Action Area 7: Meet the Needs of Diverse Learners

The melting pot of the historical imagination offered everyone the same opportunity to social mobility through education. Mobility was the reward promised to students who met its universal and uniform educational standards.

Despite its rhetoric, this system failed in practice to provide opportunities equitably. In a new civic era, such failure no longer acceptable. The rhetoric is now to be taken at its word, not only by virtue of civil rights, but also for the most pragmatic of economic reasons—the growing cost of a long tail of failure measured against the more ambitious opportunities in the ‘knowledge economy’. That is, inequality in access to good quality education is contributing to rising inequality of income in the nation.293

For practical as well as principled reasons related to the dynamics of contemporary identity formation, you don’t have to be the same to be equal. This is democracy’s new promise, after civil rights, after the rise of identity politics, after multiculturalism, after globalization.

What are the variables of human difference to be negotiated in communities, in product and service relationships, through the hugely diversified new media, and in schools? The gross demographic categories immediately tell us of differences which are principally material (socio-economic class, locale, family circumstances), corporeal (age, race, sex, sexuality, and physical and mental abilities) and symbolic (culture, language, gender, identity).294 These differences intersect in unique ways in individuals. We become ever more aware of their significance and sensitive to their nuances.

However, for the oversimplifications of such categorization, the overgeneralizations about uniform life experience within groups, and their unreliable prediction of need, these demographics have also let us down. How do we identify learners who are at risk? How do we read their trajectories and customize learning programs which meet their needs? How do we enhance equality of educational opportunity by treating people differently in carefully calibrated ways? How do we look outside the educational system to see who is being left out and why?

To do any of these things, we need to bring underlying dimensions of deep diversity into the analysis, by connecting directly with life narratives (experiences, networks and places of belonging), by negotiating varied personae (affinities, attachments, orientations, interests, stances, values, worldviews, dispositions and sensibilities) and by addressing divergent styles (epistemological, discursive, interpersonal and learning styles).

This requires a revolution in pedagogy, escaping at last the baleful twentieth century influence of all things mass—mass markets, mass culture, mass society, mass education. In schools, instead of common curriculum and one-size-fits-all teaching, we need customized learning aimed at equivalent or comparable, but not necessarily the same, outcomes. To achieve this we need pedagogies which actively and consciously bring learner knowledge and experiences into the classroom, and which then involve collaborative learning amongst students, drawing upon these differences as a resource. No longer must we have every student on the same page at the same time. This is particularly the case in the digital era when customized learning designs can be so easily be recorded, and stored, shared amongst teachers, and delivered directly to one student at a time. These are just a couple of examples of a curriculum reorientation away from standardization and towards customization for diversity.

— Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Action Items

Action Item 7.1: Review and Redefine Diversity Categories and Data Collection

We need to review and revise our diversity categories in order to make them more workable, supplementing the at times overly simple aggregations of visible demographics with a more differentiated and multifaceted view of differences relevant to student learning. An Accounting for Differences Project would review the demographic categories we currently use, and suggest ways to account for difference more directly relevant to community needs.

Action Item 7.2: Reform Instruction

A revolution is needed in classroom pedagogy, taking us beyond the traditional model of one teacher at the front of the classroom with twenty more or less similar students listening. We need to develop pedagogical approaches which move beyond on-the-same-page, standardized content paradigms, replacing them with approaches that continuously diagnose differentiated learning needs and promote the design of customized learning programs. A Pedagogy of Productive Diversity Program would explore pedagogical models that move away from traditional one-size-fits-all instruction, developing and testing strategies for customization of learning to meet individual learner needs more effectively.

Action Item 7.3: Diversify Curriculum

A broader aspect of curriculum customization will entail research and development of new programs to meet the needs of special groups, such as transitional bilingual programs for English Language Learners and new special education interventions—inside and outside the ‘inclusive’ classroom.

