Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Five Pathways for Improving Student Opportunities

April 26, 2023 8 min read
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State leaders and education advocates show in these brief takes how an opportunity-to-learn approach, which uses a set of nine principles, is changing the face of education in their states.

Read the full collection here.

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  1. Meet the Range of Student Needs by Rey Saldaña
  2. Improve Failing Schools by Sara Heyburn Morrison
  3. Center Student Voice by Andrew Brennen
  4. Prepare Students for the Future of Work by Linda Darling-Hammond & Byron Ernest
  5. Reimagine High School by Angélica Infante-Green

Meet the Range of Student Needs

By Rey Saldaña

Goal of this work: To provide wraparound services to break down the maze of access to public and private resources that students, families, and educators need so schools can focus on a welcoming environment and rigorous academic content for their students.

Why it matters: Schools and teachers don’t have adequate resources or the time to meet the range of student needs without additional support; the level of stress, trauma, and challenges individual students carry with them is pressuring educators to rethink how schools provide services.

How to do this work: Education leaders should take a proactive, systems approach to redesign how they plan to meet student needs, including by:

  • Committing to external services and partnerships that support students’ fundamental needs, including for housing, nutrition, physical and mental health;
  • Engaging well-trained, data-driven relationship builders to work with students and give them authority;
  • Making schools the hub for connecting families with support providers; and
  • Planning well, allocating resources, and using data-driven metrics to assess quality and success of this work.
Rey Saldaña

Opportunity to Learn in action: Communities In Schools is one example of a national evidence-based program that embeds school-based staff inside schools to identify and address complex barriers to learning, such as homelessness, housing instability, bullying, and trauma, that can prevent students, especially those from marginalized communities, from achieving their full potential.

Rey Saldaña is the president and CEO of Communities In Schools, which brings community resources directly into schools by embedding locally hired and trained coordinators focused on student success. As a student, he attended a CIS school and began receiving wraparound supports in the 10th grade.


Improve Failing Schools

By Sara Heyburn Morrison

Goal of this work: Improve failing schools through state and local efforts that address opportunity gaps.

Why it matters: The old school improvement playbook hasn’t worked well for enough students.

How to do this work: State education leaders must work closely with school and district leaders to:

  • Understand if and how schools are using available resources to provide students with what they need to succeed;
  • Ensure school culture and climate, family engagement, and access to extracurricular activities and rigorous content aligned to college and career expectations are prioritized in conjunction with measures of academic achievement; and
  • Find out from students, families, and educators what’s working and what isn’t in creating schools where all students are engaged and feel that they belong.
Sara Morrison

Opportunity to Learn in action: In Tennessee, like other states, we’ve been trying to serve more students with high-quality summer programs and high-dosage tutoring. There is evidence this is having a positive impact. Summer learning camps led to math and reading gains last summer. Nearly 100,000 kids participated. We’ve taken steps to ensure these programs are engaging and have high attendance rates.

In addition to more time on math and reading, students need opportunities to participate in hands-on learning and the arts—opportunities not always equitably available. We are working with stakeholders across the state to ensure low-performing schools make use of these approaches as part of the rollout of a new student-based state funding formula and that students and families play an important part in shaping them. Rigorous classroom content and student-directed extracurricular options support a sense of belonging and student success.

Sara Heyburn Morrison is the executive director of the Tennessee state board of education. She has held a number of education policy roles and previously worked as a high school English teacher and cross-country coach.


Center Student Voice

By Andrew Brennen

Goal of this work: To put student voice at the center of education change.

Why it matters: States that seek out student voice are better able to see opportunity gaps.

