Beth Rabbitt, The Learning Accelerator
Beth Rabbitt is Chief Executive Officer of The Learning Accelerator (TLA) and is a nationally recognized expert in education innovation and blended and personalized learning. TLA is a national nonprofit organization that envisions a world in which every child deserves an effective, engaging, and equitable education that enables them to reach their full and unique potential. The team works to ensure every teacher has the knowledge, tools, and networks they need to transform K-12 education.
EF: Please start by bringing us in on your own personal journey as a learner and what that informs in your work as an educator.
BR: My personal story of learning is why I do the work that I do. And I was in many ways an atypical learner. I was a high-mobility student. While I grew up in a family that had access to a lot of resources—white, first language was English, solidly upper-middle class—my family moved a lot all over the country. I went to five different schools between the end of middle school and graduation of high school. My experience with learning was pretty chaotic. I was often thrown into new schools in new states, mid-year. And to be candid, my teachers, who were all working very hard and had my best interest in mind, didn’t really know much about me. But, I actually didn’t know much about myself either. I didn’t have a great picture of who I was as a learner, let alone what I knew or didn’t know. And there was no common roadmap for mastery. I entered schools with a transcript but that transcript said very little about what I could do, what my skills were, and also didn’t really help anyone understand what I uniquely needed. I was also a student with learning differences. I was pretty disorganized. And there were some parts of my education that were a little bit laughable. I read Ethan Frome four times. There were other things that I didn’t get any exposure to—in my middle school and secondary career, I’d never studied any history before 1890. Those examples aren’t actually catastrophic. I had, like I said, really good resources to solve for gaps. But in some cases, they were pretty damaging. Particularly in math, where I was navigating across systems with very different expectations and no common language. By the time I hit high school, I actually had really huge gaps that started to infiltrate other subjects like science. So, all in all, schooling was really confusing. I left school with the expectation that it was all about performance. And there was very little in the way of actual support or understanding or self-knowledge that I developed.
By the time I reached college, which thankfully I did get into, I got really interested in what our public education systems were. Was my experience normal, or was it abnormal? What did most people experience? What I realized was that my experience of being a student who was forced to flex to a lot of systems that didn’t fit me was not at all abnormal for many kids in this country, particularly those who are highly mobile, but also for those who experience a lot of inequity in their educational experience overall, for those who perhaps are the children of migrant workers, or for kids whose first language is not English. What was abnormal, though, was my outcome. And that outcome was very much made possible by my resources, my race, and the quality of schools that I was being thrown into. That is completely unacceptable.
We have to design systems of schools that can flex the uniqueness of and deliver excellence for every single child in this country. And that’s what my career is all about. In particular, right now, I feel even more urgency than I did before to find ways to help students and teachers better know and understand what has happened in a student’s learning process, not just their learning process that relates to mastery standards, but also learning process that relates to themselves and the skills they have and will need to be successful in their futures as adults in whatever they want to do.
EF: Can you bring us in on that experience and the lessons that you have found across working with educators and with schools? We’re searching in this series to understand what we can rely on as we plan for this challenging future of schooling.
BR: I’ve been really blessed over the last seven years at the Learning Accelerator to get to work alongside a lot of incredible educators and support organizations and leaders. Our work is all about partnering with educators who are trying to solve really gnarly, complex problems of practice, understanding the strategies that are emerging from their attempts to support children, and networking learning about that work so that we can share as openly as broadly as possible to accelerate learning at the national scale. They have let us into stories of success, but also stories of learning and failure. And I’m super grateful to have anything that I share today actually be things that I got to learn from teachers. I’m also highly cognizant that everything I share today relate to things that I’ve learned from educators because of my position of privilege. And so I just want to say that the solutions that I might share come from their hard work and their communities’ hard work.
We’re facing a level of dynamic need that we have never faced at a national level before—not only did schools close very, very quickly, but schools closed without a level of equity of infrastructure for serving all students well, and without, frankly a lot of idea about what the future would hold. It’s becoming more and more obvious that we actually don’t know what the fall of 2020 is going to look like. We don’t actually know what the spring of 2021 is going to look like. And our systems of schools are going to have to prepare in a way to be even more flexible than they’ve ever been to understanding where every kid is and getting every kid on a pathway to success. That pathway to success is going to include academic standards and understanding what has happened. One of the things that frustrates me is that most of our conversations about the spring have focused on assumptions around learning loss and assumptions that are often deficit-based about what kids are doing in their homes. In reality, there are areas where kids are probably falling behind, but there might be areas where kids are getting a lot more time to learn in areas they wouldn’t have.
