesson.  Perhaps a group of first grade emerging readers comes to school for a guided reading lesson Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and stays for a writer’s workshop lesson, with a different guided reading group that overlaps in time?

Schedule for Equity

As we plan a return to the school house, I propose we schedule for equity. Specifically, we should re-design targeted support systems so that students who need the most, get the most. 

Here are a few considerations we should make in designing targeted support systems that take individual student needs into account:

Acknowledge that educators are still our best resource

While students may end up getting different doses of teacher face time and support, we should be clear that teacher directed learning is still king.  Nothing beats the connection, care, encouragement and expertise that teachers offer our students.  True, we can approximate some of those benefits through recordings, live meetings, calls, and written messages.  But we will never get away from the empirical reality that teacher effectiveness is the most predictive factor in student achievement and growth.

While students may end up getting different doses of teacher face time and support, we should be clear that teacher directed learning is still king. 

Justin Phillips

Since teacher presence and support is powerful, we need to prioritize who gets access to this resource, and how often.  This resource is even more potent, given the reduced ratios of students to teachers that will be limited in a phased return to school. With equity at the center of our design, students who need the most should get the most.

Prioritize SAI for students with disabilities

Perhaps the most detrimental impact of COVID on education, when all is said and done, will be the impact on students with unique learning needs, those who receive specialized academic instruction (SAI).  When we design systems of support for students, these learners should get priority.  Even with modified schedules across the school, we should be able to deliver supports that strong enough to see achievement of standards based goals.  

One positive result of distance learning, is we are seeing special educators (Ed Specialists, Related Service providers, and paraeducators) engage creatively to support students in new ways.  On our school  team, staff members are collaborating at even higher levels to ensure students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are receiving the highest benefit possible.  This looks like speech pathologists attending synchronous online classroom meetings, ed specialists co planning lessons that are posted on the Google Classroom, and paraeducators being leveraged as supportive in new ways.  Let’s build on this progress so that students experience inclusive, supportive learning for each and every student.

Provide dedicated space and time for emerging bilingual students to grow in their language skills

English Language Learners across the nation, and at our school, will likely emerge with large gaps in learning, with increased ground to make up, when health threats are eliminated.  During ‘normal’ times, students were battling to access grade-level curriculum that is delivered in language that is less than accessible to them.  A 30-40 minute period of designated English Language Development once provided space to explore language, and (often) a revisiting of material that was presented just once.  Now, in first weeks of the distance learning launch, this support looks like extra support materials posted on a learning platform like Google Classroom or Seesaw. To make things worse, while sheltering in place, too many are trapped in homes where fluent English isn’t spoken, to no fault of their own.

What ELLs need is dedicated space to explore language.  They deserve this dedicated time.  They need to hear models of English fluent speakers.  They need low pressure opportunities to pronounce, and mispronounce words.  They need to see writing exemplars, and be prompted with sentence frames.  Some need phonics support and others need guided reading.  We must prioritize this group of learners as we design systems of support that provide the most support to the students who need it most.

Guard against developing tracks of remediation

Our instincts in response to this break in educational continuity will be to assess and remediate.  And while it will be important to see where students are at, we are going to have to proactively guard against creating two tracks for students, one to remediate those who are “behind” and another for those who are at or above grade level.  We are learning a lot about how to increase 1)colaboration 2)communication 3)crtitical thinking and 4) creativity during this time. Our methods are advancing such that students will be increasingly engaged in relevant problem solving and learning.  But these approaches are not, and should not be reserved for more accomplished students only.  All students deserve access to engaging challenges that require the use of 21st Century skills.  Drill and kill and “sit and get” approaches should not be redirected to learners with the most gaps.  These students too, deserve relevant, rigorous, and excellent learning experiences.

We are going to have to proactively guard against creating two tracks for students, one to remediate those who are “behind” and another for those who are at or above grade level.

Justin Phillips

Use what we already know about individual student engagement in distance learning

One of the most maddening, yet exhilarating challenges facing us is the challenge of designing a system that works for all, while conditions are variable.  The National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) uses a concept “VUCA” in describing the reality 21st Century School Leaders face.  “VUCA” recognizes that variability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity  are realities that threaten progress, but can be overcome with persistence, calm, and calculated approaches.  Right now, we are out in the middle of a “VUCA” storm!  

Right now, we are out in the middle of a “VUCA” storm!  

Justin phillips

The good news is that we have valuable data that can help us plan a way forward.  Our profession is comfortable with action research.  And action research promises the most viable way forward. We have objective information about overall participation rates.  We have spreadsheets, by school, class and student that tell us who still faces barriers to logging on.  We can pinpoint where computer and internet connections are in place for students.  And we know which students are engaging at deep levels.  We need to use what we know to inform our design going forward, even if we learn more in the future and make future 

True, there is a lot we don’t know yet.  We don’t fully understand factors impacting student motivation.  There are realities in homes that we are still don’t fully see. We don’t know why a small percentage of students are still missing from our virtual classrooms.  We don’t know how equipped or able families are to partner with us in the learning.  We don’t know yet how to best position resource staff for maximum impact over the long term.  

To approach answering these questions, we need to find ways to get proximate, for the most pressing challenges we face.  This is challenging, given the current state and county health recommendations. But it’s not impossible.  Getting close to individual students, asking good questions, and listening well will lead to the empathy and creative solutions that will help us reach each and every student.  Teachers also hold valuable insight.  Each of their interactions and attempts to reach students will tell us something.  While we are compelled to move with expediency towards a plan, we have to remain vigilant in getting proximate, asking good questions, listening well, and capturing subjective data to light the way forward.

Getting close to individual students, asking good questions, and listening well will lead to the empathy and creative solutions that will help us reach each and every student. 

Justin Phillips

This is a moment in public education, pregnant with opportunity. Because it is a large and vexing adaptive challenge, we shouldn’t be looking for the one correct solution. On the contrary, there are multiple solutions to adaptive challenges. The past few posts have explored three such responses that I believe we should consider seriously. We haven’t thrown in the towel on the promise of public education- to reach and teach every child in the United States, regardless of demography. We remain committed to breathing life into the dream that all God’s children will gain the ability to pursue a future of life, liberty and happiness. Equitable access to quality education is a precondition for that pursuit. And we can use this moment to pave a smoother onramp for some of our most promising, yet vulnerable students. Let’s get to paving that road!

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