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Why Support Rigorous Learning?

Today's guest post is written by Chris Weber, Ed.D. Weber is a former teacher and school leader and is currently a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education. 

Not everyone likes the word rigorous.

Why do we, as educators, need to support rigorous learning? It's simple. Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning (SSRL) ensure high levels of learning for all students at all readiness levels through the integration of elements from the most important and impactful initiatives within public education. Those initiatives are:

  • Response to intervention (RTI)
  • Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS)
  • Professional learning communities (PLCs)
  • Positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS)
  • Universal design for learning (UDL)
  • Special education, gifted education, and differentiated instruction

Most significantly, SSRL build upon RTI, a proactive, coordinated, and systemic approach to providing academic and behavioral supports for all students. Within SSRL, collaborative teams of educators ask:

  • What student needs can we anticipate?
  • For what supports can we proactively plan and prepare?

Contemporary students deserve contemporary schools and educators. The very recent NAEP report reconfirms that most students are not ready for college and a skilled career and that a growing number of students are functionally illiterate and innumerate. We must simultaneously increase the rigor and relevance of learning experiences and better support vulnerable students.

The good news: We know more than ever what works best in schools.

While SSRL represent a set of supports for all students--one of the most highly-effective and researched-based practices in which schools can engage--the concept entered education through the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) in 2004.

Whereas practitioners previously used the IQ-achievement discrepancy model to identify children with learning disabilities, the reauthorization allowed schools to employ a lack of "response to intervention" as an alternative method for determining eligibility and as a rationale for providing early intervention.

Using a lack of response to intervention for such determinations has implications for all of education. Systemically and successfully implementing RTI within a SSRL requires that all staff instruct and intervene and monitor the extent to which students are responding.

From struggling students striving to meet minimum proficiency levels to gifted students striving to reach their potential, SSRL invite a collaborative effort among students, teachers, parents, and the community to prioritize students achieving positive outcomes. The system of supports that schools are increasingly scheduling into school days have the potential to provide more customized supports for every student. SSRL are a framework, a way of thinking, in which teams continuously ask, "To what extent are students responding to instruction and intervention?"

Challenge: Lack of Clarity
Challenges remain in our well-intentioned efforts to realize the full potential of this important endeavor, and they are largely due to a lack of clarity about the positive impact of a well-constructed approach to SSRL that can be realized by all schools. The critical components of an effective SSRL are:

  • Differentiated instruction and learning opportunities for all students
  • Timely, proactive identification of vulnerable students
  • Increasingly targeted and intensive future instruction and intervention based on student response to present instruction and intervention
  • Coordinated and evidence-informed decision-making

SSRL are equally impactful for students who are not identified as struggling, but who are considered at or above level, and whose needs are not being met. SSRL can and must be applied to all students; educators must work to ensure that every student has access to engaging learning experiences.

Unfortunately, part of the confusion about SSRL has occurred because of a lack of clarity around the definitions and functions of each level of support for both academics and behavior.

Core supports are differentiated--Teaching and learning cycles designed so that every student masters grade-level and course-specific behavioral and academic priorities for all students. Teachers respond to a student's unique learning needs by making adjustments to process, content, product, and environments based on a student's interests, learning profile, and readiness levels. These supports are often described as Tier 1. Key points include:

  • Teach less, learn more (quality, not quantity; depth, not breadth; mastery, not coverage)
  • Scaffolded, differentiated, respectful
  • Skills and content; verbs and nouns
  • Pro-social and pro-functional skills, e.g., self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional
  • 21st century skills, e.g., creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication
  • Commonly crafted and analyzed assessments to plan for instruction and inform interventions

More supports are individualized--timely and targeted supports for greater levels of student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities, so that students don't fall behind (or further behind) and so that students can achieve reach greater depths of understanding. If differentiation is the how, then individualization is the when. Learning progresses at different speeds; some students may need to review previously covered material, while others may be ready to immerse themselves in a certain topic. These supports are often described as Tier 2. Key points include:

  • Directly based on Benjamin Bloom's work in the 1960s
  • Based on the "formula" - Time + Support = Learning
  • Informed by short-cycle assessments
  • More time--for both alternative supports and to gain mastery of the priorities - for intervention and enrichment
  • Provided during daily flex times or during "buffer" days
  • Students grouped based on specific skill needs
  • Other school staff may join grade-level and course-specific teachers, to reduce teacher-student ratios
  • Does not replace the core

Specialized supports are personalized--Intervention and enrichment to meet students at the forward edge of their zones of proximal development; intensive supports to meet significant deficits in foundational skills and opportunities for students to exercise choice over the what and how of passions into which they will dive deeply. If differentiation is the how and individualization is the when, the personalization is the where--as in, where are students in their learning journey. Students who are not yet performing at expected levels, due to significant deficits in foundational skills, receive targeted and intensive supports at the leading edge of their zone of proximal development to close the gap. Students who are meeting and exceeding age and grade expectations dig deeper into areas of interest. All students' experiences are tailored to preferences and interests; support is paced to students' unique needs. Students are involved in the creation and monitoring of their learning path. These supports are often described as Tier 3. Key points include:

  • Proactive, immediate, intensive
  • Diagnostically-driven and targeted (e.g., on phonemic awareness, single-syllabic phonics, or multisyllabic phonics)
  • Address and improve significant deficits in foundational skills, or provide personalized learning plans, giving students opportunities to exercise choice over the what and how of the passions into which they will dive deeply
  • For students who have been screened to be multiple grade levels behind their peers in foundational skills and for students who have not responded to core (Tier 1) and more (Tier 2)
  • Adjusted to match student needs and revised until the student is adequately responding to intervention (success is inevitable)
  • In addition to Tier 1 and 2; does not replace core or more supports

Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning are appropriate for all students and all educators and we are successfully transforming schools across the world by employing its principle and practices. Success is dependent upon the enthusiastic and committed collaboration of all adults who are connected to students. Ultimately, an SSRL represent the ways in which we behave as educators and not simply a collection of things that we implement or buy.

To learn more about Chris Weber, please visit his website, which you can find here

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The opinions expressed in Finding Common Ground 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.

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