We’re going to have to do a much better job of being flexible and agile. One thing that will support that will include closing our remaining gaps in access. It’s highly likely that in the fall, we will have to deal with students learning from home and students learning in school in a very seamless way. If folks have not committed to closing equity gaps as it relates to access devices and WiFi, then we are going to be on our heels in serving those kids who need to be served most now.
The second thing is our common language and infrastructure for talking about mastery. We cannot equitably close gaps at a time when students haven’t had a lot of contact with their school systems and are entering new classrooms with new peers and teachers without having common expectations around the skills and standards that should have been mastered and are most important to unlocking grade-level learning. How can we have a common understanding across our school teams of what those are, how we will talk about them, and what mastery looks like so students and teachers can all have a common language? Related to that, there’s going to have to be investment in data systems that connect to our learning standards and make all of the information that we’ve had about students learning this year and learning actually accessible whether we’re at home or at school in a way that helps us act on data, not just monitor for accountability purposes.
The third thing that I think is going to be really critical for the work is that we’ll be using our teachers’ time differently and more flexibly than before. This is something that I think is important to talk about. There will be likely adults who cannot reenter classrooms in the fall, who possess enormous skill and enormous energy, that would be a shame to lose if we don’t continue to have them engage with students. At the same time, we’re likely going to be facing different configurations of teams of teachers working with groups of students in the fall. I think moving teams of teachers away from a “my class, my subjects” standpoint to more about team-orientation around, “Who are the students in our care and how are we going to be flexibly working together online and offline to meet needs?” will be really important, because we’re going to have to do a lot more differentiation than we’ve done before in terms of our interventions. One interesting strategy we’ve seen in other schools is actually pulling apart grade-levels to be focused on two-grade-level bands. A number schools we work with have moved to grade-bands like second-third-grades together, fourth-fifth-grades together, because that allows for students actually be matched into groups based upon what they need with a little bit more economy rather than having teachers try to reach all of the students in a classroom that might have to get support on the same scale at the same time. Another thing is having our special education experts actually be able to partner much more closely with teams to work to deliver intervention because we actually know there are probably more kids coming in who need support, whether they have an IEP [individualized education plan] or not, on particular foundational skills.
And then the last thing that’s going to be really important is getting a super clear picture, based on our language of mastery and based on our data systems, of, where is every child? What have they learned? What have they not learned? What are the comprehensive supports they might need that might not be academic but might be around social emotional needs, identity needs, addressing certain traumas. Getting an individual plan for every kid in place is going to be important. That doesn’t mean providing individualized instruction at all times. It does mean actually having an articulation between a student, a teacher ,and a family about, where are we and where do we need to go, and how might we get there? And so those strategies would be the ones that I would focus on.
EF: You talk about this idea of a common and clear picture of what mastery looks like. Where do you feel like we have the right patterns and infrastructure, and are there also places where we don’t actually know enough about how learning works to do that?
