Special Education Opinion

Most Students Aren’t on Grade Level, Here’s What to Do About It

By Marc Tucker — May 30, 2018 10 min read
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You are a district school superintendent. A large fraction of the students coming out of your middle schools arrive at the door of your high schools a year or two behind where they need to be to succeed in the freshman year curriculum. Some are even three or four years behind. Your middle schools are finding that many of the students entering their first-year programs are years behind, too.

These things have been true for years, but the legislature has just passed a bill that will hold you and your school board accountable for getting all of your students ready to enter open enrollment community colleges in your state without needing any remediation, a standard your district is a very long way from meeting today. A state commission has also called for the state to cut assignments to special education in half over the next ten years.

At first, you think these are two very different goals, but then you realize they are the same goal. If the right kinds of supports are provided to students in the first place, the vast majority of students would be able to meet mathematics and literacy standards that will prepare them for success in community college withnout remediation when they graduate and many fewer students would be referred to special education. They just wouldn’t need it.

It occurs to you that there is a trade-off here. Special education has been a large and growing expense for your district. Some board members have described it as a crushing cost. If you could reduce that cost by half and keep the savings, you could afford to hire first-rate teachers for all your students, fund the wrap-around services that your low-income students need and revamp your curriculum. You could have much more successful schools for not much more then you are spending now. That, you realize, is why the legislature just passed a comprehensive education reform bill that provides a big shot of money up front for a ten-year reform program.

But, even with those changes, what do you do about all those kids who, when they are sent from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school are years behind? If you do not have a plan to close those gaps, you will fail.

You could set up a system so that the students who arrive at middle school and high school behind do not go on until they pass the indicated remedial courses. But the research is clear: remedial courses usually don’t work. Neither does holding students back. That is hardly surprising. More of what did not work the first time around is not likely to work the second time around.

If you can’t pass them along and you can’t hold them back, what can you do?

This sounded like an unsolvable problem until you discovered that the top-performing countries have found a solution. You realized you could adapt that solution to an American setting.

Here’s what you thought that might look like:

First, you find out what it really takes to succeed in the first year of your community college in terms of reading, writing and mathematics literacy. You don’t just take the community college’s word for it. You actually look at the reading level of the texts they expect students to read. You look at the writing assignments the instructors give, the writing the students turn in and the grades the instructors give on the writing assignments. You look at the courses called College Mathematics and College Algebra and identify the topics in those texts. You are astonished at how modest the demands are and depressed to learn that fewer than half of your graduates can meet them. You wonder whether you can get away with bringing your career and technical education students up to a lower standard. But then you realize that, in this day and age, a student who isn’t ready to do 8th grade algebra, read at the 11th grade level and write at a really basic level—what your new graduation standard would be—is headed for big trouble no matter what his or her career choices turn out to be.

You tell your high school faculty that their job is to get the vast majority to this modest standard by the end of 10th grade so they can choose paths for the upper grades that will get them into great universities, give them an opportunity to earn an Associate’s Degree by the time they graduate, or get an industry-recognized certificate that will give them a jump on a rewarding career when they graduate. That way, the few students who did not reach this standard by the end of 10th grade will have at least two more years to reach it.

Then you identify the best faculty in your elementary, middle and high schools and ask them to take this new career- and college-ready standard and build a curriculum framework that runs from the first day of grade one through the end of grade 10. Your state has already adopted the Common Core, so you already have the Common Core as a strong starting point. You adopt the Next Generation Science Standards for science and ask your teachers to develop comparable frameworks for technology, history and social studies. You use these framework to develop a set of course syllabi in the progression specified by the frameworks. The course syllabi lay out what the students are supposed to learn in the course, key readings and projects, how assessment will be done and how the grades will be given.

The courses follow the sequence laid out in the frameworks, so they come in logical order, each one the prerequisite for the next. A given topic is only taught once, but there is enough time for it to be taught thoroughly, so every student has a chance to learn it. Students can move from school to school in your distict during the year and not fall behind. Teachers don’t have to spend half the year revisiting the material that some students have mastered and others have never seen, because all of the students come into the class on track for college and career readiness by the end of grade 10. But these syllabi are not lesson plans. Your regular classroom teachers will develop the lesson plans to fit their classes and their preferred methods of teaching.

