My Students Can’t Meet Academic Standards Because the School Model No Longer Fits Them

One morning, my students were getting ready for a math test and working through a set of review problems. For many of them, the biggest challenges weren’t the questions on the paper in front of them, but their ability to attend to it. As I checked in with one student who appeared to be working quietly, it turned out he had carefully solved the first problem, only to write guesses down for the rest. Now, he was rewarding himself by attentively drawing cartoon cityscapes all over his paper.

I asked him why he didn’t try to solve the other problems, and he quickly told me he didn’t know how. When I pointed out that he solved the first one correctly, and the rest just needed to follow the same process, he confessed that it just took too long and he didn’t want to do it. I convinced him to go back and try again, but there were only a few minutes left in class and he barely had time to get started. Trapped between the schedule of the day and his own brain, he was going to fail. I know he can learn and do the math, but his struggles with attention and staying focused, along with the structure of school, make it really hard for him and others who share his challenges to find the success they deserve.

Notably, I have more students with ADHD this year than I can ever remember, and it feels like the numbers have been increasing for a while. This may simply be because we are getting better at diagnosing students and understanding their challenges, but the recognition of their needs can’t be ignored. The students I’m working with represent the whole spectrum of attention challenges, from hyperactive and impulsive to inattentive and lost in their own thoughts. Many have formal diagnoses of ADHD, and others show attentional challenges that may come from anxiety, trauma, and even racism — all of which impact their capacity to learn to their fullest potential and achieve at the same level as their peers who don’t have the same struggles in the school environment.

Our awareness of students’ SEL and cognitive needs is growing, but schools are still based on some kind of cognitive “normal” we expect all students to attain. Working around these needs or hoping children will adapt isn’t something we can continue to do if we truly want all students to flourish. Given the prevalence of these diverse brains, why do we continue to structure our classrooms and schools in ways that make it so hard for these kids?

What Doesn’t Work

A typical school day asks students to sit still for long periods, listen in large groups and follow a strict schedule that dictates when and how long they need to learn certain subjects. There are many reasons that this doesn’t work for many students, yet our system demands that we choose efficiency and convenience over what works for cognitively diverse student learners.

Large classes create more distractions for students who struggle to focus, and they inevitably get less attention and support as there are more students for teachers to work with. High numbers of students make it more difficult to plan for individual needs and force teachers to teach to an imaginary middle. A rigid schedule makes it easy to schedule adults and services, but it is a challenge for kids who need time to get engaged and prefer to keep working at a challenge once they are locked in.

We’ve also doubled down on siloed and basic skills instead of creating opportunities to see learning as connected and authentic. Single subjects and rote tasks are easy to plan and assess, but quickly lose their appeal if you don’t connect with the narrow content or see being successful in school as the primary reason for learning. The yearly turnover of grades and classes makes it difficult for students who struggle to adapt to routines or who need their own systems to succeed. Keeping teachers in a single grade and sending them new batches of students annually prioritizes teacher expertise in content and routines at the expense of relationships and knowledge of individual students that could help more cognitively diverse students find greater success. Grade levels and age-based grouping allow for standardized testing and standardized curriculum despite the fact that we know that our kids aren’t meant to fit a standard.

Until recently, I had spent the majority of my career teaching students for two years in a multi-age class; having the opportunity to build on my knowledge and relationships with each student in the second year allowed for tremendous growth and success. Nonetheless, even in my district, we see multi-age and multi-year teaching opportunities disappear as we strive for a consistent curriculum and a common experience for all students. Unfortunately, what is consistent is that in this model, certain students will always struggle.

Authentic Learning in Action

A recent field trip to an urban nature center created opportunities for several students who typically struggle with impulses and attention to engage in learning and show off their skills. Smelling the dried buds of different wildflowers to find one that smelled like citrus, one of my most inattentive students shouted out that he could use it in the soap he makes. Learning that he made soap at home was surprising enough, but then he asked for the name of the flower and, despite the times I’ve struggled to get him to take notes and keep track of where anything is, he pulled a tiny notebook and pencil from his pocket and carefully wrote it down.

Another student who regularly asks what the point is of the lessons we are doing — and is usually happy to settle for “good enough” with any activity we offer in the classroom — became a leader with a map in his hands, guiding his group through a scavenger hunt in the woods. He was happy to pause and check his directions, get feedback on where to go, and take his time to read and re-read the map and the clues he collected, none of which I could get him to do on his own in school.

These moments show the power of what is possible when learning is real and takes students outside the confines of our standardized system. Other authentic experiences in the arts and sciences can also provide experiences that engage and challenge students toward real learning.

Finding The Time

Now that I know what can engage and motivate these students, I can imagine creating more opportunities that allow them to harness their talents and grow their skills and knowledge. But we’re already a third of the way through the school year, and my curriculum requires me to teach certain topics for certain lengths of time, which doesn’t leave room for many of the types of experiences these kids need. Soon, June will come and I’ll pass them along to the next teacher, who won’t know what I know and will need another four months to learn it, wasting valuable time in these students’ educations.

Simply working one-on-one for 15 minutes with a student can produce more moments of learning and connection than they seem to experience in a typical week. Reading alongside someone and doing an impromptu word study or decoding lesson creates a chance to learn where they are active and attending in ways that are much harder when the information is presented to the whole group.

But these opportunities are the exception, not the rule. I rarely have time to work one-on-one with a student for more than a few minutes, let alone flex the schedule to allow extended time when kids are immersed in learning. I don’t have time to individually tailor lessons or plan units that can engage students who require more than a canned lesson to grab their attention.

Why can’t these types of experiences be more common in schools? They require great resources in staff and time, but they could make a meaningful difference in what our educational system could provide for students who are currently struggling to get by. What if we built our model around time and relationships, promoting smaller class models where students stay with a teacher for more than a year and create more time for open-ended learning, and built-in planning time for teachers to design experiences that meet the needs of the students in their care? It’s clear that our current model doesn’t meet the needs of many of our students, and the number of those who struggle seems to be growing.

Considering all we know, it’s time to restructure school in ways that can break us out of a one-size-fits-all factory model and towards something that recognizes children’s individuality and the unique ways they learn. Instead of expecting children to change and adapt to a cognitive norm, to ensure every child can flourish, we need to change our model to meet them where they are today.

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