BR: I am not a content expert. I would say that I would defer to those who are mathematics experts. What I can say is that we know that learning is not a linear process. We definitely know that, right? So I think efforts where we’ve said, “okay, we’re going to neatly stack up a progression of standards. Students must pass this before they can move to the next one” is not likely wrong, given the nature of spiraling of learning. Now, does that mean we can’t organize in a way to say, within this unit, we’re going to tackle these 10 standards and we’re going to ensure every kid can master every one before we move on? That’s not to say that we wouldn’t do that. But, I do think that the notion of putting kids onto a pathway where they have to march through every standard before they’re allowed to get up to higher grade-level tasks with their peers is both a faulty metaphor, and is one that will contribute to greater inequity. I think where we have seen intervention done best is in schools that have both managed to provide significant support for student growth as well as have students meet and achieve grade level standards—which is very important if we’re expecting kids to be able to access college and higher-level learning later. These are places where there’s an acknowledgment that there are likely dual pathways that are happening for kids. Where we are working as best we can to continue to offer and effectively instruct kids around grade-level scopes and sequences—so they’re learning with their peers, they’re engaging in academic dialogue—while also doing really good diagnosis about the “swiss cheese holes” (which I think is the metaphor that speaks best to me) that is a foundational skill or standard that a student didn’t master that is now in the way of them being able to concretely understand or move forward. That oftentimes isn’t a linear progression, but it’s in fact a picture of these standards that are the most important that will help us access that grade-level learning. By understanding what those are and really mapping them out and getting a sense of whether or not students have mastered them, we can then give students access to intervention that effectively opens up that grade level pathway. For some students, there’s going to be potentially a lot of foundational material that they are missing. We as educators have to make decisions about which standards we think are most important. Also, if we’re not actually helping a student reach mastery, we have to be willing to recognize that we might not know what we don’t know and actually do deeper diagnosis. We don’t accomplish intervention by just double-dosing on the same strategy that we’ve provided in the past. We have great evidence that giving kids two additional hours on an adaptive learning platform if they’re not making progress is not the way to go about getting them through.
Interventions are not just going to be content-oriented and skills-oriented, but sometimes might actually be more about students’ feelings of relevance and connection to the work they’re doing. They’re the factors that are supporting them in their motivation. Learning also could be about belief. To go back to my personal story, one time when I switched schools, I was not understanding a critical mathematical concept. I kept having explained it and just didn’t get it, and I was stuck against a wall. I was given the book and told to go home and to just have a conversation about it. Finally, I realized what was in my way as a student at this moment, and this is not a universal thing, was the idea I had in my head that I just could never get this concept right. At some point it had to be a conversation of, “how are you feeling about this concept? Where are you in terms of your set of beliefs or the internal dialogue that is keeping you motivated or understanding?” I think sometimes we forget that those are parts of our learning, too. Relevance, motivation, and beliefs about self factor into our ability to learn. That doesn’t necessarily make the work ahead of us easier. But it does tell us that, in addition to framing intervention and thinking about our diagnostics, our definition of mastery, and how will we progress kids, we also have to be thinking about the relationships and emotional and social supports that are going to be needed for kids who are likely facing a greater set of challenges and a greater disconnection from themselves, their teachers, or from even their own learning than they’ve ever felt before.
EF: Thank you so much for bringing that into the conversation. What else have you seen we might try that doesn’t actually work?
BR: These are things that we’ve seen that tend to be less effective. One is hyper-individualization. We are motivated to learn with others. We are social beings. And we are also beings that learn through discourse. To provide an example of something very early on, in the blended learning movement when we were thinking about how technology might be supportive of students who are English language learners. We thought, “Great, we’re going to be able to give kids access to content in whatever home language they have. We’re going to be able to give them really custom language tutoring through all these great programs.” We were able to do that, but we also denied them access to rigorous academic discourse that could have been super helpful for accelerating them more quickly. And we had to figure out that there’s a balance between the intervention for the child and our work around like social learning, not just for the purposes of motivation, but for the purposes of exposure. I think it would be super tempting in the fall to think of what’s the hyper-level of personalization or individualization, but in reality, we really have to balance it.
Similarly, the other place where I see errors come up is when we over-rely on some data because we define it as objective and not on other data and fail to triangulate between what students are telling us, what teachers are telling us, and what an assessment or data system is telling us. I’ll never forget one of my biggest lessons came when I helped to start a new charter school in New York. We had undertaken MAP assessment at the beginning of the year to get deep diagnoses to get kids on individualized intervention plans. And I remember sitting with a student who was like, really disengaged, and he was just clicking and he kept saying like, “this is too easy for me.” He was super frustrated, and he kept cycling through the same unit. And I went to our chief academic officer, and I said, like, I think something is wrong here. Like, I think we need to have him up a level, we need to do something. And she said, “Look, we just got started. We’re going to rely on the data of this validated assessment because that’s how we’re organizing learning and we’ll reassess in three weeks’ time.” Well, guess what, spending three weeks doing work that is below your level of ability on your own is super demotivating and it is unfair to kids. So I look back on that mistake we made because he did really well on the next assessment and we realized we had just wasted his time.
