More than 20 million students in the United States are below proficient in reading and math and barred from the educational opportunities that will lead to success. It’s time we recognize that these students have not fallen behind because of inherent character flaws, but because our education policies for the past two decades have focused on implementing tough standards while failing to build support systems that address the societal factors that create barriers to academic success.
Indeed, not since President Johnson’s War on Poverty has our nation truly committed to eliminating structural economic inequality. Many of our state-based education and school-funding policies exacerbate tax-based inequities, creating a class-based schooling system in which schools with the fewest resources are often concentrated in communities of color or those with high rates of poverty. Growing economic inequality coupled with an unequal system of access and opportunity create enduring, inter-generational poverty.
Struggling students need tailored approaches that take into account their specific learning styles, social contexts and educational needs. Personal Opportunity Plans, promoted by the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, can connect students to the resources and services needed to stay engaged in the education process.
The plans draw on comprehensive needs assessments and coordinated planning between educators and service providers to prioritize the social, emotional, physical and academic needs of each individual student. They provide both evidence-based instructional strategies and targeted assistance in out-of-school factors that affect a student’s ability to focus, learn and achieve.
North Carolina has required its schools to create Personal Education Plans for at-risk students. Under North Carolina law, any child who does not meet grade-level proficiency is eligible for a plan. Supports include alternative learning models, tutors, mentors, extended learning time and summer school, provided to the student at no cost.
During the most recent legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly acted to strengthen the Personal Education Plan policy in two very important ways.
• First, students will be eligible for PEPs when they are identified as at-risk in kindergarten; previously they weren’t eligible until fourth grade. Now students will get the academic interventions they need so they can reach the third-grade benchmarks that will help them continue to advance with their peers.
• Second, boards of education are now required to create transition teams and plans so at-risk students have a continuum of support as they move through the system from elementary school to high school.
Coordinated planning with parents, students, community partners and government officials and agencies helps everyone wisely invest state, federal and private educational dollars. Most important, the planning is coordinated and resources are allocated where they are needed the most to ensure that every child is learning, safe, healthy and well-nourished.
Together, we can develop effective plans to overcome the learning obstacles many students face both in and out of the classroom and begin to fill the gaps between potential and performance.
We cannot continue to perpetuate the myth that public schools are failing. Instead, let’s talk about how we can improve this great system that has worked for more than 200 years.
Chris Hill is director of the Education & Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center. John H. Jackson is president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education.