Our most vulnerable students also require structured materials designed specifically to fill learning gaps
by Linda Diamond, President, CORE and author of the Teaching Reading Sourcebook and Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures
Back in September 2018 I wrote about the importance of selecting and fully implementing a great curriculum with excellent support and ongoing professional learning. This is a huge and important step in accelerating achievement for all students. But is that enough? The answer, unfortunately is “no.” A standards-aligned, high-quality curricula, while significantly improving outcomes for many students, will not be sufficient for those most at risk. Core curriculum is targeted at grade-level standards and will ensure all students have access to robust content, but it will not meet the needs of students who are significantly behind in their skills. Such students will still require a targeted or intensive intervention curricula that is well beyond what a standards-aligned core program can provide.
Don’t get me wrong, strong curriculum will significantly reduce the numbers of students needing tiered interventions, but older students, in particular, who did not have the benefits of best first teaching, will need extra support. This is also true for young students experiencing reading or math difficulty. A multi-tiered system of support will ideally address these needs. Yet few districts have successfully designed and implemented MTSS. When implemented fully, schools with multi-tiered systems recognize that in addition to solid core instructional materials, educators need to also identify, purchase and implement specialized, structured intervention materials that explicitly address students’ skills gaps. One curriculum will not be sufficient as it will not address the various tiers of instructional need at a school. Furthermore, not all of the vetted core curricula adequately address the early literacy foundational skills. This gap will likely require supplemental materials that more closely meet those described in the IES Practice Guide Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rdGrade or follow Louise Spear-Swerling’s description of Structured Literacy (Structured Literacy and Typical Literacy Practices: Understanding Differences to Create Instructional Opportunities, Jan. 2018). Especially in the early grades, prevention of reading difficulty is the name of the game and most core curricula, while essentially meeting most standards, are not sufficient.
Without a doubt, we want all students to have access to standards-aligned curriculum and instruction, but what if specific foundational skills never are mastered? A 6th grade student who cannot decode single syllable words while able to participate actively in core instruction still needs to be taught how to decode. Where is the material to do that in a standards-aligned middle school core program? When a student with identified learning disabilities receives great instruction and scaffolded support in a general education classroom, he or she can participate, be engaged and will learn, but at some point the missing skills need to be directly taught. Such struggling students will not have scaffolded support when they leave school. We want these students to have the skills they require to be independent.
Too often we confuse equity with equality. Yes, giving all students equal access to high-quality curriculum and instruction is vital, but equity entails much more. Equality is treating everyone the same and the goal is to promote fairness. But that is only true if everyone starts from the same place. Equity, on the other hand, requires giving someone what they need to be successful.
We are on the right track with focusing on putting excellent core instructional materials into the hands of well-prepared and supported educators, but we also have to be aware that some students will also need targeted instruction with more appropriate and focused materials.
In education we have a habit of going for the silver bullet, of looking for a panacea that will turn things around. In recent years it was teachers writing their own units of study and having new common core standards; now, it is selecting and implementing a standards-aligned curriculum faithfully. I fear we will put too much stock in the power of a strong curriculum and be dreadfully disappointed when many of our most vulnerable learners do not improve sufficiently. I would like to think we can do two things at the same time—select and implement a strong standards-aligned core curriculum as core instruction for all students but at the same time identify and implement structured materials designed specifically to fill learning gaps for those students who need more targeted instruction and materials, so that we truly turn our schools into equitable institutions. Our schools should be places where all students thrive and those who need more get more.