Students have never arrived at school with exactly the same capacities and experiences. The expectation that they should, that every child should measure up to an external definition of preparedness, has always been inherently inequitable. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has laid bare the flaws with this idea of “readiness.”
Last week, I attended a webinar offered by The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit focused on improving educational policy and leadership. A panel that included a college president, a state university system director and two non-profit leaders shared insights about the challenges college students were facing, and how college leaders could support students struggling after disruptions to their educational experience caused by the pandemic. One of the panelists, Dr. Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, challenged the prevailing narrative that students must be “college-ready.” That approach, she argued, “normalizes” institutional inequities. Instead, institutions of higher education need to be “student-ready,” having systems in place to support students in graduating by meeting them where they are.
K-12 school leaders should consider shifting from a “school-readiness” mindset—an exclusionary concept rooted in privilege—to a “student-readiness” approach. Most Academic Leaders are at least familiar with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for “to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” K-12 educators have long recognized the need to understand where students are, rather than just teaching to the place we think they should be in. Now, more than ever, Academic Leaders should take Dr. Spiva’s advice.
You can’t meet students where they are if you don’t know where to find them. This year, students and families are in vastly different places academically and emotionally, and this has begun to show in the national landscape and our classrooms: fraying tempers, teacher exhaustion, overwhelming grief, and general strife are all in the news and on social media. Some families contended with unemployment, food insecurity, illness, death, and grief; others were able to navigate with minimal effect on income or health. We do know some general trends; our Black and Hispanic students are more likely to have lost close family members to COVID-19. Precarity only increased for students with families in tenuous financial situations. In order to be student ready, school leaders will need to be continuously attuned and responsive to students’ needs.
Leaders’ attentiveness may require relying on the relationships Academic Leaders have with other campus leaders, including the business office, financial aid, student support, DEIB leadership, school counselors, and even athletics coaches and arts directors. The individuals in each of these roles are poised to understand students’ needs in unique ways.
Being student-ready is the right thing to do for our students and our schools. As with so many other areas, the pandemic has intensified inequity that was already in place. To become communities of equity, we must both improve our systems, and seek to become more student ready every year.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)