How to do this work:

  • Create spaces where educators can hear from students directly.
  • Use school surveys to measure school climate and ask the right questions.
  • Invest in student journalism as an outlet for telling student stories.
  • Expand student representation on state and local boards of education.
Andrew Brennan

Opportunity to Learn in action: Shared governance models, in which students sit on state and local boards of education, are powerful. The idea is gaining traction but sometimes comes under attack from those beholden to the status quo, which happened in my home state of Kentucky in 2021. Republican state Rep. Killian Timoney successfully helped argue our point, however, on the House floor saying, “If we had an agriculture board without a farmer on it, if we had a police board without a policeman on it, if we had a bar association without an attorney on it, it wouldn’t float.” We could use more of that kind of thinking.

Andrew Brennen is the co-founder of and senior adviser to the Kentucky Student Voice Team, which seeks to elevate students as partners in improving Kentucky schools. He is also the board chair of Seek Common Ground, a national nonprofit that supports community-facing education advocacy efforts.


Prepare Students for the Future of Work

By Linda Darling-Hammond & Byron Ernest

Goal of this work: To support innovative educational models that use new technologies and hands-on work in the community beyond the school to prepare students for the future of work.

Why it matters: Most students currently don’t have future-ready opportunities to apply their learning to meaningful, real-world problems; many schools still use century-old “seat-time” approaches to tally Carnegie units.

Linda Darling Hammond

How to do this work: State boards of education can create indicators of rigorous and relevant learning to spur needed innovations, such as tracking whether students have earned the certificates or certifications needed to be employed.

  • Develop dashboards that prioritize competencies and college- and career-ready learning opportunities.
  • Streamline standards to focus on the most essential ones.
  • Accelerate a shift to assessments that better reflect the world of work, including credentials valued in the labor market.

Opportunity to Learn in action: California’s College/Career Readiness Indicator identifies whether high schools offer career and technical education, internships, dual credit, the chance to earn a seal of biliteracy, and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. Indiana is developing a Graduates Prepared to Succeed dashboard with characteristics students need for lifelong success, like work ethic as well as civic, financial, and digital literacies. Both tools are designed to help education leaders, elected officials, and the public understand whether schools are doing a good job preparing students for the future.

Byron Ernest

Linda Darling-Hammond is the president of the California state board of education, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, and the president of the Learning Policy Institute. Byron Ernest is a member of the Indiana state board of education and recently founded the consultancy Leadery Global. He was the 2010 Indiana teacher of the year, a high school principal, and a head of schools for a charter school network.


Reimagine High School

By Angélica Infante-Green

Goal of this work: To reimagine and improve the high school experience.

Why this matters: Many of Rhode Island’s high school seniors were not taking coursework necessary for admission to local colleges and universities. Students reported feeling ill prepared for college and career.

How to do this work:

  • Understand the student experience by reviewing student transcripts, shadowing students, and listening to their direct feedback.
  • Develop proposal through robust community engagement and launch public-comment period for proposal to improve the high school experience.
  • Factor in student, family, educator, administrator, and community feedback and establish career- and college-ready coursework as a baseline.
  • Create action plan to implement revised regulations. Tangible goals could include publishing a tool kit to support schools, districts, and teachers implementing new standards; partnering with family-facing organizations to ensure families are active participants in implementation; and offering quarterly and on-call professional development for school counselors.
Angélica Infante Green

Opportunity to Learn in action: Rhode Island schools must develop flexibilities for caregiving youth and students who work. For example, the state is exploring awarding students community service hours for their caregiving work and designing flexible class schedules, skills-building groups, and support groups. Students will be empowered to create their own futures by the expansion of real-world, relevant learning opportunities. Students will graduate college- and career-ready by demonstrating proficiency in civics, financial literacy, computer science, and the arts. Rhode Island’s education department will support high schools in offering flex credits. Flex credits will provide educators the opportunity to design rigorous and meaningful learning experiences that align to the passions and goals of our kids.

Angélica Infante-Green is the Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.


To go deeper into these ideas, visit Aspen Institute: as.pn./otl-in-action.

Read the Collection

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Robert Neubecker for Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as Five Pathways for Improving Student Opportunities

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