What no one told me about being a third-grade teacher was that I would have 32 amazing students, and very few would fit the profile of a typical “third grader”. My math and reading diagnostics showed a range between a Kindergarten and fourth-grade level, with differences in both English and Spanish (as a bilingual educator, my charge was to track and improve both). Some of my students had learning differences, including dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, and each came with his/her unique interests, talents, and social-emotional strengths and needs.

The truth is our model of instruction is designed to serve a mythical average student, and today’s students are anything but. According to Digital Promise, an Innovative Schools partner that seeks to shine a light on learner variability, in today’s average classroom of 24 students, up to 50% (versus 20-34% in the 1970s-80s) will have needs that research shows require a more personalized approach, including students who are English language learners, are gifted or talented, have a learning difference, or are experiencing challenges that result in trauma.

Ultimately, this exacerbates an age-old problem: How does one teacher meet so many needs? In my career, I’ve supported hundreds of educators as they work through this dilemma. In the process, I have heard countless good questions: How do I personalize pace but keep up with my school’s testing schedule? How do I manage planning for so many individual students? How do I keep track of what everybody is doing?

Our model of instruction is designed to serve a mythical average student, and today’s students are anything but.

I can sum up what I’ve heard in one line: Rather than pretend to have all the answers, what educators appreciate most is being real about what is known versus what is not.

As the program officer for the Innovative Schools portfolio, it feels especially important to be clear about areas where we have confidence, and where we are actively seeking to learn. The daunting and exciting truth is that, in these newer frontiers, we don’t have all the answers.

What We Know

First, given all we know about learner variability, we are confident that approaching instruction as if all students are ready to learn the same content at the same pace will result in highly variable results. Education’s problems will persist if instruction remains one-size-fits-all and focused on a narrow definition of student success.

  1. Students will continue to fall behind, as individual needs go unmet year after year. Looking at the 2017 NAEP, approximately 1/3 of 8th graders, disproportionately students of color, start the school year below grade level. Based on NWEA MAP, few are experiencing accelerated (at least 1.5 years) growth. Moreover, we know teachers need more support in reaching all their students. In one nationally representative survey, only 27% report their professional development helps them effectively differentiate to meet student needs.
  2. Students will not receive the social-emotional supports they need to thrive in learning and life. 61% of students say stress makes it difficult to learn. 98% of principals believe kids would benefit from social-emotional support, but only 25% provide quality social-emotional support in their schools.
  3. Students will continue to be disengaged. 2016 Gallup poll data shows that less than half of students report being engaged, and that this number decreases dramatically as they get to high school. Those who report being engaged are 4.5x more likely to be hopeful about the future, and 2.5x more likely to report getting excellent grades and doing well in school. Thanks to partners like the Mindset Scholars Network, that have catalyzed interdisciplinary research on this topic, we know more than ever about what engages students in learning, and there is unlimited potential to be unlocked if we put this research to work.

Second, we are confident that with the right supports, schools can be redesigned to be student-centered environments that unlock students’ full potential. Time and time again, the education sector has proven to be full of creative change-makers. We are excited by the energy in three areas:

  1. Personalizing learning: As Michael Horn recently put it, personalizing is a verb, not a noun. It’s a set of strategies that can bring to life what we know about how kids learn (in learning progressions, where they have ownership, and when driven by data), and can be employed to solve specific problems. For example, J-PAL’s comprehensive literature review on technology and learning found that 19 out of 28 interventions where software was used to help students practice concepts at their own pace showed a statistically significant impact. SAGA Education, which provides a tutor to ninth graders at risk of failing can help students learn up to 2.5 years of math in a year, providing that crucial acceleration we know kids need and creating a benefit that is up to 11 times the cost.
  2. Social-emotional learning (SEL): We know schools are social experiments that develop students’ social and emotional habits, so how can we make sure all schools do this intentionally? Evidence suggests kids will learn more (11% gains) and have better life outcomes when supported to develop skills like self-regulation and the ability to work productively with their peers. By incorporating practices like Valor’s Compass Circles, schools can develop great learners, and great humans.
  3. Engaging learning environments: Student engagement does not need to be left to chance, thanks to efforts like the PERTS Engagement Project. PERTS provides teachers 5-minute pulse surveys designed by Stanford researchers to show them whether students feel supported and challenged in their classes and whether they understand the relevance of lessons, all of which are key predictors of engaged and effective learning. The rapid feedback is paired with practical strategies that help teachers refine their practice for greater engagement. Most teachers who use PERTS quickly see measurable improvements in their classroom.

Education’s problems will persist if instruction remains one-size-fits-all and focused on a narrow definition of student success.

Our Investments

We believe student-centered learning environments are key to unlocking children’s potential and meeting both academic and social-emotional needs. The above three tenets (personalizing learning, SEL, and engaging environments) make up our definition of student-centered learning, which we seek to spread through three investment strategies:

  • Develop and learn from inspiring student-centered school models. For instance, by funding Silicon Schools Fund, an organization that has supported the launch of over 30 inspiring schools and shared what they learned in this essential white paper, knowledge from whole school innovation can benefit the broader field.
  • Increase access to high-quality professional learning, instructional resources, and providers that enable student-centered learning. We support programs like Zearn, a high-quality technology-powered math curriculum, with an eye towards identifying entry points for schools that make the student experience more personalized, supportive, and engaging.
  • Partner with systems to bring student-centered learning to scale. To deepen our knowledge of systems change, we are excited to zoom in on two to three regions in the next few years and bring those lessons to our national work. Currently, we have partnered with several organizations in Rhode Island, including Highlander Institute and New England Basecamp to deepen our learning on how to work with educators to bring student-centered learning to scale.

With the right supports, schools can be redesigned to be student-centered environments that unlock students’ full potential.

Our Questions

On things we don’t know, we are actively seeking answers that we believe will move the field forward. This includes funding programmatic grants and research that answers the following questions:

  • How can we codify promising models for broader adoption? Not every school can be expected to reinvent the wheel, and if we are going to go beyond innovators and early adopters, we need approaches educators can see and try. That’s why we’ve been excited to support New Schools Venture Fund, which is leading the field in building a sector of model providers.
  • What models are both effective and replicable in traditional district schools? While we see value in supporting innovative entrepreneurs with testing new ideas, we also want to know what works and is scalable in schools where 95% of kids learn. This doesn’t just include the model being scaled, but the change management strategies that build authentic educator buy-in and ensure practices are adapted and sustained based on the needs of that learning community.
  • What are the highest leverage strategies that teachers can integrate into core instruction to support social-emotional development? While there are many effective programs, we are curious about the everyday strategies teachers can use to make the greatest difference for the greatest number of kids.
  • How do we support personalization while maintaining rigor and coherence? Personalization and rigor don’t have to be in conflict. We feel urgency in exploring how to bring more flexibility to the learning experience, but specifically interested in models that do so while anchoring in a high-quality standards-aligned curriculum.

Looking Forward

It’s been 12 years since I was the new teacher in that third-grade classroom. Looking back, I see the huge untapped potential of my students and of me as an educator had I had access to supports and toolkits that allowed me to create a more student-centered learning environment.

Now at the foundation, I’m dedicated to learning as much as I can from existing research and work, as well as the innovators who have been pushing the frontier on this work. As a team, we believe doing so will get us closer to a world where every school is student-centered, meeting students’ academic, social, and emotional needs and ultimately helping them thrive in K-12 and beyond.