NCLB needs to be reconceived (as well as renamed) to enable multiple pathways for learners, to comparable ends—instead of its currently homogenous approach to learning outcomes. Teachers need to be supported as designers of learning that suits learner needs, instead of ‘cookie cutter curriculum’ based on reverse engineering of standardized tests. The Productive Diversity Curriculum needs to be developed through collaborations with learners, their communities and education experts. It would also require ongoing professional learning opportunities and investment in leadership training to support pedagogical improvements and effective use of resources.

Supporting Evidence

Supporting Evidence 7.1 Education and Inequality

The economic returns to education are considerable from both public and private perspectives. On average, a high school dropout earns 23% less income than a high school graduate, 39% less than a holder of an associates degree, 55% less than a holder of a bachelor’s degree, and 62% to 79% less than holders of advanced degrees295. Moreover, while real hourly wages for college graduates have risen considerably since the 1970s, real wages for those with some college or less have been flat or declining over the same time period296. These trends have led to rapidly widening wage inequality. In 1970, workers in the 10th percentile earned about $7.50 per hour in 2000 dollars, or about 3.7 times less than workers in the 90th percentile. By 2000, however, the 90-10 percentile wage ratio had increased to 5.5 to 1297. Wages of course are only part of the picture, and inequality in wealth and family income continues to grow as well. In fact, the top income quintile has received 62% of all income growth since 1973298. The U.S. workforce is extremely productive, creating the world’s largest economy and the highest per capita GDP among OECD countries. However, America’s considerable wealth has not reached a large number of its citizens. Using 50% of median income as the poverty line, about 17% of Americans are in poverty compared to 5 to 12% in most OECD countries299. The U.S. has the highest child poverty rate in the OECD by far at almost 22%300.

Improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged citizens will not only improve our economic growth but also help control public expenditure. More educated citizens not only contribute more in tax dollars but are also far less likely to be imprisoned, to rely on public assistance, or to require other additional public expenditures. Every high school dropout requires approximately $260,000 in additional public expenditure over the course of his or her lifetime, meaning that the students who are projected to drop out in the next decade will cost the country approximately $3 trillion301-302.

Meeting the needs of diverse and disadvantaged learners will be not be easy. Poor children in the U.S. enter school with enormous disadvantages in relation to their middle and upper class peers, including delayed language acquisition, vision and hearing problems, low birth weight, asthma, poor overall nutrition, and complications due to parental alcohol consumption or smoking during pregnancy303. A wide range of studies have identified a relationship between poor health status and low student achievement after controlling for other student background factors304. Moreover, American poverty tends to be longer lasting, more residentially concentrated, and more strongly associated with poor health outcomes due to the large number of citizens lacking health coverage. Although often labeled as the “land of opportunity”, U.S. income and class mobility is lower than in most industrialized countries305. Student background factors play an enormous role in educational outcomes, and we will not be able to close achievement gaps without also addressing the stark inequalities disadvantaged students face outside of school.

— Peter Weitzel

Supporting Evidence 7.2: English Language Learners

How to best address the educational needs of English language learners so that they acquire academic literacy in English and perform at grade level in the all-English classroom still is an urgent question that merits major attention. Recent evaluations of bilingual education have revealed that Spanish-speaking, English language learners (3/4 of the English language learner population) benefit when they receive literacy instruction in Spanish and English, compared to students who only receive instruction in English.306 Yet, because several states with large populations of Spanish-speaking students (such as, California and Arizona) no longer allow bilingual education, much of the instructional rhetoric has focused on the instruction of English language learners in all-English settings, even though the drop out rate for Spanish-speaking students continues to increase.307

If policy makers are serious about improving the academic performance and engagement of English language learners, then it is time to pay attention to current evaluation findings that support bilingual education, especially long-term programs such as dual language instruction and maintenance or developmental bilingual education.308 Similarly, research is urgently needed on (a) the types of instructional programs and assessments309 that can best support the academic performance and engagement of English language learners, (b) the instructional contexts that promote the transfer of students’ knowledge from the first language to the second language, and (c) the training of teachers and principals to implement such instruction.310