Sometime during the latter elementary grades or beginning in middle school, though, some students, the most able, are put in classes in which they get an enriched version of the standard core curriculum. That does not mean that they are pushed ahead, but that they learn that grade’s curriculum at a deeper level. You might be surprised how complex arithmetic can be and how helpful a mastery of arithmetic at that level can be to students who ultimately go very far in mathematics.

You decide to do the same thing in reverse for students who, at some point in middle school, start falling behind to the point that it appears very unlikely that they will be able to reach the college- and career-ready standard by the end of 10th grade. You ask some of your best teachers to take the K-10 literacy and mathematics curriculum and stretch it out so, instead of taking 10 years to get through, it will take 12. That will give the students who need extra time and extra support to get the college- and career-ready standard the time they need. They won’t be held back and they won’t be pushed ahead when they don’t have the skills they need for the standard progression. Even though they get to the college and career ready standard later than the students who get there by the end of the 10th grade, they will still reach a standard higher than the standard most American students reach now and they can have a very bright future.

But this is still a very ambitious plan. Even with this plan in place, success depends on what happens in schools and classrooms day by day. You’ve been leaning hard on the strategies used by the countries with the best student achievement in the world. You decide to look inside their schools to see what they do to make sure that virtually all but their most severely disabled students don’t fall behind the demands of a demanding curriculum framework. The strategies used by Shanghai and Singapore seem tailor-made for your situation.

You work with your teachers to develop a teacher career ladder with two branches sprouting from one trunk. The trunk starts with the standard prospective teachers need to meet to get licensed in your state and culminates with an additional step set to the standards set by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Then one branch heads toward master teacher, the other toward master principal. Both of these top positions pay about the same. The criteria for moving up the steps are closely matched to the way you want to reorganize and manage your schools.

Your teachers will spend substantially less time facing students in the classroom. They will spend a lot more working in teams. Some of these teams will be organized by subject taught and by grade. You decide that the grade level and subject matter teams will meet at least once a week for at least an hour. Teachers of a given subject will work together to build highly engaging, highly effective lessons in that subject, critiquing them, improving them and implementing them together. The lessons they design will include not just the materials but also techniques for teaching that material. Both will be designed with a very strong form of formative evaluation built in, so that the teacher will be able to judge in real time whether every student in the class understands what is being taught as it is being taught, not necessarily with tests or quizzes, but through the natural exchange with the students. The lessons will be designed not only to engage the students, but to detect misunderstandings and deal with them when they arise.

When the teachers meet by grade, they will be asked to identify students who, despite their best efforts, seem to be starting to fall behind. All the teachers of that student will pool what they know about that student—from what is going on at home to problems with cognition—and work out a plan to address those issues. One of them will become case manager. The ‘case’ will be up for discussion at subsequent meetings until the student gets back on track.

But that is not the only use to which this extra time away from the classroom is put. The group of teachers discussing the issues facing a particular student may decide that those issues will be best addressed by fashioning a tutoring program for that student, customized to his or her individual needs. It might last a week or year, whatever is needed and that student’s own teacher will probably be the tutor, so that the tutoring is matched to what that student is getting in the classroom.

If the top-performing systems are any indication, about half of your teachers choose neither to go for roles as teacher leaders nor as principals. As those who do want to be teacher leaders go up the ladder, they are evaluated first on their ability as teachers, then on their ability to contribute as a team member, then on their ability as a team leader, then on their skill at mentoring other teachers and finally, at the top of the teacher career ladder, on their ability to lead the research activities in the school.

When you first came across these ideas about how to organize and manage a school, you realized that, taken together, they addressed a host of challenges you had never been able to meet: how to support new teachers just out of teachers college, how to make sure that not just your best teachers but all your teachers are using first-rate lessons, how to build a culture that rewards excellent teaching, how to create a system in which your very best teachers are routinely sharing expertise with other teachers who need some help. But, more than anything else, you could see how this system would prevent students from falling through the cracks, from leaving elementary school for middle school and middle school for high school years behind where they needed to be.

You lived through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Both of them were based on the idea that schools and districts could improve the outcomes for students by punishing the teachers whose students were not performing well. That did not work out too well for you or for the students. These ideas, the ones we were just talking about, seem very different. They seem to be designed to lift the whole system up, not by threatening teachers but by supporting them and creating an environment in which they can do their best work. Far better to catch students just as they are beginning to fall behind and mobilize all their teachers to help than wait until the students are years behind where they need to be.

Hey, if it has worked for countries that came from far behind us and are now far ahead, why not give it a try?

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.