Many education systems are turning to a common prescription to cure this illness: the development of foundational skills, supported by remediation or teaching that identifies students’ learning levels and teaches them at those levels.
This prescription is critical for meeting the needs of students and helping them develop foundational literacy and numeracy skills. At the same time, as with any medical remedy, we want to offer a series of preconditions and potential side effects that could occur.
Just as a doctor helps make you aware of and manage these preconditions and side effects, a strong school leader can ensure that the benefits of the focus on foundational skills through remediation outweigh any potential harm.
We offer four cautions for education systems as they use remediation programs that target instruction to student learning levels. Each of these “side effects” can be managed through strong school leadership.
1. Remediation without student engagement, joy and curiosity could risk losing student interest. Students will be coming to school with many basic health and safety needs that teachers and schools must address. In addition, to help students thrive, we need to ensure their learning is driven by engagement, joy and curiosity. For example, when helping students with lagging literacy skills, we often turn to simple texts. While these texts may match a student's decoding skills, they are often far below the student’s interest and comprehension level. Finding simple yet high-interest texts, or identifying ways to balance basic literacy with group discussions of higher-level texts, will allow for students to be more engaged, and allow teachers to engage in deeper conversations with students. School leaders have an important role to play in helping teachers access these resources, build meaningful schedules and create expectations for how students engage with texts.
2. Teachers who work to remediate student learning without a strong belief in students can cause more harm than good. School leaders must work with teachers to approach learning needs with a strong belief in student ability. Our work has shown us that in low- and middle-income countries, in particular, staggeringly large numbers of teachers have low belief in students’ ability to learn. If teachers do not believe in student ability to learn at high levels, students often get stuck in remedial level groups. Students who are on higher-level tracks have a learning curve that ends up much steeper than those on a remedial track simply because teachers believe they can do more. We must approach remediation with caution and with real attention to developing teacher mindset. School leaders should carefully watch groupings and ensure that students are not getting stuck while also explicitly having conversations about student ability and belief with teachers.
3. On a similar note, while remediation and acceleration programs that prescribe particular steps may be very useful with less-skilled teachers, we need to continue to raise the quality of the workforce by investing in their development. Teachers are often not able to understand where students truly are in their learning trajectories and what misconceptions they have, and how to teach a concept in multiple ways in order to help students learn it. This lack of skill often can lead to low belief in students’ ability to learn on the part of teachers. Currently, teacher professional development is often administered by pulling teachers away from their school sites, often causing teachers to miss instructional time and leading to training sessions feeling divorced from the day-to-day realities of the classroom. However, school leaders can be skilled and empowered to increase teacher skill in focused areas (e.g., questioning in the classroom, meeting individual student needs, the use of formative assessment) so that teachers will be better able to diagnose student understanding and tailor more accurate interventions. Without a strong parallel investment in on-site teacher professional development under the guidance of school leaders, remediation will only be a short-term fix.
4. Remediation without a deep focus on equity could lead to perpetuating long-standing systemic injustices. As we work to understand where students are, we need to understand who has been left behind and why. We need to ensure that we are not perpetuating inequitable structures—whether they be based on gender, class, caste, race, disability, language or other markers. Much of the push toward acceleration in the United States is because remediation programs often left African American students languishing in lower-level groups, making incremental progress only. Without real data and real focus on this reality, we often see these inequities being cemented rather than overcome. School leaders need to pay attention to their data, understand their history and ensure that their schools are disrupting these patterns rather than solidifying them.
We support the research behind the effectiveness of targeted instruction programs, such as the targeting instruction by learning level programs recommended in a recent World Bank report, but know too well that a program alone does not solve a problem, and that any program could have risks.
These risks must all be carefully managed by a strong school leader. A school leader will be able to set the culture of high expectations, drive a focus on equity, support teacher development and promote practices that drive curiosity and joy.
The point here is not that the school leader must do all the work above. Instead, as an educational ecosystem, we must invest in school leader training and support, provide school leaders the autonomy to do the work laid out above and build teacher skill as well.
However, without this focus, remediation could have dangerous outcomes, as schools could create situations in which implicit bias toward particular students or groups of students inadvertently slow their growth and development.