Designing an Education System for the Tails, Not the Mean

As part of CRPE’s 25th anniversary collection, Thinking Forward: New Ideas for a New Era of Public Education, Robin Lake and Travis Pillow explore how a system built to meet the needs of “square peg” students could benefit all students. They write:

A growing effort to personalize learning moves in the right direction, but is not enough. These efforts are largely focused on a broad attempt to better differentiate instruction in a classroom or to allow students to express more personal agency over their learning. Students at the extreme are generally still forced to try to fit in classrooms or schools that can’t accommodate their differences. These kids need more than just to move ahead in an online math program or participate in project-based learning. These students need flexibility and options. They need interactions with adults and peers who “get” them. They need a responsive and sophisticated set of supports that can be customized to who they are at any given developmental stage. They need an education system that recognizes these needs and is determined to help them realize their individual potential.

Meeting these students’ needs would lead schools to develop:

  • Real choices and multiple pathways for students to find a good fit.
  • A focus on student competencies with a commitment to rigor and equity.
  • A commitment to addressing social and emotional learning needs in innovative ways.
  • A focus on student assets, not deficits.
  • New ways of leveraging community assets, including industry, universities, arts, and social services.

School systems may need to rethink everything. Training. Staffing models. Schedules. Student progression. The artificial boundaries that separate schools from community institutions like employers, arts institutions, universities, and social-service providers.

A system that reinvents itself to meet the needs of complex learners would leverage more community assets, give parents more information and control over resources, ensure funding and accountability follow students, and increase parents’ involvement in the development of educational pathways designed to best support their children’s talents and interests. In short, the system would do whatever it takes to maximize a given student’s potential. And it would follow the principle that designing for the most complex and extreme needs ultimately benefits every student.

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