— Georgia Earnest García

Supporting Evidence 7.3: African-Americans Learning

Educating African American children for equal access and consideration in the 21st century should be of the highest priority. In the process of addressing the infrastructure and educational considerations of urban public school environments, the educational preparedness of African American children could almost simultaneously be addressed. Urban education and African American school children are inextricably tied. According to the 2000 census, nearly 58% of African Americans lived in metropolitan areas. The largest black population, more than two million African Americans (28 percent of the city’s population) lived in New York City, and the second largest black population, 1.6 million (18 percent of total metropolitan population) lived in Chicago. In cities with a population of 100,000 or more, the 2006 census illustrates that over 80% of the populations in Gary, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan were African American; over 70% of the residents in Miami Gardens, Florida, Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi were African American; more than 60% of the population in New Orleans, Louisiana, Baltimore, Maryland, Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, DC were African American; and roughly nine additional metropolitan areas had an African American population between 50% and 59%.311 Improving the school environments and performance in metropolitan America would by default improve the academic preparedness of African American children.

Notwithstanding, countless researchers have investigated the educational experiences of the African American child. Two issues in particular (resegregation and the achievement gap) resonate in more recent studies. Resegregation is the reestablishment of segregation in the nation’s public schools or districts following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. The traditional metric for determining whether a school is segregated or desegregated has been to assess the ratio of white to black students in a school or district. Throughout the nation, the pattern of resegregation began nearly 15 years after the Brown decision and has sharply impacted the educational placement, opportunities, and outcomes of American children, particularly African American children. Frankenberg and Lee (2002), who studied the racial trends and desegregation efforts in 239 school districts with a total enrollment greater than 25,000 students, illustrate that the “last 10-15 years have seen the steady unraveling of almost 25 years of increased integration” because of resegregation efforts.312 Their findings further demonstrate that despite the fact that the nation has become increasingly more diverse in this same time period, our nation’s public schools have become less diverse and more segregated. In suburban and rural school communities, whites attend school in the virtual absence of African American and Latino students. In small and large metropolitan areas, African American and Latino students attend school in isolation of whites. There are, as Gary Orfield (1996) describes, tremendous costs associated with resegregation. Many of the resegregated schools African American children attend in metropolitan America reside in high poverty areas. These schools not only suffer from insufficient funds and resources, poor physical plants and infrastructures, but also the loss of highly qualified teachers and administrators who seek out alternative and less demanding professional opportunities. In the wake of the most recent Supreme Court ruling on race and its usage in public school assignment, Orfield and others (2007) are convinced that resegregation continues a vicious cycle of advantage for some and inequality for others. Resegregation not only isolates African American students from schools and resources whites, in general, will readily obtain, scholars are also convinced that it systematically denies African American children an equal chance of obtaining a quality education, and by default, a chance to advance in the American social order and live a quality life.313

A by-product of segregation and resegregation is the continual academic achievement gap of African Americans to other racial and ethnic groups. In virtually every category (other than punishment) African American children perform lower than their peers. They have lower standardize test scores, are disproportionately placed in special education or behavioral disorder classrooms, have lower graduation rates, and they attend college at a lower rate. Some scholars have argued that African American children devalue school and this devaluation or low motivation explains their continued underperformance and low achievement.314 Other scholars have not blamed the student, but have looked to more systemic developments that may explain the gap. The literature on the subject has found that teachers’ expectations, parental expectations, socio-economic status, lack of quality preschool education, lack of summer schooling opportunities, a lack of congruence between home and school culture, school practices and disciplinary protocol, and racial discrimination all contribute to the achievement gap of African Americans. Preschool education is arguably a very important consideration that demands a need for change. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1998), for example, documented that most African American and Latino children either do not attend a preschool or attend one that is not staffed by early childhood professionals. As a result, in comparison to their peer groups, these children begin school at a disadvantage in vocabulary, reading comprehension, basic arithmetic, and overall readiness. Increasing the number and quality of early educational opportunities for African American children would systemically begin the process of closing the achievement gap.

