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Student Self-Advocacy Requires Deeper Policymaking

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This post is by Don Long, Director, Teaching, Leading, and Learning Policy, National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), and Ace Parsi, Personalized Learning Partnership Manager, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

Employers across the country frequently criticize education for not providing the workers they need (e.g., Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World). As more jobs requiring rote skills are automated or outsourced, some question the education system's effectiveness in preparing students for the "deeper learning" competencies necessary for an evolving economy. 

Deeper learning primarily includes critical thinking, problem solving, learning-to-learn, and academic mindset. But in its new report, Agents of Their Own Success, the National Center for Learning Disabilities highlights two more: self-advocacy and self-determination. Putting appropriate emphasis on developing these capacities for students with disabilities not only shines a light on the importance of self-advocacy for all students; it makes deeper learning more powerful and meaningful by envisioning every student as a lifetime active learner, teacher, and leader. In Education for Life and Work, the National Research Council suggests that students must be able to apply knowledge and skills to the real world, collaborate, learn and teach in diverse groups, and transfer knowledge to new situations, problems, and jobs--which is where deeper learning comes in. Without these abilities, today's students will not keep pace with an increasingly interdependent, diverse, and complex world of accelerating changes in work, technology, communications, and society. Self-advocacy is therefore also critical for workers to be change agents, to show others new ways of doing things, and to craft meaningful careers across multiple jobs and new opportunities for growth.

Educators and stakeholders, including parents and civic leaders, also see the misalignment between students and the changing economy as an important moral challenge of today, arguing that equal access to deeper learning is critical for meeting the ever-rising expectations of college, career, and civic readiness for each and every student (se eEqual Opportunity for Deeper Learning and How States Can Advance Deeper Learning for All). Moreover, recent work by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development sees the integration of social and emotional learning with deeper learning as opening up new possibilities for student agency, identity, cultural competency, voice, and leadership.

This emerging consensus on how students learn and how teachers, leaders, and school communities can support their full academic and social development makes more urgent the need to address the unequal opportunities for deeper learning, especially for traditionally underserved students. States must act boldly on meeting and going beyond the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) act and put equity first in education. Leading for Equity lays out 10 commitments for state policymakers, which include prioritizing equity and inclusion and ensuring these start from within.Equity is multidimensional and covers disparities in many areas of policy and practice. One should consider equity a process, not a thing. It is an ongoing and sustained course of reflection, discussion, and inquiry of courage, compassion, and creativity to seek out and act on blind spots due to power, privilege, and bias. NASBE's new professional development initiative, Leading for Equity and Excellence Project (LEEP), trains state boards to apply an equitable lens to policymaking and helps them build their confidence to engage in meaningful conversations about the impact of race and equity on academic achievement. This deeper engagement in equity can create new momentum and approaches for tackling well-known equity recommendations (e.g., those of the Equity and Excellence Commission). NASBE and NCLD strongly encourage states to continue engaging educators and public stakeholders in this important equity discussion in improving their plans and monitoring their progress.

This pursuit of equity poses the following question: Is the misalignment of values between employers and educators an issue of just policy (e.g., changing accountability systems and standards) or practice (e.g., preparing teachers with the capacity to deliver on these skills)? Or is it also a matter of the policymaking process? Policymakers, educators, and other stakeholderscannot expect high-quality practice from good policy alone, but also must engage in strong policymaking processes. If students are expected to be more nimble and creative or to foster a growth mindset, each institution must act in a way that reflects those values of nimbleness, creativity, and growth. This reinforces the theory of the famed educational philosopher, Paulo Freire: Practice reflects broader social norms and political contexts. In other words, teachers cannot easily provide focused, empowering experiences to each of their students if they are operating in a rigid, top-down structure.

Such top-down structures perpetuate an essential misalignment between student expectations and teacher practice that is not conducive to the development of self-advocacy skills, self-determination, and broader capacities, which all students need to succeed in the 21st century. An increasing number of states are exploring ways to build deeper learning policy frameworks and support innovative districts and schools in scaling this type of learning (e.g., Virginia's new Profile of a Graduate, developed by the state board of education). We also recommend that state and district policymakers and administrators learn and exemplify deeper learning and social and emotional competencies in their own practices to support this new movement; otherwise, leaders and teachers will fall further behind. In brief, change must start from within.

The misalignment, mentioned earlier, manifests itself in a number of ways. When policies focus on compliance, they may overlook deeper learning. When policymakers don't engage educators and other stakeholders in their decision making, then educators and schools may, in turn, also leave out families and students in their own subsequent decisions. When teachers get lectured rather than engagingly trained, they may mirror this in their own pedagogy. In short, if leadership wants strong practice, it must work to ensure that the ideal practice is reflected across the board.

What policies or policymaking practices can states consider to derive a more positive environment? Several policies focus on a culture of trust, respect, and empowerment, which can ultimately trickle down to each educator's practice with students. These include:

1.    The creation and use of task forces that advise policymakers on issues faced by students with disabilities and other traditionally disadvantaged subgroups so their policies can more fully consider these individuals;

2.    The explicit provision of feedback loops (i.e., connecting responses to actions) so educators and other stakeholders can inform the progress of policies and mid-course corrections;

3.    Measurement systems that capture formative and summative data to more effectively inform action; and

4.    Professional development and other educator capacity-building initiatives that emphasize clinical and practice-based professional learning experiences that empower teachers with greater voice and leadership.

In sum, these actions aren't just about the policies themselves, but rather how policymaking is approached. Education is always a local practice of relationships between students, teachers, and other adults, but the culture of the institutions has a strong effect on the actions of these individuals. The institutions, in turn, reflect the policies that inform their parameters. Courage, compassion, and creativity are rightly considered the essential values of a democratic people; these are nurtured by education that supports self-advocacy and self-determination. We cannot expect these values from students if policymakers, advocates, leaders, teachers, and parents do not live them first. One might reasonably respond that such a thought is naive. But, looking through a rigorous equity lens, could that responsebe the deepest blind spot that belies our failure to provide a high-quality education that empowers every student to be an effective self-advocate for their learning and development?

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