Putting the 20% of students, families, employees and/or communities who have been the most marginalized at the core of innovative, cross-functional solutions.
“There are all of these programs: PBIS, Restorative Justice, RTI, Trauma-informed. No one is helping you think about how to integrate all of these pieces into a holistic approach that is also unique to the individual school and its context. We can’t just layer on another program. (The 20% Project) is invaluable in helping us figure out how they all work together in a way that is student-focused and enables schools to achieve their goals for kids.”— Marcia Aaron, Executive Director of KIPP SoCal
Schools — and the systems in which they operate — are consistently failing 20% of their most vulnerable students. These “Students who Systems Fail the Most” (SSFMs) have special needs, are court-involved, live well below the poverty level and/or face unthinkable barriers to success. Statistically, they are likely to be students of color. Too often they are labeled “special populations” and further marginalized out of classrooms and into separate and unequal programs.
Instead of making fundamental changes to the system itself, schools and systems implement siloed solutions that treat students as the problem to be fixed. But “these students” — a term frequently used to stereotype them — are not the problem. The problem is that systems are consistently failing the 20% of students that need support the most.
At The 20% Project, we believe that if we put the needs of SSFMs at the core of everything we do, we will get not only get radically better results for those students, we will also make the changes necessary for all students to reach a higher level of achievement.
We know from research what it takes to serve all students well. Excellent, high-achieving, high-poverty schools do four things well. Over the past decade, there has been tremendous progress helping schools systems improve on (1) instruction, (2) talent, and (3) operations, but there is a critical “fourth leg of the stool” that is too often underdeveloped or deprioritized.
This missing piece: building purposeful, anti-bias cultures and practices that support healthy identity development, deep relationships, student and family ownership over goals, growth in social and emotional skills, and developmentally appropriate responses to conflicts and incidents. It is good for all students — and essential to ensure SSFMs thrive.
Today, the field is riddled with research and programmatic solutions such as “trauma-informed education,” “restorative justice” and “anti-bias training” that focus organizations on component inputs without helping schools and their bosses look at the systemic issues that need to change to achieve better equity outcomes. All of these are strong pieces of the solution but not the whole picture.
What’s missing is a holistic approach to building the capacity of systems to serve SSFMs by making large-scale changes to adult mindsets and cultures, policies and practices, and training and capacity building.
We engage with clients for 13-24 months, a timeframe that allows us to truly build relationships and make the deep, fundamental system shifts to catalyze long-term change. We are about teaching systems, schools, and their leaders how to fish—not fishing for them. Our process has three components.
Throughout, we are helping systems make six fundamental shifts: (1) from assuming results for the 20% should be a separate, non-urgent to putting their needs at the core of systems design. (2) from ignoring the underlying racism that created the 20% to confronting individual biases and systemic oppression, (3) from trying to change things one teacher or school at a time to a system-wide approach, (4) from admiring the challenges to serving marginalized students to building capacity at every level, (5) from separate and unequal, special “programs” for the 20% to helping them thrive alongside their peers, and (6) from taking advantage of the fact that many families in the 20% lack political access to putting their progress at the forefront.
I bring John, David, Ana and Sally into every training, strategy session and decision-making room I occupy. Well, actually I bring their stories, to remind myself and others of the students we are still failing and the significant work we still need to do to ensure excellence for all students.
John’s family immigrated from the Dominican Republic and he was assigned to a bilingual class where his teacher spoke only English. He’s Black, so in his mostly Latino school, adults often singled him out for being disruptive even when he acted similarly to his peers. Daily, he dealt with awkward and misguided questions about his identity: Are you Black or Latino? Despite the language barriers between John and his teacher and classmates, it was clear he was functioning several grade levels above his peers in pretty much every subject. His family lived in abject poverty, using a camping stove to cook dinner and rationing money for gas and electricity.
Mark appeared to be Brown and, because he was adopted and spent time in group homes, no one seemed to know his race or ethnicity. He’d been in multiple homes by the time he was 8, experiencing immeasurable trauma. He suffered from a degenerative hip disease—and had experienced significant physical abuse—that resulted in over a dozen surgeries and made it hard for him to walk. His school had meticulously spelled out all of his defects and problems and special education needs, in what educators call an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). But nothing in that document got at the root causes or pointed out his innumerable strengths, including his deep conviction about right and wrong, and his seemingly endless kindness and positive attitude.