School practice, teachers’ expectations, and additional schooling opportunities (summer or supplemental) could also be changed to effectively to address the achievement gap. Horvat and O’Connor, for example, demonstrate that African Americans students perform as well as any other student when they have equal representation, consideration, and access to resources in public school environments.315 Their studies, alongside the work of Tyson, Darity and Castellino and others, illustrate that equality of opportunities, resources, and consideration, alongside respect for otherness and diversity from teachers and parents seemed to be a key remedy to the academic underachievement of students of color, particularly African American children.316

Christopher Span

Supporting Evidence 7.4: Gender Differences and Learning

While there have been some significant improvement in gender equity in education, research increasingly shows that it is important to shift our thinking to the diversity of gender gaps that remain. Overall girls have diminished the gender gap in math and science. However, when researchers examine the difference that race and ethnicity makes in these gaps, it becomes clear that while gender may be decreasing as a single gap, the gaps between girls and young women of color and white girls and young women is increasing. Further, while the gap between white young men and women is decreasing, the gap between white students and students of color is increasing in math, science, and reading.317 Gender gaps in technical knowledge and experience continue to exacerbate the gendered digital divide.318 Men earn more than women at every level of education, but young women are significantly more economically affected by dropping out of high school earning only 63% of male drop out salaries.319

Academic outcomes alone do not fully describe the gendered aspects of schooling. Parallel to gendered hostilities that keep girls away from schools across the globe, U. S. girls report that sexual harassment is a serious impediment to their educational experiences. While boys and girls report high rates of sexual harassment, there are still gender differences in the experience of sexual harassment. For instance, the higher the frequency, the higher the gender difference in rates reported (all levels 81% girls, 76% boys; often 31% girls, 18% boys). Boys do not report sexual harassment affecting their academic experience with near the same frequency as girls. Nearly 1 in 4 girls report that sexual harassment caused them to stay home from school or miss a class. Importantly, there is a gender gap in the effects of sexual harassment: boys do not report negative outcomes at anywhere near the same rates as girls, especially reporting that sexual harassment diminishes their confidence or leads them to doubt whether they can have a happy romantic relationship. Girls also try to avoid the harasser at much higher rates than boys do, including changing their seat in class or stopping particular activities in school. 85% of boys and 87% of girls say they would be ‘very upset’ if they were called gay or lesbian—a higher rate of upset than even physical harassment provokes.320

Family-related stresses and teen pregnancy also still disproportionately affects young women’s academic achievement. Race and ethnicity also intersects with gender in these issues, with 69% of Latina teen mothers dropping out compared to 58% of teen mothers dropping out overall. Latinas also have a higher drop out rate due to other family related reasons.321 HIV and STD rates also reflect gender and race differences. While young men represent the highest proportion of HIV/AIDS cases, young black women account for more than 66% of the cases among women. According to the CDC, black women are 23 times more likely to get HIV than white women and Latinas are 6 times more likely to get HIV than white women.322 Because HIV is leading cause of death among 25-24 year olds, and increasingly teen women between 14-19 represent a larger proportion of those with HIV, it is crucial that educational efforts be directed at younger women before they contract HIV and in order to provide early care for those with HIV (CDC, 2005).323

— Cris Mayo

Supporting Evidence 7.5: Sexual Orientation and Learning

In order to lead a productive, psychologically healthy life, all individuals must master particular developmental tasks during their adolescent years324. The development of a secure identity, a positive sense of self, and the capability to merge with another in a truly intimate relationship had earlier been identified as the ultimate goal of adolescence325. However, for youth who are gay or questioning their sexual orientation, achieving these tasks can be difficult due to the stigmatization of homosexuality. Often times, these youth are attempting to develop their identities without the support of various social systems including family, peers, and schools326. The classroom has been described as “the most homophobic of all social institutions”327.

