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Analysis: Rigorous grade-level work or personalized learning? Research shows closing student achievement gaps requires both

Britt Neuhaus | October 14, 2019

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National data indicate that approximately three of every five students begin the school year below grade level, with those numbers even higher for low-income students and students of color. Educators know this is a problem, with one survey showing 39 percent of teachers agreeing that most of their students start the school year academically prepared for grade-level work.

While there is agreement that all students can succeed with the right support, there is a lack of consensus about what that support should look like in the typical classroom with one teacher and 25 students of varying levels, many of whom have significant learning gaps. If mathematics or English Language Arts instruction were similar to teaching children to swim, the guidance for teachers would lack nuance: either put students in the deep end, sticking to the grade-level curriculum and hoping they figure it out, or keep some in the shallow end and focus on filling gaps.

The field needs a deeper, shared understanding of how to both address learning gaps and help students attain grade-level knowledge.

Bellwether Education Partners

With this goal in mind, in the fall of 2018, Bellwether Education Partners was given a grant to review the research base, visit schools and gain insights from teachers, materials developers, and ed tech and professional learning providers. Bellwether recently released the resulting report: Unfinished: Insights From Ongoing Work to Accelerate Outcomes for Students With Learning Gaps.

Here are some of the findings that stood out as a way to continue the conversation and move forward.

High-quality materials versus personalization 

A growing number of state chiefs and district and school leaders are prioritizing increased access to high-quality instructional materials — curriculum and content that are standards-aligned, coherent and easy for teachers and students to use. Some see this as one of the most cost-effective opportunities for improving student learning at scale. Several rigorous studies show that student learning improves between 10 and 25 percentage points after schools adopt specific, high-quality curricula.

Others are placing their bets on increased personalization, hypothesizing that students will see better outcomes over time if they have more choice over their learning, access to differentiated content based on interests and needs, and flexible pacing, all driven by a continuous use of data to inform instructional decisions. While evidence is nascent, the undergirding ideas of increased individualized attention, an emphasis on relationships and appropriately challenging work for students are grounded in learning science and the empirical evidence base. Moreover, given the ever-growing presence of technology in classrooms, some see this shift as inevitable.

While these two approaches may sound far apart, they are surprisingly compatible in classrooms, where the benefit of bringing them together is clear. For one, even if teachers have access to high-quality instructional materials, evidence suggests they modify and supplement with content they create or find online. While there are multiple reasons for this (including a lack of support), this in part speaks to unmet needs around how these materials engage and support different learners.

In schools with strong implementations of more personalized models, flexible use of time, talent and technology can support a range of learners. However, there is also evidence that without adequate structures and supports, a focus on meeting students where they are can compromise academic rigor and increase teachers’ reliance on a hodgepodge of materials. Overlaid with issues related to implicit bias and low expectations for students of color, a personalized approach without an anchor in grade-level curricula means some students may grow from their starting point but may not be challenged to reach their highest learning potential.

Embracing a middle path

There are no magic solutions in education, but there is a path forward. Based on Bellwether’s analysis of the existing evidence and learning science, interviews with over 50 stakeholders and a closer look at 14 model schools, students who are below grade-level will see accelerated progress if they:

● Are in an environment that fosters engagement and agency. This includes building a growth mindset, supporting student goal-setting, creating opportunities for choice, facilitating ownership and using culturally relevant content.

● Have a caring relationship with their teacher, with frequent 1:1 and small group learning opportunities. Students, particularly those whom the system has historically failed, need to feel psychologically safe and supported to take academic risks. In schools visited, both peer and adult relationships played a large role in students’ success and willingness to take on challenges.

● Have consistent access to grade-level work. Most practitioners and researchers interviewed agreed that grade-level materials, and supports that enable students to engage with those materials, should be the backbone of instruction, and that personalized learning opportunities and remedial supports should not replace grade-level instruction.

● See the coherence across materials and learning experiences. Students learning across core, supplemental and interventional (including digital) materials should experience clear connections across the three and have opportunities to transfer this learning back to grade-level standards. This coherence would not just span one grade level, but work across grades so learning experiences build over time.

We believe everyone has a role to play in ensuring that our least well-served students have learning experiences that counteract bias, engage and motivate, close learning gaps and accelerate their path to college and career readiness. Knowing there isn’t a single solution to this complex challenge makes it even more important to bring these ideas into action through collaborative partnerships and continue an authentic dialogue around a both and versus an either or vision.

Britt Neuhaus is program officer of the innovative schools portfolio at Overdeck Family Foundation. Also contributing to this essay: Renee Blahuta, program officer at the W.K Kellogg Foundation; Nirvani Budhram, senior program officer for the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund; Marc Chun, program officer of the Exceptional Educators portfolio at Overdeck Family Foundation; Angela DeBarger, program officer in education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Saskia Levy Thompson, program director for New Designs to Advance Student Learning at Carnegie Corporation of New York; Amber Oliver, director of the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund; and Jim Short, program director for the Leadership and Teaching to Advance Learning portfolio at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Disclosures: The Carnegie Corporation of New York provides financial support toThe 74. Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors and serves as one of the site’s senior editors.

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