Imagine for a moment that you are one of the worst players on a basketball team. The coach walks up to you and says, “I have good news… Instead of practicing with your teammates today, you and the two other struggling players on the team are going to a different gym to work with a specialized basketball tutor while we practice here.” Or imagine that you are pretty good at shooting and passing the ball, but you can’t dribble and chew gum. The coach decides to have you skip passing and shooting drills to focus more on your dribbling skills. Over time, what do you think will happen to your passing and shooting skills in comparison to your teammates?
Now imagine a different scenario…
Instead of having you skip practice with your teammates to receive specialized instruction, you will participate in practice as usual and then get additional instruction after practice in the specific skills you need to improve upon to catch up and compete with your teammates.
Which model do you think will give you a better opportunity to close the skill gap between you and your teammates? It is obvious that if basketball is difficult for you, you won’t close that gap unless you receive specialized instruction and practice more than your teammates. Both are necessary and vital. Additionally, if you receive less instruction in areas that are a relative strength, those areas will quickly become areas of weakness as well.
Although it may seem obvious, the models that replace core instruction with small group instruction have been all too common in schools over the past couple of decades and the results have been predictable. The gap between students who struggle and their peers grow larger each year despite our best efforts to close them.
So, what systems can we put in place that give all students the best opportunity for success?
First, we need to ensure that students have access to the core curriculum in their classrooms with the appropriate supports they need to be successful. Models that replace reading or math instruction entirely with “interventions” or models that pull students from P.E., social studies, or science to receive additional instruction in reading or math will not help students catch up or worse, may create a hole in an area where a student was relatively strong.
Second, we need to dedicate time during the school day for students to receive specialized instruction focused on their skill deficits that is not at the expense of anything else. We can also look to create opportunities for students outside the school day that will allow them to get the extra practice that they need. If we create time during the school day, we can also use this time to provide enrichment opportunities for our students who are successful in the core curriculum without any additional help. Students in need of enrichment can be served in larger groups that will allow them to pursue more independent learning of which they are capable while creating small group opportunities for struggling students even in situations where staff and resources are continually shrinking.
Lastly, the job of providing additional assistance must be collaborative and connected to the classroom. Intervention can’t be the sole responsibility of a few isolated “experts.” (Reading specialists, Interventionists, Special Educators, etc.) The role these specialized instructors play is huge and I have great respect for the unique gifts they bring to a team, but we must have everyone engaged to give all our students what they need. Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) give structure for how we will do this work (and all our work). We must have everyone at the table answering the 4 questions together…
1. What do we want students to know and do?
2. How will we know if they learn it?
3. What will we do if they don’t learn it?
4. What will we do if they have already learned it?
They are the key to all the work we do in ensuring the success of each unique student in our care.
What systems do you have in place to give students extra assistance? Are you getting the results you want and your students need? I would love to hear about the good work happening in your school!