Recent research on post-high school education intentions328 indicated that questioning students were over seven times more likely to indicate they did not intend to complete their high school education than heterosexual students, and over four times more likely compared to LGB students. Compared to heterosexual students, LGB students were almost twice as likely to indicate that they did not intend to complete their high school education. Both questioning and LGB students were more likely to indicate that they planned to attend a 2-year college than heterosexual students, whereas differences between questioning and LGB students were not significant. In contrast, heterosexual students were approximately twice as likely to indicate that they planned to attend a 4-year college compared to both questioning and LGB students. No significant differences emerged in comparing questioning to heterosexual students and questioning to LGB students on plans to attend a vocational or technical school, although LGB students were more likely to indicate plans to attend a vocational or technical school compared to heterosexual students. Questioning and LGB students were more likely to indicate plans to enter into a full-time job after high school than heterosexual students, and differences between LGB and questioning students were not significant. Finally, questioning students were slightly more likely to indicate that they did not know what they would do after completing high school than heterosexual students, whereas no significant differences emerged between LGB and heterosexual students or questioning and LGB students.

In examining psychological health outcomes329 sexual minority youth were more likely to report high levels of depression/suicide feelings and alcohol/marijuana use; students who were questioning their sexual orientation reported more teasing and general victimization; greater alcohol/marijuana use; and more feelings of depression and suicide than either heterosexual or LGB students. Sexually questioning students that experienced homophobic teasing were also more likely than LGB students to use alcohol/marijuana and rate their school climate as negative in comparison to LGB and heterosexual students who experienced homophobic teasing at the same frequency. LGB and questioning students who reported moderate to high levels of parental support and moderate levels of homophobic teasing reported significantly less depression/suicidal feelings and less alcohol/marijuana use. Finally, LGB and questioning students with the highest frequency of homophobic teasing that perceive the lowest positive school climate report the highest depression/suicidal feelings and alcohol/marijuana use; and students who reported moderate to high levels of positive school climate reported significantly less depression/suicidal feelings.

This body of research has highlighted the important role the social environment plays in protecting our children and adolescents from negative psychological and behavioral outcomes330. The latter study has highlighted the influence that two critical support networks – parental communication/support and positive school climate – have on certain psychological outcomes for students who are questioning their sexuality and those who identify as homosexual. Although all children or adolescents will suffer negative consequences when parents and schools are unsupportive, this study confirms that sexual minority students are particularly susceptible to these outcomes and in need of support. These results expand on previous research that has shown that social and institutional support are essential components of maintaining wellbeing in sexual minority youth, as well as all students331.

As the mental health experts in schools who have expertise in the area of child development, they hold a critical role in educating teachers, administrators and parents about research exploring sexual orientation in children and the affect of unsupportive educational and family climates332. School psychologists can also play a direct role in improving the social and emotional climate in their own schools by influencing school policy and the implementation of outreach programs for students. Many of the youth victimized in schools happen to identify as gay and questioning students; therefore, it is important that prevention efforts do not overlook assessing homophobic bullying and the level of school support of LGB and questioning students. Additionally, this research suggests that prevention programs may need to target youth who are questioning their sexual orientation, as these children are more at risk of experiencing negative outcomes than either heterosexual or LGB students.

— Steven Aragon

Supporting Evidence 7.6: Disabilities and Learning

The United States has been a world leader in the development and provision of special education for children and youth with disabilities, ages three to 21, since 1975 with the passage of the Education for the Handicapped Act (P.L. 94-142), which guaranteed all children the right to a free and appropriate education.333 The most current data show that over 6.8 million children currently receive special education services in our nation’s schools and that the majority are served in the general education classroom with support services.334 The field of special education has grown tremendously in the past 30 years, particularly in the development of successful instructional strategies for enhancing the learning of children who struggle and in the development of models to include nearly all children in school and community settings.335 A substantial portion of the 77 billion dollars in the Stimulus Recovery Package (12.2 B) is directed at special education funding, not only to pay for a greater share of the federal commitment for these services, but also to provide funding to address standards, assessments, data systems and teacher quality initiatives.

