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If we did in health care what we do in education, we’d say this to everyone who walks through the hospital door:
“We prescribe the same treatment for everyone. We’ve always done this. It’s more convenient for us. It won’t be perfect, but it will contribute to public health.”
Of course, we’d never do this in health care. But we do it all the time in schooling.
Children growing up in poverty start school having heard 30 million fewer words than children from more affluent families, and we treat these children the same as any other students in the class. But they are not. They have different and deeper needs, as do millions like them all across the country.
Equal treatment — giving the exact same service to everyone — isn’t the same thing as equitable treatment, which is providing what each child needs to meet a particular goal. Equal treatment will not enable us to reach the nation’s professed objective of educating all children for success.
The evidence of system failure is overwhelming: nationally, English language learners graduate from high school at a rate nearly 20 percentage points lower than their peers who are native speakers of English. Students with learning disabilities are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school and less likely to graduate from college than students without learning disabilities. Students living in poverty underperform, compared to those who are more affluent, on every measure of achievement at all stages of development.
What can we do about these dilemmas posed by a standardized system trying — and failing — to meet the needs of so many children? How might we shift to a personalized system that meets children where they are and gives them what they need, inside and outside of school, to thrive and succeed?
Here’s a place to start: What if all children had running developmental records — the equivalent of medical records — that capture in-school and out-of-school strengths, interests and needs? Such a record would provide a diagnostic and a starting point for a team of family members, school and community professionals who devise and implement a set of feasible interventions.
In this way, children receive customized menus of opportunities and supports, which directly target their needs and propel them toward success. Privileged families have the financial and social capital to offer such wraparound attention from the pre-natal months until their children become adults. Disadvantaged families, however, often lack the resources to provide the supports and opportunities their children want and need.
At Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, we call such a record a “Success Plan.” We view a Success Plan as both an instrument and a process for conveying vital services and opportunities to children in need. The advantages of such a system are obvious: clear diagnostics, tailored interventions, a wraparound approach encompassing all aspects of a child’s life, and an accountability system to stimulate integrated action.
We are now working with a group of communities in our By All Means initiative where leaders have committed to piloting Success Plans. While this approach is promising, our communities confront myriad challenges, including finding financial resources to support system-building (costs associated with developing and implementing personalized plans typically involve staffing and investing in some type of digital infrastructure), determining who “owns and operates” the system, building capacity for data gathering and necessary interventions, creating a meaningful role for families, building suitable data platforms, protecting privacy and limiting access to those with the need to know.
Encouragingly, pioneers are making headway in this work. City Connects, based at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, employs an integrated student support approach, partnering with school districts and community agencies in Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Ohio to develop individualized plans for children typically in grades K-8. These plans — which are created and implemented by school-based City Connects coordinators in consultation with students, families, school staff and community-based providers — identify students’ strengths, interests and needs. This information is used to link students to a wide array of supports, services and opportunities.
City Connects has shown strong results. Longitudinal data show that students enrolled in City Connects schools performed better academically and had lower grade retention, chronic absenteeism and dropout rates. The program also benefits teachers. According to survey data, teachers gained a deeper understanding of and empathy for their students, and they also experienced positive changes in their attitudes toward, beliefs about and relationships with students.
Communities in Schools (CIS), a national network of independent nonprofit affiliates based in Arlington, Virginia, is another promising example of an integrated student support approach deploying individualized plans as part of its model. Currently operating in 25 states, CIS affiliates partner with K-12 schools, businesses and community agencies to connect students to comprehensive supports and services such as academic assistance, behavioral interventions, enrichment, and physical and mental health.
Site coordinators work with school support teams to identify students’ needs and use this information to develop an individual support plan for each youth. Students with more intensive needs receive case management services. Outcomes are encouraging. An evaluation of the program found that elementary-school students had higher attendance rates, and high-school students were more likely to graduate and less likely to drop out. And an evaluation of its case management services indicated that more students reported having a caring adult in their lives, having quality relationships with their peers, being engaged in school, having more positive attitudes about school and believing in the value of education.
We are impressed by these efforts and eager to accelerate this work in communities across the United States. Our recently published report, “Success Plans: Promising Tools for Customizing Student Supports and Opportunities,” explores efforts across the country to implement approaches in customizing supports and opportunities for children and youth. Based on our research and theory of action, we identify key design principles for Success Plans and success planning systems. Our companion toolkit offers practical guidance to those interested in developing and implementing this approach.
Success Plans are symbols, tools and processes for transforming a factory system of schooling into a broader customized system of child development and education. Such plans have the potential to build a 21st century system that, unlike our current school system, has the capacity to realize our urgent goal of preparing all children for success.
Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab. He served as Secretary of Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 2008 to 2013.