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Aurora Institute

Meeting Students Where They Are: Academic Domains (Part 2)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Part 1 on this topicArrows focuses on accountability policies. This post looks at instructional strategies to meet students where they are.

Do Academic Domains Make a Difference in Strategies to Meet Students Where They Are?

Teachers have to make hundreds of instructional decisions each day. Based on conversations with practitioners, we have found that it is worth starting the discussion with how to best meet the needs of students who have gaps in skills within each discipline. We’ve been focusing the initial inquiry on math, ELA, and social sciences, but it would be just as important to consider this issue within the sciences, arts, health/physical education, and CTE as well.

Below are some of the insights from educators about how to meet students where they are without falling back into tracking or marching through the standards in a linear manner. Each of the strategies raised by educators to respond to students whose skills are at performance levels below their grade level take more time and more instruction. In a world where learning is monitored over a semester, some might call this students taking longer or learning at a slower pace. That is not the situation at all; if they need to loop back or do close reading, they are actually doing more learning. In fact, the rate of their learning measured by performance levels will likely be at a faster rate than those students with grade level skills.

Math: Anchoring and Interdependencies

Why is it that so many students have a hard time passing algebra?

I’ve met so many students along the last twenty-five years of visiting schools that told me how they had to re-take algebra—and some have even said they started to think about dropping out when they didn’t pass the second time, as they just didn’t see any path toward graduation.

Sajan George of Matchbook Learning explained that math standards are highly interdependent on previous standards. Scroll over the standards on Jeff Baumes website and you will see the pre-requisite standards that are needed. Here is a picture of the dependencies for a standard in eighth grade: Know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions. One of the prerequisite standards is: Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers. When students aren’t fluent in these standards, they will have difficulty in eighth grade math. As one math teacher explained to me, “It’s virtually impossible to become proficient in algebra if you aren’t proficient in understanding and using fractions.” The research on learning progressions provides insights into how students may be able to follow mathematical procedures without understanding the underlying concepts.

Our grade-level blinders means that students have passed from third to fourth to fifth to sixth to seventh and on to eighth grade without any teacher addressing weaknesses in the third grade standards. And given the interdependencies of math, students have floundered along the way. When schools require students take the same math course over and over without addressing the underlying gaps in their math skills, we are setting up students and teachers for failure (and wasting money). Even if teachers are scaffolding to help students refresh their understanding of pre-requisite skills, they are not confident that students are becoming proficient in the grade level standards or the pre-requisite skills.

How might we handle this differently without falling back into the trap of tracking?

Joel Rose of New Classrooms Innovation Partners introduced me to the concept of anchoring students. In their model, students are “anchored” to the grade level standards, with the teacher assessing whether they have the pre-requisite skills or not. Then students drop down to the specific standards at lower performance levels to build the skills they will need to demonstrate proficiency at the grade level standards. This means it is going to take longer for some students than others to become proficient on a standard…but it won’t necessarily always be the case. Once they learn that standard, they anchor to the next standard and loop back to make sure they have the pre-requisite skills. Over time, students have more and more of the pre-requisite skills so that the anchoring process takes less and less time. At a certain point, students have essentially caught up to their grade level.

Anchoring provides a third option as compared to only providing instruction on grade level standards or meeting students where they are on the continuum of math standards. It is a both/and strategy that ensures students are making progress in building skills and getting closer and closer to being “on track” (i.e., on grade level) toward graduation.

Reading and Writing: Transparency and a Culture of Revisions

In competency-based schools, transparency and the culture of learning in which the “F” is replaced with “not yet” and mistakes are just part of process shape how we meet students where they are. Together they create a culture of revision.

Reading and writing are separate sets of skills, with writing highly dependent on reading skills. As students move from learning the fundamentals of reading and writing in the early part of elementary school, they continue to build skills in reading and writing. Furthermore, they use these skills in engaging their learning in all domains. Reading and writing are some of the main ways in which we learn, process, and demonstrate learning. They are skills that we use to think – to understand, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize. They can also be instrumental in developing the capacity of self-reflection, understanding different points of view and building intrinsic motivation.

The challenge, of course, is when students enter high school with limited vocabulary and do not know how to engage in the text. At this level, ELA is more about exploring the genres of literature than helping students read. Thus, teachers need to continue to coach students by making the process of reading explicit from elementary all the way through high school, if needed. They must make the process more transparent. Certainly, literacy across the curriculum efforts should be helpful in supporting students whose reading skills are lower than grade level curriculum requires.

