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Why Education Reform Is So Hard

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This post is by Bryant Best, who works for the Council of Chief State School Officers' Innovation Lab Network. Find him on Twitter at Educator_X. 

When I was a young boy, there was a certain refrain I heard early and often when it came to school. This refrain was echoed by the elders in my community, from family members to teachers, to barbers and dentists. While this refrain was often repeated in many different ways, my favorite version comes from a speech Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once delivered to a group of students at Barrett Junior High school in Philadelphia:

"Learn, baby, learn! So that you can earn, baby, earn!"

In order to earn a high-paying job and a higher standard of living, society tells us, we must first demonstrate our worthiness by earning one or more academic credentials. Although the process of "doing school" seemed unnecessarily burdensome to me, I committed to it mainly because I was good at it and, to a lesser extent, because I believed in the merits of the refrain that had been passed on to me by my elders.

Or at least that's how it was in the beginning.

By the time I reached the 7th grade, I was already questioning if education was truly the key to economic security for all. By the time I left high school, I was sure of the answer: Absolutely not.

Safe school environments and inclusionary classrooms are crucial for academic learning to be effective. These learning spaces are even more effective when they are managed by educators who are responsive to the cultural and other non-academic needs of their students and equipped with quality educational resources that help facilitate the learning process. Unfortunately, many public schools do not have the means to foster these environments consistently. When they do, they tend to offer them largely to students who are White and middle class.

Some may argue that these supports are not offered along lines of race or class but are attributed to factors such as merit or intelligence or grit. Others may believe that the difference in educational access reflects a difference in educational values among students. "Why pour all of that extra energy into a student if s/he doesn't even care to learn?"

I don't believe that to be the case. I wasn't the smartest Black kid in my own neighborhood, yet I was the only one to enroll in college. I watched year after year as my middle school cohort of nearly twenty "academically and intellectually gifted" (AIG) students of color dwindled to a graduating class of just two. These are not issues of motivation or skill. These are issues of access and support.

Part of the reason that education reform is so hard is because the system was never designed to do what we ask it to do today.

Traditionally, American public education has prepared some high schoolers for college while others were put on track to begin working immediately after graduation. Only recently have education reformers begun to push towards making students "college-and-career ready." The purpose of schooling for children of color has also changed quite radically. For example, schools used to be a place where Native American students were forcibly stripped of their culture, clothing, and identity. Under the legal veil of "separate but equal," Black students were denied the educational rights granted to their White peers. Several other student subgroups, such as those from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners have also found themselves at the margins of public education.

Before, as a student, I observed how public education failed to help my classmates, even though they had just as much potential as I did. Now, as a professional, I address this issue in the world of education policy at the Council of Chief State School Officers with the Innovation Lab Network states. The states I work with in the ILN believe that reform will not solve the challenges schools face and that they need to rethink what school looks like to promote access and opportunity by scaling local, innovative practices in teaching and learning. Their ultimate goal is to ensure that all kids experience deeper learning--that is, to ensure they receive the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to be ready for college, career, and citizenship immediately after graduating high school.

In order to redesign education systems and promote more access and opportunity, ILN states have turned to the concept of personalized learning. Personalized learning refers to an ever-growing field of educational policies and teaching strategies that make the student's background, interests and strengths a focal point of the learning process. In a personalized learning classroom, students are in charge of their learning and may partner with other students to create meaningful projects similar to real-world work opportunities. Much like employers, teachers evaluate student performance on tasks instead of simply assigning a grade. Personalized learning calls for competency-based approaches, which require students to demonstrate mastery of a given topic before they are allowed to move on, but provides timely support when necessary.

While personalized learning can, in theory, lead to more equitable outcomes, we still need to learn more about whether it's truly creating equity. In fact, many of the schools that have embraced personalized learning are predominantly White and middle class, which means that it's not reaching enough of the kids who need it the most. Still, advocates like myself believe that personalized learning has the potential to bring about educational equity and advance deeper learning. That's why part of our work with ILN states is to develop a set of policy recommendations that can be used to support all students through personalized learning, namely those who have historically been marginalized or otherwise oppressed in mainstream American education. Through this project, ILN states realize we need more research and learning to understand how personalized learning is being implemented across the nation and how it can advance equity. If you have examples of where personalized learning is being implemented to address inequities in public education, we want to hear from you! Please share your examples with us and help us in our journey to transform public education.

 

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