Help! How Do I Meet the Needs of All Students?
A 2018 survey by EdMarketer—the marketing and research division of the online education news outlet Education Week—found that meeting the needs of all students was the No. 1 concern of polled K–12 district leaders and teachers. This is perhaps unsurprising, as helping students overcome challenges to reach their full potential is a common goal of educators that has only been further emphasized by the recent push to differentiate instruction. Despite this topic being top of mind for educators, the question still endures: How can teachers and administrators meet the needs of all students?
An age-old question
If you thought making an effort to understand individual students and their unique needs was a modern endeavor, an article from 1953 indicates otherwise. The piece, written by progressive educator Carleton Washburne, is available on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum website. Although some of the language used by Washburne might be considered old-fashioned today, the classroom challenges and scenarios described still ring true. For instance, in his description of a fourth-grade class, Washburne noted, “In any classroom of 30 or more children, an intelligence test will almost always show a range of at least four years in the mental ages of the children.” He went on to point out that standardized tests and in-class assessments will likewise show wide-ranging abilities and levels of knowledge, signifying that teachers had—and have—their work cut out for them. In Washburne’s day, the issue boiled down to one central question: Should students be held back for further practice or promoted to the next grade despite not yet mastering the required grade-level work
Indeed, Washburne was instrumental in implementing the “Winnetka Plan,” named after the Illinois school district he oversaw from 1919 to 1943. Through providing adaptable teaching materials, including workbooks and “self-instructive” textbooks, the plan centered on equipping teachers to help children learn at their own pace. However, Washburne’s article also described the difficulty of maintaining such programming when many schools beyond Winnetka easily slipped back into more uniform instruction and expectations. The overall point of Washburne's piece, as framed by ASCD, was that trying to meet the needs of all students is neither a new concept nor an easy task—which is perhaps why it continues to loom large as a yet-to-be solved problem for the education professionals surveyed by EdMarketer. Although this long-standing conundrum is unlikely to be solved overnight, today's efforts to help teachers reach all students are arguably more concerted than ever before, particularly with regard to English Learners (ELs), Title I students, and other students with low socioeconomic status (SES).
There are considerably more non-native English-speaking students in the K–12 schools of today's United States than there were in Washburne's day. In fact, close to 10 percent of current public school students can be classified as ELs who may need specialized teaching practices in order to become proficient readers and writers of English. With this in mind, many educators are turning to resources such as the 2016 Inclusive Literacy Instruction textbook from Teachers College Press of Columbia University, which is organized around helping teachers learn how to facilitate “language and literacy development for linguistically diverse students” and promises a non-cookie-cutter approach.
The website Colorin Colorado, which is likewise focused on the needs of ELs, provides detailed guidelines for helping such students access meaningful academic content in English—including the tips presented in this report by the Education Alliance at Brown University. The report, which zeroes in on the literacy instruction needs of adolescent English learners, helpfully offers eight specific strategies for teachers to put to use. According to the report's authors, these suggestions should be thought of as “overlapping and synergistic” methods that include ideas such as building a learner-centered classroom; emphasizing reading, writing and thinking as strategies to acquire and practice skills; and “recognizing and analyzing content-area discourse features.”
Title I and low-SES students
Beyond ELs, there are many other subgroups of students who may require individualized help with literacy skills, notably students from economically marginalized families whose access to important literacy building blocks (for example, early exposure to books and language-rich environments) may be compromised. A post on the Edvocate website called “How to Help Low-Income Students Succeed” provided guidance for teachers eager to be more inclusive of low-SES students by recommending the provision of key supports to address individual needs. According to the post, this may include utilizing multiple assessment forms, maintaining open lines of communication, and making use of universal design principles.
Universal design principles
Universal design is an approach involving human beings, their strengths, and their challenges that can be applied to everything from education and activism to housing and workplace environments. In a nutshell, the thinking behind universal design is based on the idea that our living, working, and learning environments should be built to accommodate as many people as possible, including and especially those who face mobility or other access-based challenges. “Universal design is not a fad or a trend,” insisted an informative post on the website Universaldesign.com; instead, it is “an enduring design approach grounded in the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special.” In other words, universal design advocates seek to normalize the human experience by embracing rather than isolating those with different abilities, age-related concerns, equity-related challenges and more. For instance, within the context of architecture, universal design can be seen in buildings constructed with wheelchairs, strollers, and other mobility assistance devices in mind. When it comes to education, universal design “puts high value on both diversity and inclusiveness,” according to Sheryl Burgstahler of the University of Washington. This can come through in a classroom’s physical design, as well as in a teacher and/or school's approach to curriculum and assessment.
Putting it all together
Of course, making good instructional strategies available is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to ensuring all students succeed in school, and as Washburne’s article from the 1950s pointed out, shifting priorities and structural challenges such as funding and class size concerns can prove to be constricting forces. Still, an increasing number of resources are available to support the instructional and leadership practices of teachers and administrators working to reach all students—and judging by the results of last year's EdMarketer survey, educators have a strong desire to bring more individualized approaches to light.
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