The past decade’s shift to significantly higher academic standards and more rigorous assessments means that many more students are now achieving far below grade-level expectations. In recent months and years, there’s been much debate about how best to help such students catch up.
To oversimplify a bit, on one side we find educators and advocates who believe that all students can benefit from spending most of their time working on grade-level material. On the other side are those who believe that all students can benefit from “personalization” or “differentiation”—strategies that meet them where they are and then accelerate their progress over time. (Yes, sometimes these two sides try to find common ground.)
This is in part a pedagogical debate, but it touches on key issues of school organization, such as whether students should spend significant time in small, targeted ability groups; whether we should retain pupils at year’s end if they aren’t ready to move on, or even add another grade to elementary schools where lots of kids are behind; or whether we should rethink age-based grades altogether.
This debate also has implications for assessment and accountability systems. Federal law currently requires states to test students on grade-level material—sometimes at the expense of accurately measuring what low-achieving (and high-achieving) students know and can do, and discouraging schools from teaching material from earlier grades, even if that’s what students need. Should we shift to a system that prioritizes accuracy instead, seeking to gauge progress over time as clearly as possible, even if that means testing some children on far-lower-level material than their age-peers? Or would that amount to endorsing the soft bigotry of low expectations once again?
This year’s Wonkathon tackled these issues head-on. We asked contributors to address this fundamental and genuinely challenging question: What’s the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind?
Below are their answers, which will be published on a rolling basis. Once every submission has been published in the coming days, we'll open the competition up to a public vote on who's the "wisest wonk"—i.e., whose solution is best.
- Why struggling students remain below grade level, and how to help them, by Michael Goldstein
- Beyond the binary: We can foster equity in both opportunity and outcomes, by Abby Javurek
- To help students who are several grade levels behind, implement IEPs in elementary and middle school, by Charles Ogundimu
- To help students who are several “grade levels” behind in reading, focus on building—and assessing—students’ knowledge, by Natalie Wexler
- Follow schools’ leads to embrace personalized learning and academic rigor, by Gwen Baker, Lauren Schwartze, and Bonnie O'Keefe
- Rigor or personalized learning? Just ask Dr. Seuss., by Jessica Shopoff
- To help students who are behind, find out if their assignments match their goals, by Daniel Weisberg
- Tailored paths that can combine pre-, on-, and post-grade skills are the solution for students below grade level in math, by Joel Rose
- From Play-doh to Plato: All students need to grapple with grade-level text, by Harriett Janetos
- Staying on the shelf: Why rigorous new curricula aren’t being used, by David Steiner
- Engaging families, early and often, is the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind, by Vidya Sundaram and Elisabeth O’Bryon
- Parent communication, not data, is the problem when it comes to below-grade-level students, by Lisa Murdock
- If we want to accelerate student learning, we need to redesign the school day, by David Liben and Meredith Liben
- To ensure success for all students, state assessment makers must be learners, too, by Jessica Baghian
- Teachers and curricula aren’t enough for below-grade-level students. They also require scalable strategies tailored to their needs., by Jessica Varevice
- Fostering teacher quality and expertise is the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind, by Candice McQueen
- Closing student achievement gaps requires both rigorous grade-level work and personalized learning, by Britt Neuhaus
- The best way to help students who are several grade levels behind is to do a better job of following their progress, or lack of it, in the long term, by Barbara Gottschalk
- Driving learning for all students: A framework for Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, by Bonnie Hain and Laura Slover
What's a Wonkathon?
For several years now, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have hosted an annual “Wonkathon” on our Flypaper blog to generate substantive conversation around key issues in education reform. Last year’s exploration of high school graduation standards engaged almost two dozen participants and can be found here.
The honor of “wisest wonk" has previously been conferred on such luminaries as Jessica Shopoff, Chase Eskelsen, Christy Wolfe, Seth Rau, Joe Siedlecki, McKenzie Snow, Claire Voorhees, Adam Peshek, and Patricia Levesque.