The funding is timely given the current stresses and demands on meeting the critical shortage of teachers and specialists who serve these children. Two of the most pressing issues facing the field, identified in a national survey of special educators, include the teaching and learning conditions of the profession and the continued need to foster and communicate the use of evidence based practices in general and special education.336 The U.S. is facing a growing shortage of both university faculty in special education and special education teachers in the school.337 The role of special education teachers is also changing from one of serving as a resource room teacher to one of collaborating and co-teaching in the general education curriculum.338 The shifting roles and requirements for teachers has led to a severe shortage estimated to exceed 20,000 in the next 10 years.339 At the same time, the percentage of doctoral students has decreased by more than one-fourth, leaving many university positions unfilled.340 New incentives and approaches will be needed if we are to meet the projected shortages in the schools and higher education. The shortages have been attributed to the difficult conditions of teaching children with disabilities, in which teacher case loads are too large, paperwork is burdensome, support services, such as speech therapy and social work are insufficient and administrative support is too often lacking.341 The disproportionate representation of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds as well as of color add to concerns about the current structure of identification and delivery of services.342A research and development agenda is needed to address ways of improving the conditions of teaching, beginning with initial preparation programs and continuing through career long professional development. Professional learning communities which encourage collaboration are needed to support effective practices by special and general educators and administrators and to support the implementation of evidence based practices.

At the same time, R and D funding as well as support for technical assistance and dissemination is needed around the concept of evidence-based practices. Practitioners have expressed concern and confusion over how best to identify and use evidence-based practices, raising questions like, “evidence-based for which students”? And “under what conditions”?343 Centers of teaching excellence and research are needed to address these concerns and ensure that teachers and administrators have the knowledge, tools and skills to address the needs of the diverse students who qualify for special education. These centers not only could serve as resources to state departments of education, but also to IHE’s in translating new research to practice and in scaling up such practices to assess critical implementation issues of fidelity of treatment and generalization and maintenance of outcomes.

— Susan Fowler

Supporting Evidence 7.7: Personalized Learning

Personalized learning has emerged in the last decade as a special instance of a more generalized response to the problem of the reorganization of the State in response to globalization and the end of the effectiveness of the industrial mass production model in the delivery of public services.344 The massively centralized, overburdened, ‘big’, paternalistic and unresponsive welfare state is no longer considered morally or economically desirable, efficient or effective. Personalization provides an overall solution to this problem: it is seen as a model of provision for an ever-increasing demand for public services that depends upon the active participation of the citizen. The model encourages a form of self-responsibilization and citizen empowerment within a more ‘open architecture’ of government that permits both greater choice including the co-design and co-production of public goods. It also enables greater customization of public services, niche marketing and the tailoring and targeting of public services in accordance with the different and specific needs of various client groups. Personalization rides on the back of the revolution in open government and the revolution in communication and information technologies that provide new architectures of participation and collaboration.345

Personalization developed in response to the twin problems of globalization and the second industrial divide and must be seen in this light: it promotes the radical disaggregation of State monopolies, decentralization of decision-making to the local and individual levels, and the promotion of consumer/individual choice as a general service philosophy. The new open architectures of participation and collaboration that characterize new Web 2.0 platform technologies and affordances enable governments today to help shift the ethos and mode of delivery away from large centralized unresponsive state bureaucracies in favor of the consumer or client, often blurring the lines between the concepts of ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’ and sometimes deliberately.346

The rise of the concept of personalization as a major new philosophy of public service and defines a major change in political philosophy and a shift in the underlying principles the organization of social policy. It also represents the adoption of a new style of molecular government that implies a radically decentralized social democratic relationship between the individual and the State. In essence, this shift can be viewed in part as a strategy for modernizing social democracy in the face of increasing globalization, the decline of the mode of mass production, and a response to a new model of ‘openness’ exemplified in open source and e-government characterized by the digitalization of society. With the increasing demands for better and more transparent democracy, for greater citizen participation, and for delivery systems of public goods to be tailored to the needs of individuals, personalization as an over-arching policy idea, strategy and philosophy will increase its influence as its implementation is refined and developed. Personalized learning is a promising part of this shift that offers the basis for putting the learner at the heart of the education system.

— Michael Peters