If we want to improve schools and communities, we need to first meet students where they are. This isn’t a belief I came to arbitrarily. Rather, it’s one I developed while in school to become a social worker and one that I see as essential to an education system that is effective for all students. In social work, we talk about meeting a client where they are, recognizing individual and systemic concerns. The same is true in teaching and learning. Personalizing individual support for students and systemic support of schools, both important parts of personalized learning, will help the education system in the United States be more effective for everyone.
Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools were required to use specific types of support to help students achieve academic success, which didn’t work for far too many of them. Federal law is no longer prescriptive about how the lowest-performing schools improve their accountability status, and instead leaves much more room for states and local districts to decide how to turn around low performing schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), NCLB’s successor, requires states to establish two categories for intervention and support and to implement more rigorous interventions in the identified schools that do not improve after a certain amount of time, but states have the flexibility to establish their own framework for providing supports and interventions for schools.
There are some promising trends in state ESSA plans for school support and improvement that focus much more on meeting students and schools where they are, and providing them with the individualized support they need to succeed. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I think it illustrates the direction that a good number of states seem to be headed as they strategize ways to best support the needs of their schools.
Using real-time data to support continuous improvement and address emerging needs
States have begun to emphasize the importance of providing (and understanding) real-time data to support continuous improvement at all levels of the system, including differentiating instruction for students and evidence-based supports for educators and schools. Some states will begin to provide existing data more frequently to educators, while others will begin to monitor and collect additional data “snapshots” throughout the year.
Simply having access to data is not enough, so many states will use this access to provide targeted technical assistance and help schools improve upon their emerging needs in a timely fashion. At the classroom level, teachers will now have access to data that will help them create personalized learning plans and differentiate instruction, also highlighted in state ESSA plans.
Engaging families and communities to create the right kinds of support
The trend of better engaging families and communities in creating supports seems to be playing out in both strategy and guiding principles for states. Stakeholder engagement is emphasized throughout ESSA, and while a good number of states have not proposed specific strategies for engagement in their plans, others are obviously thinking critically about how to thoughtfully involve parents and families in the school and improvement process.
A couple of exciting highlights include Rhode Island’s development of Community Advisory Boards for School Redesign, and New York’s participatory budgeting process that will allow parents to help determine how support funds are spent in their student’s school. I’m particularly fond of the ways in which states can utilize this strategy for improving schools. Authentically engaging parents, families, and community members in developing improvement plans alongside traditional school stakeholders not only empowers them in providing feedback, but also empowers schools in developing plans that will best benefit their students.
Opportunity for school-level flexibility and innovation
A handful of states have proposed creating opportunities for flexibility and innovation for schools in need of support, allowing schools to personalize their strategies for improvement. These states will allow low-performing schools to apply for some additional flexibilities from policies most often using innovation zones and/or pilot programs. Key to this trend is that states are also providing intensive support, feedback, and evaluation for these schools, and will continue to hold them accountable for reaching rigorous outcomes.
Guidance for social and emotional learning, climate, and wrap-around services
States are beginning to recognize the importance of differentiating support for students beyond academics as a strategy to improve academic outcomes, especially in traditionally low-performing schools. State strategies to address this issue through ESSA include work on the development of social and emotional learning standards, providing additional guidance and support to better utilize existing statewide initiatives (for instance the Whole School Whole Child Model being used in North Carolina), and training around mental health services, trauma-sensitive schools, and behavioral interventions.
BONUS: States are also focused on ways to continually improve all schools!
Although schools that fall under ESSA’s school improvement designation will receive far more intensive supports, states are also aware that tools and resources to help schools continuously improve are important for everyone, whether it’s including all schools in the continuous improvement plan process, or providing multiple tiers of support for all schools in the state.
Of course, the hardest work is yet to come for schools in need of improvement. I am encouraged that states are considering how to meet schools and districts where they are to develop a plan that’s meaningful for their specific needs. I am also encouraged to see that a good number of states have chosen to find ways to support all their schools with differing levels of continuous improvement opportunities, not just those categorized as highest need.