The questions never came up.
Prior to working at NCLD, I spent more than three years providing direct technical assistance to state policymakers on how to transform their education systems to support deeper learning, 21st century skills, and student-centered learning (largely the same concept with different labels). This work took me across the country, primarily serving state board of education members, but also occasionally legislators and staff at state departments of education. Throughout all those presentations and workshops, nobody ever asked me, “What are the specific implications of this work for our students with disabilities? For English language learners? Or for other traditionally underserved student groups?”
It wasn’t that these people didn’t care about equity—they did. The problem was a failure of basic underlying assumptions. And it turns out that I was as much a part of the problem as anybody else. I never asked the hard questions I needed to.
When we fail to ask those questions and leave our assumptions unchecked, we are all incriminated in the broader challenge; we all contribute to social injustice and inequity in public schools. That’s just as true for those of us who deeply care about equity and about the future of children as it is for anyone else.
In my experience, there are three primary reasons decision makers give for never raising the deeper questions on equity:
- “The issue is too specific and outside of my experience.” Often well-meaning decision makers didn’t ask specific questions because they didn’t know what to ask. Working to address the needs of traditionally disadvantaged subgroups takes particular experience and expertise. Many decision makers, especially at the state level, who might be appointed by the governor or elected by the public, do not have this relevant expertise and won’t know what they should be asking.
- “This initiative will automatically serve all students.” This answer is a symptom of what I call “for all” syndrome. Policy makers are often presented with an initiative—such as deeper learning, student-centered learning, or blended learning—followed by the phrase “for all.” They assume that the initiative has been designed to serve all students. The reality is that without accounting for the specific needs of certain groups of students, the initiative cannot be successful.
- “Exposing some students to 21st century learning would set them up for failure.” Other policy makers worry that not all students can succeed with education reform. They feel that by shielding those students from rigorous learning, they will spare the student’s self-esteem. Though they may mean well, these policy makers are simply making it more difficult for those students to succeed.
There may be other reasons, but each of the reasons above portends deep challenges for the students and systems involved. Retrofitting initiatives to fit students—rather than designing initiatives with those students in mind—leads to frustration, not just for students, but for educators and families. It also results in high monetary costs for their schools and districts. Shielding students from rigorous 21st century learning experiences sets them up for a rude awakening when they leave K–12 education. After all, there will not be a separate world ready for the arrival of students who lack key skills like self-advocacy, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking, or dispositions such as self-determination and growth mindsets. Those who lack these skills and dispositions, whether they have a disability or not, will inevitably struggle to meet the modern demands of college, career, and civic life.
There’s a better way to approach 21st century learning, and we at NCLD have been exploring it for the last two years. Through deep conversations with educators from national networks of schools that emphasize 21st century learning, we’ve identified a more proactive way to design initiatives to meet the needs of all learners. Strategies that facilitate this goal honor each student’s voice in participating in and informing decisions related to their learning and lives (such as IEP meetings and transition meetings). They involve being more explicit in how we approach teaching these key skills and dispositions, measuring them, and intervening when students struggle with them. And they involve approaching each decision about the initiative with a single question: “How will this action further an inclusive culture that supports the needs, interests, and strengths of all students?”
When we do this, we not only improve the experiences of students at the margins—whether they’re low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, students who are in the racial minority, or part of any other group—but more effectively serve all of their peers as well. We do this because every learner comes with some exceptionality. There are no cookie-cutter, average learners.
Achieving this more inclusive vision demands more intentional policy discussions. It demands being explicit about the inclusion of exceptional learners in the design, conception, and implementation of the vision guiding an initiative. Different stakeholders representing exceptional learners—and those learners themselves—need to be at the table discussing the initiative. Educators need effective and explicit training to implement the initiative for the variety of learning needs in their classrooms. The initiatives must be effectively resourced, and schools and educators must hold themselves accountable for every child’s success.
The silver lining here is that, more often than not, our failure is not a result of malice—it is the result of indifference, ignorance, and/or misinformation. While that is little solace for the children and families we are failing and have failed, it does hold promise for a better future. Advocates and policy makers can be better informed on the explicit needs, abilities, interests, and strengths of all learners. This can lead to a more inclusive and just society for everyone.