Building writing skills raises different issues. First, it is important to calibrate proficiency at all the different performance levels or grade levels. Memorial Elementary in Sanborn created The Wall, which teachers use to discuss exemplars of proficient writing at the different performance levels to calibrate their assessment. It is also important to create a culture of revision and to make the process of editing transparent. At Casco Bay, an ELA teacher uses a combination of rubrics, peer review, and revision before papers are submitted to her. Over time, students become more and more adept at providing feedback to their peers and reviewing their own writing for improvement. Some competency-based schools are inviting students to submit writing from other courses as demonstration of meeting writing standards. Yet, the process of providing feedback and coaching to become a better writer can still be very time-intensive for teachers.

Given the importance of writing, should we be looking at slightly different staffing structures in schools so that students?

Social Sciences: Ensuring Students Have Access to High Level Text

Three different themes have emerged in the social sciences about meeting students where they are.

  • What is the purpose of social sciences anyway? Is it really about content or is it about a set of skills?
  • How do we think about performance levels in social sciences K-12? What are the stages of development we are looking for in skill building?
  • What is the relationship with social sciences with foundational skills? How does students’ performance level in reading, writing and math impact how students learn about social sciences? What is the most effective strategy to use to meet students where they are?

The social sciences are undergoing a huge transition as a discipline. Once focused on content – dates, factoids, and major events – it is now focused on skills. In a world where Google has become a verb and historical content has become context, state policy such as the New York Regents’ insistence that students learn about empires by studying the Byzantines has become archaic. Couldn’t students express voice and choice by demonstrating their knowledge in understanding empires by studying Roman, Mayan, or Ottoman?

In many competency-based schools (but certainly not all), the focus is much more on skill-building than recall and comprehension of historical content. These schools may focus on historical thinking skills such as multiple accounts and perspectives, analysis of primary sources, sourcing, context, and supporting claims with evidence. (See Asia Society’s Global Competence skills.) If we focus on skill, then the challenge is to think about what proficiency looks like at different grade levels as students build these skills.

From discussions during site visits, secondary school educators generally agree that social sciences are best taught in communities of learners. However, educators have often explained that they give students with lower level reading skills different text emphasizing that the expectations in the class are the same. In asking why they did this, it often becomes an issue of reading fluency with explanations such as, “It takes them a lot longer. And if the text is too difficult, students will give up and disengage.” The decision to give struggling readers lower level text is driven by the concept of “teacher-pace” or “covering the standards” rather than designing around ensuring students are building skills. But there is usually different amount of information in lower level text than higher level, which gives learners different amounts of information and less complexity in developing their analysis. Thus, we may very well be limiting their development of their higher level skills.

A teacher at a Young Women Leadership School in New York City challenged this practice of providing lower level text. She explained that she always uses the same text for all students. However, struggling readers are going to need help in building their skills in comprehension or close reading. This includes reviewing vocabulary up front, modeling the act of engaging with the text, and facilitating conversation around the concepts introduced in the text. Thus, this process creates an opportunity for the teacher to coach students in building the domain-specific skills. Thus, it is in the very act of becoming a better reader (and thinker) that learners build the skills of being a historian or social scientist.

Similarly to the anchoring process in math, the goal is for students to do the grade level work. In this scenario, the teacher has anchored to the grade level text but is not expecting the student to drop down to learn all the prerequisite skills. Instead the student receives more support in both reading and the domain-specific skills (in other words, literacy across the curriculum), building up their skills in the process. The goal being that eventually the student can use grade-level text themselves.

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There are many other ways that we can personalize to meet students where they are, including helping them to build their higher order skills, build agency, strengthen their habits of work, build their cultural and global competence, and develop their social emotional skills. Furthermore, we need to think about how the instructional and assessment skills of teachers will shape options for meeting students where they are.

Final Thoughts: Do We Know What We Think We Know

This issue of teaching standards rather than centering instruction around students’ needs is causing me to be in a state of continual cognitive dissonance as I read Education Week, reports, and research. Last week, as I caught up with the stack of Ed Weeks, I kept wondering, Can we trust research findings based on teaching grade level standards without attending to the need for pre-requisite knowledge? Will any program or intervention show effectiveness if it is grounded in the insanity of not teaching what students need and then passing them on when they don’t learn it with a C or D?