Conversely, I look at my daughter who is six. She entered kindergarten last fall and had such acute anxiety around being tested by her teachers doing one-on-one assessment that the only answer she could give to her comprehension questions in reading was “I don’t know.” Teachers were like, we really think that she can do more, we just cannot move forward without this evidence. They sent her home with a reading tool and it was totally fine. Because district policy required that she demonstrate the skill to the teachers in the format of that one-on-one assessment she wasn’t allowed to do any higher-level work. That mistake where we over-relied on the human data and failed to look at where else data could come from, say an adaptive language platform, also was a mistake. My child is in a household of books, it wasn’t that big a deal. But for a lot of kids, that would be a big mistake. And so, this is a very long-winded way of saying we have to be willing to look at data with complexity in mind and do the triangulation and listen to our instincts as educators when we know something is wrong because kids will give data when something is wrong. And oftentimes, it will be behavioral information they’re providing us back and what they’re saying to us in the classroom. And that’s why you can’t just do an NWEA assessment and just say, “great, here’s your playlist for the entire fall.”
EF: I think this “both, and” is so clear. We need some data, but we also need human interaction. And we have to keep that front and center.
BR: And we have to keep that front and center even if we are not going to get to be in-person. I think that speaks to some real work we need to do as a community to figure out, how do we engage with students online or over the phone. And we need to figure it out equitably, as it relates to where our efforts are going. So, if there are kids who are struggling, if there are kids for whom we’re not seeing progress, we actually need to double-down as much on our relational work with them in our connecting work, as we do on academic intervention work. In these environments in these times, those two things are so important for a principal to know how successfully that’s happening between students and teachers as an enabler for everything else.
And between students and students, I think there’s some great research around online presence, social presencing, and how important it is in online learning environments. There are two types of social presence that really matter. One is a sense of teacher presence, like I actually believe that there is a human being that I’m speaking to that I’m being held accountable to that I’m relating to, and it turns out videos actually don’t provide that in and of themselves. The other is a commitment to peers and peer-presence. And we’ve got to do both of those things. And sometimes, by the way, that doesn’t happen in in-person classrooms either. We have classrooms where that hasn’t been prioritized.
EF: Any final thoughts you share with us, and just thoughts on what leaders need to be thinking about as they prepare to go back to school?
BR: I think that the most important thing that I am thinking about right now, and asking folks in our communities to think about, is not the “what” of those solutions, but the values we’re going to lead with. Often, particularly in this moment, where we are presented with such a technical challenge, not just as it relates to remote learning, not just as it relates to intervention, but how are we going to get kids into school safely, how are we going to social distancing. There are such huge technical challenges ahead of us, it’s easy to jump to what we will do. Equally as important is why we will do it, which should feed into how we decide to do it. We’ve done a lot of work with district leaders trying to understand their pathways to scale innovation. And it’s not that there’s one common roadblock for folks, it’s that there are common tensions that we’re navigating together. Do we go fast? Do we go slow? Where do we prioritize our effort towards readiness or towards need? How much do we centralize versus decentralize? How much do we focus on what is emerging as best practice versus sharing lessons we’re learning through failure? And the thing that’s hard about any one of those things is neither is right. Both are important and they live in tension. The only way we as communities can make good decisions is to have open conversations about what we value and what we seek to maximize will actually translate to our decision-making around how we’re going to work together. And then ultimately, we determine what solutions might work given other decisions. In a time when we’re acting urgently, when we are fatigued, it is easy to just to say, “Let’s just get it done.” But we have to ensure the design choices we’re making actually align with our aspirations for education and what we want for kids.
EF: I think that is so real. Values and clarity about aspirations are so critical. Thank you for elevating that. Any final thoughts? Who else should we be learning from?
BR: I think we are not doing the best job of learning from students and families right now. I’m seeing a lot of great analyses come out from organizations such as mine, such as yours, around what’s going on, what’s not working? But I think it’s super important that we actually also talk to families and students about what’s working and what’s not working. Asking, “How would you want school to look like?” should shape the fall. And to do so in a rigorous way, not just an anecdotal way. So not read one op-ed. Let’s actually talk to the communities who should be designing most inclusively with us about what solutions are happening.
Ultimately, the more we talk to folks are on the front line, on the ground, and the more we talk to students, the better.