Pondering Pathways

There is no one path for all students

I am in the middle of reading the book THE END OF AVERAGE by Todd Rose, whom I met as one of the keynote speakers at the iNACOL conference in October. It is a fabulous book. I am reading the section on PATHWAYS at the moment and something resonated with me that I thought I would share.

I have been thinking a lot about the “typical” reasons districts and schools decide to offer some type of online and/or blended learning (OBL). I heard these reasons as recently as this week while speaking with a few districts: providing instruction to students who hospital/home bound, to help credit deficient students get caught up and on track for graduation, to provide an alternative to students who do not fit in socially, and to help districts provide access to electives that they would not otherwise be able to provide for a variety of reasons. They are all good reasons for districts and schools to get involved with OBL.

I believe there is another reason that I posit may also have a large impact. I wrote about it in general terms a while ago on LinkedIn and on my personal blog. It has to do with pathways and the timing of the INDIVIDUAL pathways for each student.

Below I am sharing an excerpt from the book (p 133).

The conclusion that logically follows from this [research on pacing] is both obvious and terrible: by demanding that our students learn at one fixed pace, we are artificially impairing the ability of many to learn and succeed. What one person can learn, most people can learn if they are allowed to adjust the pacing. Yet the architecture of our education system is simply not designed to accommodate such individuality, and it therefore fails to nurture the potential and talent of ALL its students.

There are many facets to the above statement, but I would like to explore one that I think can be overlooked.

Let’s take a sample school district that is generally considered to be high performing. In fact, let’s say that every student graduates from this district and none of them have ever failed a course. On average they would appear to be very high performing. But that is where the danger lies. The average shows one thing, but when you drill down to INDIVIDUAL students, you discover something else, and it should be concerning to educators.

In fact, as a Superintendent of Schools, I ran into a similar challenge when I work in a high performing (as measured by state assessments and compared to the state) district. The district typically had the highest test results in the state. Of course, they were very proud to be “Number 1.” However, upon inspection of the student data, I discovered that over 30% of the students were not reading on grade level. While the district on average was performing well, you could easily argue that they were really not performing well if one third of the students were not reading at an acceptable level. Saying they were “Number 1” was meaningless, especially if you could be at top with 30% of your students not reading well.

It was challenging using this type of thinking with the school board and community because they were so focused on the overall average and swept away by the ego of being the top in the state for many years.

Back to our hypothetical district…

In that district, we have a sample student. He has passed all of his classes, never failed a test, performs slightly above average on assessments, and by most measures, would be considered a good student who is learning and seems to be on the path to success.

However, these types of results only show what the student has demonstrated given the conditions, or situation, in which he has been learning. The results do NOT show what the student is CAPABLE of learning. Because of the type of curriculum, instruction and pacing, he has been able to learn but not necessarily been able to learn all he could learn if he had his own pacing and sequence. 

While he appears to be fine, according to the traditional measures, he is actually being robbed of what he could be learning and doing as a result of a rigid construct that is being delivered to all students at once, in the same way and in with the same timing, in his school.

The reason I bring this up is that we could be missing opportunities for our children if we succumb to the group thinking on why OBL, and other pathways, are needed.

To make matters worse, there is a new type of group think emerging relative to how online schools are being assessed. It is almost the same problem in reverse.

First, the way that we assess are traditional schools has serious problems. We have been wrestling with it for years. And now unfortunately, many are now wanting to assess online schools in the exact same way that traditional schools are assessed. This too is a mistake with unfortunate consequences for our students.

I agree we need to do better assessing the performance of all schools, including both traditional and OBL schools.

But to take a failed system of assessing performance from our traditional schools and to simply apply that to OBL schools and all of their uniqueness is like assessing the quality of beef that you can get from a chicken.

When we put the student at the center of what we do in education, we can only come to the realization that for every student there is a unique pathway to success. OBL is one way that helps give many students their unique pathway. It is not a panacea as there are other pathways as well. But for some students, like the ones we have in schools all over the world at this precise moment, OBL could be their best chance.

For our students who are not at home due to medical reasons, or who are not behind on credits, and who do not have social challenges, are we willing to accept “average” results, under performing results, and negligence of missed learning potential?

I sure hope not. I know I am not and that is one of the reasons I love the work that I do. I can help districts make a difference NOW versus waiting for decades of slow churn and lack of progress.

No one system is perfect, but failing to respond to the ever present needs of many of our students in school TODAY is much less than perfect. 

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