Reville: In This Uncertain Time, Every Student Needs an Education Navigator and a Success Plan to Weather This Crisis and Fix Long-standing Inequities

In the world of education, it’s as though an earthquake happened. Overnight, the familiar features of classroom life — schools, teachers, friends and routines — simply disappeared for children. Everything became topsy-turvy. Children were confined to their homes for seemingly interminable stretches of time. It became hard to communicate with anyone outside the family, and new technology tools became centrally important, whether kids knew how to use them or not. The future was uncertain and frightening.

Trapped, sometimes disoriented and anxious about an unclear future, children now need communication, support and guidance from educators. They need help navigating turbulent waters in these confusing times. Their circumstances, assets, resilience and needs vary so widely that any “one-size-fits-all” approach to student support is destined to fail. To address the widespread diversity in our student population, we must give each child a navigator, someone to hold her hand and guide her into a place where she is seen, known, understood, supported and provided with customized opportunities to learn.

Continued health threats and disruption make it essential that every child have such an adult navigator. Teachers already have the responsibility to check in with children and lead them to learning opportunities; in transforming our education system to meet students, individually, where they are and give them what they need to be successful, educators will have to be trained to broaden their responsibilities and become educational navigators.

Restoring children’s relationships with their teachers and peers while getting them back on their respective educational pathways will require deepening relationships between educators and students, while extending special care and personal attention to children whose lives have been badly upended. Educational navigators can help each child find some order in the chaos by working with them and their families on the development of a success plan to provide them with necessary supports and opportunities.

Success planning customized to the needs of each student, curated by a navigator, is not a new concept in education. Elite families in the U.S. commonly opt for independent schools that feature small classes, strong, personalized advising and deep student-faculty relationships. The world’s most ancient, revered universities have long relied on a personalized approach to education by featuring faculty members as individual tutors for a limited number of students. In business, niche marketing and customization are becoming pervasive. In medicine, therapies are being designed to fit the particular genome of each patient. These shifts to personalization are already widespread in society — and long overdue in K-12.

Foremost among the reasons for this shift is the challenge of attaining educational equity at a perilous time, when the dislocations caused by the coronavirus threaten to dramatically increase opportunity and achievement gaps. Under normal conditions, schools have been unable to close gaps caused by widely disparate access to enrichment and support outside the classroom walls. Now, these gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged are compounded in numerous ways, from access to educational technology and internet to basic nutrition and health care to the availability of parents to provide guidance and instruction. Only through a system that provides customized guidance to enable students to find the support and learning opportunities they need can we hope to have equitable chances for all children to succeed.

At Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, we have worked with educators across the country on shaping and implementing customized success planning. We have seen that when teachers have the opportunity and support to become navigators for students, they find this work to be deeply gratifying and engaging, and it can even increase their job satisfaction and deepen their professionalism. One said to me, “This is why I went into teaching in the first place!” She went on to describe lengthy, thoughtful conversations with students in which she came to know and help them. She felt she was making a difference.

A moment of crisis brings with it the opportunity to make long overdue course corrections in subpar systems that have previously proved too cumbersome to change. Now, whether schooling is conducted in person, online or in some hybrid fashion, we have a chance to adopt better ways of educating our children. In the aftermath of this educational earthquake, we need to plan for every child’s success by taking into account their unique circumstances and needs. Student navigation and success planning are effective ways of coping with this crisis by meeting children’s needs, restoring their relationships, enhancing teachers’ roles and attending to our most urgent equity challenges.

Paul Reville is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he leads the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education.

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