FAQ: When students have different learning journeys, won’t that lead to more inequity?

by Chris Sturgis

Do students pass from one grade to another based on their mastery level? Does that mean every child would have a different learning journey that would not be based on a fixed time interval? In such a case, do you think that CBE could lead to even more inequity than the current traditional system? Because a low-income student might not have access to similar resources as a high-income student and might graduate at a later age.

Let’s take a step back from the question for a second. No matter what education system is used, students will always have a different learning journey. We learn in fits and starts. Children bring different experiences, knowledge and skills into the classroom. If there is any bias (real or perceived) shaping their experience (and can we imagine a bias free environment — I don’t think so) they will have different levels of trust, fear/safety, and support. And of course children have different experiences in the type, amount and quality of learning experiences and support outside of school as well.

The question then is how is the system designed given that children have different learning journeys. In the traditional system, we simply don’t intervene unless there is absolute failure (an F for a class). We pass students on even when they didn’t learn. Only with an F are students expected to take the entire class again (which isn’t a good use of resources as it would be better to only focus on the things students haven’t demonstrated mastery of…not the entire class). We have two responses to students in the traditional system: pass on or retain. Neither by themselves is effective.

There is a third option which is to continue to work with students where they are. If students need more time to continue to learn, the system should be able to build that in — during the school day, on weekends, at the end of the semester, during the summer, or even before the next semester. Another thing is to have formal transitions between the teacher, the student and the receiving teacher to go over where the student is and where they need to keep working. Thus, students should be able to master knowledge and skills at any point — not just in the one year. Grading systems need to be able to show this and recognize the student for mastery (because it took real perseverance to get there) and the teachers that helped them.

This doesn’t mean that monitoring pacing isn’t important. Students and teachers look at where students are and where they want to get to and create plans to do so. The amount and type of instruction might need to vary. Perhaps they’ll try to demonstrate two academic skills in one product such as a science research paper (writing and science). Sometimes power standards are selected rather than trying to cover every standard. The key to understand here is that pacing isn’t simply the action of a student — it’s the interaction of teachers, students and strategies.

Now to the final question. Will CBE solve all inequity? I personally don’t think so. The forces at work in the US are causing increases in inequity that are going to be hard for schools to overcome. However, will CBE create more equitable educational experiences. Yes, if it is designed to do so. No, if it isn’t. There are a number of different types of inequitable practices  in schools — it can be embedded in policies, culture, operations, classroom and of course in the bias that we all bring to our lives. It takes an intentional, collective effort to oust the inequitable practices and embed equitable ones. And it takes constant checking to see if it is working and constant tweaking to get it right.

Simply by making the system more transparent we create the conditions for greater accountability. Simply by being upfront about what is expected to be learned and letting students know where they are towards those goals allows students to make informed decisions about their learning. Simply by responding to students with productive feedback, additional instructional support, and opportunity to relearn and revise we give students a chance to be successful. These are all meaningful steps towards a more equitable system whereas the traditional system in passing students on at the end of the semester without a way to help them learn what they need to is designed for some students to be successful and others not. Instead of designing ways for teachers to help students be successful it asks them to judge and rank. The traditional system is designed to reproduce inequity.

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