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Learning Supports: The Missing Component in School Improvement

Guest post by Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor

School reform over the past decade has focused on two arenas: improving curriculum and instruction, and the way our schools are governed and managed. We have new curriculum, new tests, new evaluation schemes, new schools, new technology, and new teachers. But schools still are not doing anything significant to address factors interfering with youngsters benefiting from all these changes. As those who have followed our work know, we are determined to change this short-sighted state of affairs by ensuring there is a third primary and essential arena that directly focuses on addressing barriers to learning and teaching and re-engaging disconnected students.

Research shows that such factors include a wide range of neighborhood, family, school, and peer variables. Some studies suggest that more than 60% of the variation in student performance comes from matters such as parental income and level of education, unsupportive and hostile environments, and so forth. Students facing such problems struggle in school. If reformers are serious about improving outcomes for all students, major changes must be made to systematically address these barriers to learning and re-engage the many students who have become disconnected from school. Students need a unified and comprehensive system of learning supports in order to succeed.

Our policy analyses have documented that learning supports are given short shrift in school improvement policy and planning.


With the onset of the Common Core Standards the majority of states are preparing a dramatic overhaul of curriculum and assessments. This will consume scarce education dollars, leaving even less available for the learning supports students need.

Thus, while we share many of the concerns critics have raised about the Common Core State Standards (and we know that the debates and the boycotts will continue), our overriding concern is ending the marginalization of efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching.

While the Common Core Standards include a brief "application to students with disabilities" which recognizes special needs and accommodations that must be available to special education students, they are silent about the many factors that interfere with the learning of non-special education students.

What about the students who, at some time or another, bring problems with them that affect their learning and perhaps interfere with the teacher's efforts to teach? In some geographic areas, many youngsters bring a wide range of problems stemming from restricted opportunities associated with poverty and low income, difficult and diverse family circumstances, high rates of mobility, lack of English language skills, violent neighborhoods, problems related to substance abuse, inadequate health care, and lack of enrichment opportunities. Such problems are exacerbated as youngsters internalize the frustrations of confronting barriers and the debilitating effects of performing poorly at school. In some locales, the reality often is that over 50% of students are not succeeding. And, in most schools in these locales, teachers are ill-prepared and poorly supported to address the problems in a potent manner.

Learning Support Standards are Needed

Common Core curriculum standards will only widen the gap between educational haves and have-nots, unless we also define clear standards for learning supports needed by all students.

So, as another strategic move toward establishing a three component framework to transform schools, we have decided to use the movement for common core standards to facilitate development of core standards for learning supports. Such a core will (a) allow for coalescing what is common in all student and learning supports and (b) provide a base upon which each professional specialty can establish its unique contribution.

We have chosen this strategy at this juncture because it appears to offer our best chance to influence reauthorization of ESEA in ways that are needed to transform schools so that many more students can experience equity of opportunity for success at school. Our objectives with respect to ESEA are to (1) generate a policy shift to a three component framework for transforming schools, (2) unify current fragmented student and learning supports into a comprehensive system of learning supports, (3) rework operational infrastructure at all levels of school agency to support development of the system, and (4) ensure support for the essential systemic changes and for sustainability.

We hope those who object to the movement for Common Core State Standards for Curriculum will appreciate the intent of our agenda. We invite all who are concerned about equity of opportunity to join us in ensuring schools are supported in developing a unified and comprehensive system to address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students.

What do you see as barriers to learning for your students? What sorts of learning supports could be used to lower those barriers?


Over many years in the roles of classroom teacher, district support staff, school administrators, and university researchers and teachers, Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor have worked with schools, districts, and state departments to enhance equity of opportunity for all students. As co-directors of the national Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, their current focus is on systemic reforms to enhance school and community efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students.

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