Ana was raped when she was 14 by a family member whose father spent the better part of his childhood incarcerated. When her demons caught up to her, she tried to tell her story only to be put out by her entire family and their extended friends. With nowhere to turn, she ended up on the streets, living in a friend’s car and dropping out. Ana found her way to an alternative school for over-aged and under-credited youth where she also came out as a lesbian questioning her gender identity. No one at either of her schools knew her secrets: that she was the victim of a terrible act of sexual violence, or that she didn’t have a home. She was a good student, after all—compliant and quiet.
Sally’s family isn’t wealthy, but they don’t struggle economically. It became clear early in her life that she wasn’t growing, physically or emotionally, at quite the rate of her peers and she suffered from bouts of extreme exhaustion and frustration. Eventually, she was diagnosed with diabetes and also dyslexia. The process to obtain the medical services necessary to manage her diabetes was, simply put, a nightmare. Her parents were sent in circles and Sally spent as much time out of class checking her monitors and navigating bureaucracy as she did learning strategies to manage her emotions and learning how to read. And, when she was in class, Sally became increasingly frustrated as she fell further behind. Few at school seemed to connect the dots between her physical challenges, her learning struggles and her outbursts.
THE PROBLEM WITH LABELS
We have names for students like John, Mark, Ana and Sally. We identify them as belonging to a “specialized population.” By this, we might mean English-learning, special education, LGBTQQ, court-involved, homeless, over-aged, under-credited, medically fragile or Title I. God forbid you belong to any of these groups and are also Black or living well below the poverty level, which makes your chances of excelling in school almost non-existent. In that case, we label you “at-risk”—for struggling in school, dropping out or worse. We count the number of “adverse childhood effects” (ACEs) you have and record them in databases.
In other words, we spend lots of time describing the defects of students and very little time diagnosing the systemic issues that make their odds of success even longer.
Many traditional schools struggle to support students with these labels. Even our best and highest-performing schools, including those in the charter sector, are struggling with these very same students. When we disaggregate data, we see tremendous gaps in academic achievement between students with disabilities and their general education peers. We see huge gaps in achievement between Black students and their White peers. We see that students who are homeless, in foster care or involved in the court system master grade-level material at much lower rates than their peers.
For years, education advocates called these “achievement gaps.” Recognizing this term could imply that students are the problem, many have recently embraced the phrase “opportunity gaps.” Proponents in favor of this framing point out that students with particular risk factors have fewer opportunities than their more advantaged peers and this makes it harder for them to master academic content.
Most school systems not only fail to provide students in need of it with extra support, but actually implement policies and practices that make their chance of success even slimmer. Worse, some implicitly or explicitly suggest “we need to sacrifice the 20% to ensure the success of the 80%.” (I’ve heard this, multiple times.)
We need to stop finding labels for the students and start identifying the systems that make it damn near impossible for them to achieve. By using words that better reflect what the real problem is, we will start to shift our attention to the source of the fire instead of complaining constantly about the smoke.
STUDENTS WHO SYSTEMS FAILED THE MOST
I think we need a new way of talking about students who face barriers erected by adults and sustained by broken systems. So, I have taken to describing students like John, David, Ana and Sally as SSFMs—Students who Systems Failed the Most.
John’s family moved because of lack of economic opportunity and they were left even poorer by a broken and biased American immigration system. He faced racism, lack of support for learning English, and low expectations in a school and system that added roadblocks to his success. David was trapped in the child welfare system that created trauma and was transitioned into a special education system that piled on by further pathologizing him. Ana’s struggles were a result of someone else’s action and she was ignored by schools because she was compliant. Sally started failing in school because of the poor systems to support students with specialized medical and learning needs.
But John, David, Ana and Sally are not outliers or students we should consider around the edges of education policy and practice. They are our students, our friends, our family. John is my former student, who eventually did succeed despite our school and the broader system. David is my own brother, who survived school and is now an amazing dad and change agent in his community. Ana is a student I met as superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City—she excelled in her transfer school and went on to thrive in a prestigious university. Sally is like the children of so many of my friends who, despite the advantages of racial or economic privilege, struggle every day to advocate for their child’s basic learning needs.
It’s time we embrace a new mindset about these students. By calling them SSFMs, we are forced to grapple with how we must change our approach in pursuit of excellence for all students. It’s time to stop admiring that we have a problem and start addressing it.