A common question in education is: Which students should schools focus on?
Some argue schools should focus attention on students who are most at-risk. This approach holds that because resources (time, energy, staffing) are limited, the most good can be done if efforts are targeted toward students who are living in poverty, who have a disability or who are learning English. This approach emphasizes equity through taking into account that these students require a much more intensive and focused effort than the typical student.
A second approach is that every student should learn in an environment of high expectations and rigorous, internationally benchmarked, academic standards. This approach emphasizes a different view of equity, holding that every student receives the same options and opportunities, all at a high quality and challenging level.
A third option emphasizes providing accelerated (faster) and enriching (deeper) experiences for students of exceptional academic ability. This approach holds that high-flyer students deserve the same sort of customized learning opportunities that at-risk students get. This approach emphasizes equity by saying that these students learn differently than typical students and we do them a disservice by not acting to provide these students accelerated and enriched learning experiences.
Conventional thinking convinces us we must make a wicked choice between these three options.
Do we focus on at-risk students so that we provide every child (regardless of background or demographic) the opportunity to succeed and have a shot at the American dream?
Or do we focus on providing quality academic programming for all students, ensuring that we’ve treated all students and families fairly?
Or do we focus on our “best and brightest” — those students who demonstrate giftedness or exceptional talent, making sure that these students maximize their potential greatness?
These choices are wicked because each one of these comes with a compelling reason to choose it, and also a painful trade-off in what is not chosen.
THE GENIUS OF ‘AND’
The best performing education systems (both within the United States and globally) intentionally and forcefully reject the notion that these three choices are mutually exclusive.
Instead, the best performing education systems begin by making sure academic instruction is aligned to internationally benchmarked standards. All students are put in learning environments that push students to learn at high levels and demonstrate higher order skills like collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. Many students will struggle in this high expectation environment. However, all of the comparative educational research tells us we are much better off if we place students in this high expectation environment versus a low expectation approach.
As schools establish a high-level learning environment as their core, some students will need additional support while others will excel. The best systems use the expertise of classroom professionals to identify both of these groups and provide customized supports depending on individual student needs.
This approach seems intuitive and direct: Have high expectations for all students, teach them in a quality environment and then tailor supports to students who need help or are ready to move ahead.
In practice, these systems have proven difficult to implement and maintain with fidelity. Many schools operate in an environment of chaos, with layers of disconnected reforms and politically driven mandates clouding the way forward. Legislatures are notorious for pushing untested gimmicks on schools. While these may be politically exciting, in reality, they do little to improve teaching and learning.
But the approach we see successful in the best performing education systems is a relentless and sustained focus on instruction instead of other distractions. The best teachers, tailoring challenging content to engaged learners. They filter everything through this prism — if an idea doesn’t improve one of these areas in the presence of another, then it is set aside.
THE LOCAL ANSWER
Here in Eagle County, we pattern our approaches after the best performing global systems. This means that our efforts are centrally focused on teaching to high academic standards for all of our students. It also means that we are working to put in place a system of supports for both at-risk and gifted/talented students so that all of our students are encouraged and challenged.
Most of this work happens in the schools by caring and talented education professionals. They are teaching to high standards and then providing supports where they are needed. We use a research-proven approach to assess students each day. In most cases, teachers modify instruction within their classroom to help students succeed. In other cases, at-risk students may need additional support from specialists, as do gifted students. In our schools, a continual ramping up of supports happens to stabilize learning just as in a hospital the ramping up of supports helps stabilize a patient. This could be catching one student up to reading on grade level or reaching the proper challenge state for a gifted student. Meanwhile, the majority of students continue to learn at a high level. No student gets less than a high level of academic challenge. Some get more support to arrive at the universally high level, others receive enrichment to go deeper than the high level, but no one is left behind.
Importantly, our schools can’t do it alone. We also need the support of many groups in our community to help us in meeting the needs of at-risk students and accelerated students. Poverty is the single biggest issue dividing academic performance. We strive to make schools a respite from the stresses of poverty and our community works hard to provide further supports. We must remain committed to doing everything we can to combat the impact of poverty on learning and the general well-being of our children.
By keeping our focus on quality teaching to high standards for all students and then supplying supports for students who need it, we are patterning our efforts in Eagle County after the best school systems in the world. This model is not just theory — it is the foundational bedrock of every high performing education system on earth, including yours.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.