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Reville & Canada: The Time Has Come for Truly Personalized Learning — With a Navigator to Make Sure Each Child Succeeds

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For the past two years, schools, families and students have grappled with a COVID-induced crisis. Not just of health, but of continuous disruptions, school closures, remote schooling and extraordinary stresses, interruptions and obstacles to children’s education and well-being. Relationships fractured as students were torn from the normalcy of their teachers and friends and forced to cope on their own, with no consistent guidance.

Schools have spent many turbulent months bringing students back even while dealing with staff shortages and other disruptions. Not surprisingly, mental health problems, already at unprecedented levels prior to COVID, are off the charts as students seek to readjust to the social and emotional complexity of returning to school and catching up after the trauma of disconnection, isolation and alienation.

What can be done? 

School and community leaders need to make a long overdue paradigm shift from a factory model, mass-production education system to a customized approach that differentiates between children and meets each one where they are, seeking to provide them what they need to succeed inside and outside of school. Teachers and parents, too, are affected by the continued barrage of stress and the uncertainty it has caused. Educators yearn for deeper, more consequential relationships with students, which is not possible given the way teaching and learning currently occur in the classroom. At this moment, students need to be connected to their educators and schools, families need support and guidance, and teachers want to feel like they are making a difference. We believe the time has come for every child to have a success plan and a navigator, a caring adult to act as their advocate for years at a time.

The concept of navigator has some modest footholds in education. There are guidance counselors who can in theory play such a role but are undermined by unworkable student-counselor ratios. A few schools feature advisories that provide some navigation services. Special education students have Individualized Education Programs. But even so, navigation and success planning are rare in schools. Personalization is not the norm as it is, for example, in medicine, where patient navigators — primary care physicians — advocate for the unique needs of each individual and guide families in producing better health outcomes for their loved ones.

In the field of education, navigators, managing a modest caseload, could be deployed to understand and advocate for meeting students’ unique in- and out-of-school needs. Imagine that a navigator has one student who has just suffered the death of a parent, one who is being bullied and one who is struggling in math. The navigator would provide a plan of action for each student — setting up time with a social worker or therapist, looking into peer mediation and securing a math tutor, respectively — to fulfill each student’s individual need.

Most children in under-resourced schools need the kind of support that a navigator would provide. One district that has brought this kind of program to scale is Metro Nashville. The city’s navigator initiative provides an individual advocate for all 80,000 students. More than 6,000 teachers and other school staff are involved. Navigators meet regularly with children, identify their academic and non-academic needs, and serve as advocates for developing plans for ensuring those needs are satisfied.

To implement a navigator strategy, leaders must create a system that enables a designated adult to reach out to a particular student on a regular basis to see how they’re doing, with an emphasis on making kids feel seen, heard, understood and cared for. Such an initiative, which could be funded using abundant federal COVID relief funding, meets the urgent, immediate need of providing a quality adult relationship that connects each student and family to supports and opportunities while enhancing their sense of belonging to a community.

As navigators prepare plans and learn about categories of student need, from dental care to afterschool programs to tutoring and nutrition, schools and communities can aggregate this

information to glean insights and set priorities. Building comprehensive cradle-to-career pipelines ensures that all students have not only the schooling, but the supports and opportunities outside of school they need to succeed in education and life. The spotty and disappointing results of decades of “education reform,” when judged against progress toward equity, have vividly demonstrated the shortcomings of a “schools-alone” strategy for achieving equality of opportunity in our society.  It’s time to move on and provide all students the wraparound attention and support readily available to the privileged. All students need to be able to come to school each day genuinely ready to learn.

Putting a responsive navigation system in place is a start. Many districts have been doing modified versions of direct outreach since the advent of the pandemic, but now there’s an opportunity to establish this kind of personalization as part of the “new normal.”  Once initial connections are made and systems are built to support this work, the customization of education can become deeper, broader and more comprehensive. Personalization is fundamental in medicine, and business increasingly operates in an environment characterized by niche marketing and customized promotions, products and services. Why not education and child development?

America’s legacy system of public education, even with substantial “reforms,” has proven unequal to the task of creating fair opportunities for all young people. Those afflicted by deep, concentrated poverty are still routinely left behind by an education system that is not working for them. They need help immediately. This can involve a holistic system that takes into account a 360-degree portrait of each child and their particular assets and needs. Having a responsive Navigation system in place is a good way to begin.

The COVID-19 crisis brings an opportunity to expand the social compact and to think and act more broadly to provide families and children with the attention, support and opportunities they need. Community and school leaders need to reimagine a new, more effective set of strategies for achieving equity. As social mobility steadily declines, only a holistic set of personalized, child development and education strategies can reverse the trend. Providing each child with a navigator is a bold, practical and affordable first step in that direction. 

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education. Geoffrey Canada is the founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone and founder of the William Julius Wilson Institute.

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