Which school do you want to support?
Sometimes a student needs more time.
That reality doesn’t fit with the organizational premise of school: put groups of kids together based on their chronological age, and expect them to proceed at about the same pace. Most of the time, teachers have little choice but to "aim for the middle," teaching through the curriculum in a way that will work for most kids. If they can, teachers try to pull kids aside for extra help. But there is only a certain amount of time in the day.
Many education buzzwords relate to differing approaches to the challenge of educating students at different levels simultaneously. In high schools particularly, the term "tracking" describes the approach of separating students into groups based on where they are academically. This approach assumes - or perhaps acknowledges - that not all kids advance through school with comparable skills and knowledge. One problem with tracking is that it tends to be a one-way ratchet: students can more easily be shifted to a "lower" track than moved to a "higher" one. Another problem is that the placement of students can be fraught with biases about expectations.
"Differentiated instruction" is an alternative that tries to avoid grouping students based on ability. This approach requires teachers to change how they teach to meet the needs of students with varying learning readiness. The goal is to teach everyone, without tracks or batch distinctions. This can be a difficult feat even for experienced teachers, in part because it is not always easy to tell which students are "getting it" and which are not.
In elementary grades especially, a relatively new version of this approach attempts to differentiate instruction based on data. Sometimes known as Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtI²), this approach combines high-quality instruction with a set of strategies for identifying kids who need extra help. The process focuses on individual students who are struggling and provides a vehicle for teamwork to strengthen their performance early, before educational problems increase in intensity. This strategy requires ongoing data about how well students are learning and what each student needs to be successful. By monitoring the data, educators seek to identify students who need extra help and respond with an intervention such as small group or one-on-one instruction. This might mean extra support in areas of identified need, extra time on a topic or skill, or perhaps support through technology. In some cases it will involve a more intensive approach, up to placing a student in some kind of academic workshop or support class for an entire school year. Data gathered from RtI² can be used in the identification process to determine if a student requires special education services.
It’s unreasonable to expect all kids to learn at the same pace.
Similar data monitoring could be used to identify children who are gifted or ready to accelerate. However, in-school "gifted" or "GATE" programs have become increasingly rare. State and federal program funds for gifted programs have been eliminated. If there is a gifted program in your school, it is because your school district committed funds for it. (Note: See the Ed100 blog for much more about this.) Some teachers do try to differentiate their classes in ways that enable such students to remain challenged.
Tutoring is perhaps the ultimate time-related intervention, as it puts a student and an instructor together one-on-one. From a systemic perspective, the great problem with tutoring is that it is tremendously expensive. America briefly flirted with wide-scale publicly-funded tutoring -- it didn't work out. Here's what happened:
A provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) guaranteed children in some low-performing schools access to tutoring services, known as Supplemental Educational Services (SES), at a parent’s request. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but over time, as the requirements of NCLB were raised, an increasing number of schools and districts were classified as "low-performing," which led increasing numbers of students to qualify for SES. Of course, this led to a boom in business for firms that offered tutoring services. Some districts created their own tutoring programs; others hired outside firms. The program at its peak diverted billions from schools to tutoring companies, with results that harmed more than they helped. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) eliminated the mandate to provide these tutoring services, effective in the 2017-18 school year.
More and more computer programs have become available to help teachers provide extra supports and interventions, which may expand their ability to engage students effectively in learning. When fully incorporated into the school day, and used with all students, this approach is sometimes called “blended learning.” Rocketship Schools, a charter school network based in California, has received a lot of attention for its use of this approach, which in its way is all about using student learning time better.
Rocketship CEO Preston Smith explains it this way. “We should all focus on personalized learning and obsessing daily with how we ensure our students are spending large chunks of their day (80%+) in their optimal zone of learning—meaning exactly at their level. I would bet that students in countries that lead the world in achievement spend maybe 25-40% of their time in these optimal zones. Technology is an incredible tool in this work as there are online programs that immediately allow a student to access content in their optimal zone. Again—technology is not the complete answer, but it is definitely part of the solution.”
The next lesson examines the use of time for learning in summers, and the role that this season plays in the unequal learning results of high-wealth families and families in poverty.
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