Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools Are Socially Promoting Students En Masse. What Comes Next?

Planning for success in the fall starts with personalization
By Paul Reville — May 21, 2020 5 min read
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It’s becoming increasingly clear that in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the nation’s school systems will soon engage in a massive, simultaneous act of social promotion, passing students along to the next grade whether or not they have the requisite skills and knowledge. School leaders quite reasonably feel they have no choice but to move in this direction, given the impracticality of retaining in grade substantial numbers of students. Such retention would immediately overwhelm the already maximally stressed capacity of school systems’ staff, budgets, and space.

Understandable though this mass social promotion may be, it’s time to start thinking strategically about the implications of such a move. How will educators meet the widely disparate learning challenges faced by their students this fall?

We know that the coronavirus-induced school closings have already exacerbated academic and social inequities. The disadvantaged have been further harmed by disparities in access to all forms of support, especially high-quality online learning. Those families with social and financial capital have had a much easier time of riding out the crisis and a much higher probability of having access to the tools and opportunities that enable out-of-school enrichment and learning.

Next fall should mark the beginning of the end of the 'one size fits all' approach to schooling."

Educators must take action. Next fall should mark the beginning of the end of the “one size fits all” approach to schooling—whether schooling is conducted in person or remotely. To get students back on track, educators will need to meet them where they are and give them what they need, customizing an education strategy for each child designed to get that child to “success.” While schools will be facing a host of operational, health, and financial challenges next fall, the first order of academic business must be some form of diagnostic assessment, not for any accountability purposes but to determine the particular academic and social-emotional needs of each student.

“Success planning” starts with creating a running record of each child’s needs followed by the intentional development of an actual plan that is designed by educators after consultation with families. Sound familiar? Schools have been required to take this approach, called individualized education programs, or IEPs, for decades to meet the legal requirements for serving children with special needs.

But we know all children have special, unique needs. While we should avoid the bureaucratic and adversarial pitfalls of the IEP process, it’s high time we started customizing education to meet the needs of all our students, especially in this time of crisis. A shift to a new paradigm of personalized education not only makes common sense, it’s essential to address the current challenge. In a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education interview, former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. told me, “If we want to avoid a lost generation of kids, we need to make that shift.”

How do we get all children to meet a high standard of academic mastery if we don’t take account of their current strengths and weaknesses and provide them with targeted learning opportunities and supports? How can we address the particular challenges that students with disabilities, English-language learners, and those living in poverty have faced during this crisis? Treating all students the same or teaching to the “average” has proved ineffective.

Personalization is what we do in medicine: differentiate the needs of patients and tailor prescriptions to meet their needs and achieve the goal of good health. Business has long adopted strategies of customization and niche marketing to satisfy the needs of customers. Our most elite schools do this implicitly by reducing class size to the point that every student is known and cared for in a systemic way.

Public schools, however, have generally proved unable to shift the paradigm from the factory model—batch processing of students—to the more targeted strategy of customization. There are all kinds of reasons for this resistance, including underfunding and lack of resources, the day-care function of schools, inertia, and misconceptions that confuse equality with equity. While the resistance to the obvious need to differentiate our students and customize our approach to them is formidable, this crisis may provide the opportunity for a bold paradigm shift in education. But it will take visionary leadership, financial resources, public engagement, capacity building, and effective strategy to overcome these barriers.

At Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, we’ve been exploring the idea of personalized student success plans for several years. These plans are both a diagnostic tool that captures students’ academic progress, interests, strengths, and nonacademic needs and a concrete plan for action that must happen inside and outside of school.

Most schools already have foundational structures and processes to enable a shift to success planning, including individualized education programs and multitiered systems of support that offer a framework for identifying differing levels of need and intervention. For example, 44 states and the District of Columbia either require or encourage the use of individualized learning plans to help students identify and reach postsecondary academic goals.

Despite these precedents, there are many complex challenges in a shift to success planning—among them capacity issues (who takes responsibility for all the work involved) and privacy (who develops a plan and who has access to it)—and yet these obstacles can be surmounted. School and district leaders will need a clear vision; a plan for engaging key constituents; a thoughtfully sequenced, gradual implementation process; and lots of professional-development opportunities for teachers whose roles will be enhanced.

In the end, a shift to customization can create a system where each child has a comprehensive, running educational success record and the opportunities and supports to fulfill their potential. This is the pathway to equity. By shifting to a personalized-success paradigm, educators can make the most of this potentially evolutionary moment in educational history.

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