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Promoting the Critical Role of Learning Supports in Policy, Practice, and School Improvement

By Anastasia Kalamaros Skalski

Sometimes in the world of public policy, people read something that resonates with them in a new and unexpected way and results in a change in the way we do business. Some call this a paradigm shift, while others say they’ve had an epiphany. Whatever the assessment, when we start to be able to see the forest through the trees, it helps us successfully navigate our path to our destination.

After reading a policy analysis issued by the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools: Program and Policy Analysis this year, it became clear to several of NASP’s public policy leaders and staff, including myself, that we needed to reframe our work from the viewpoint of the forest versus the trees. The document that stimulated this change was called Synthesis and Analysis of Recommendations to Congress for ESEA Reauthorization From the Perspective of Addressing Barriers to Learning & Teaching (2010). It reviewed recommendations for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA; also known as No Child Left behind; NCLB) offered by witnesses at hearings on Capitol Hill and written recommendations submitted by a variety of national organizations, NASP included. The policy analysis determined that current recommendations were generally insufficient and would amount to mere “tinkering” with our educational system. The report asserted that real meaningful policy reforms were not likely to be achieved based upon current proposals because their primary focus was almost exclusively on two components: instructional (e.g., standards, high quality instruction, teacher quality, etc.) and organizational (e.g., accountability, budgets, governance, resource and facility management, etc.). While these two components of schooling are critical, the researchers’ analysis determined that this focus alone is insufficient to achieve the true policy and practice reforms necessary to ensure that all students learn. In short, a child who is struggling to overcome barriers to learning (e.g., poverty and homelessness, school climate and safety, student engagement, and individual learning and mental health challenges) will not be fully available for instruction, even with strong curricula, highly qualified teachers, and a rigorous accountability system. A new approach is needed.

The UCLA researchers propose that a three-component framework for ESEA reauthorization be advanced that balances instruction, management, and a third component— learning supports for students. Learning supports are defined as “the resources, strategies, and practices that provide physical, social, emotional, and intellectual supports to enable all students to have an equal opportunity for success at school by directly addressing barriers to learning and teaching and by reengaging disconnected students.” Federal policy that almost exclusively addresses issues related to only two components essential to school reform is the equivalent of trying to successfully sit upon a two-legged stool. Much attention has been given to instructional and organizational issues over the past decade, yet our schools have not attained the goal of high achievement and school completion for all students. The only essential component of education that has not been fully integrated into policy, and hence practices, is that which encompasses learning supports. Without equal attention to this critical third leg, schools will continue to fall short of their mission for every student to learn and succeed in school. Further, programs and initiatives within this third component, such as school-wide positive behavior supports, response to intervention, school–community partnerships, social–emotional learning, and other learning support types of programs will compete for the remaining resources resulting in fragmentation and marginalization of services and supports. Despite the wonderful work represented by all of these programs, no single learning support program can meet every student need. “Comprehensive and coordinated” learning supports that reflect a full continuum of learning support services and personnel are essential to school improvement and in order for these to be effective, the importance of learning supports must become integral to every school improvement discussion and dialogue.

The move from a two- to a three-component policy framework significantly enhances efforts to develop a blueprint and roadmap for transforming school improvement policy and practice to deal with such barriers. It does this by providing a unifying umbrella policy under which all resources expended for student and learning supports can be woven together. Doing so increases effectiveness and reduces costs. Specifically, this requires a systematic focus on how to:

  • Reframe current student support programs and services and redeploy the resources to develop a comprehensive, multifaceted, and cohesive system for enabling learning

  • Develop both in-classroom and school-wide approaches that reinforce individual student interventions—including interventions to support transitions, increase home and community connections, enhance teachers’ ability to respond to common learning and behavior problems, and respond to and prevent crises

  • Realign district, school, and school–community infrastructures to weave resources together with the aim of enhancing and evolving the learning supports system

  • Pursue school improvement and systemic change with a high degree of policy commitment to fully integrate supports for learning and teaching with efforts to improve instruction and school governance

  • Expand accountability systems both to improve data-based decision-making, and to reflect a comprehensive picture of students’ and schools’ performance that incorporates efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching

Given this analysis and the implications for our work as advocates for education and student mental health, NASP has committed time and resources to refocusing the ESEA reauthorization policy discussion in order to shine new light on the critical role of learning supports in policy, practice, and school improvement. To this end, some of the activities supporting this effort that have been completed to date include:

  • NASP staff participated in a briefing sponsored by Representative Judy Chu (CA-32) in May upon the release of her report, “Strengthening our Schools.” (See http://chu.house.gov/SOS%20Report%20FINAL.pdf for more information.) NASP endorsed this report that proposes reforming the current School Improvement Grant program by replacing the current four models with grants that would help failing schools adopt the three-component approach advocated by the UCLA Center for Mental Health.

  • NASP staff and leaders worked with Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor, the directors of the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools, to summarize their 62-page policy report into a four-page document that could be used in policy discussions at the local, state, and national levels. This document can be reviewed on the NASP website at http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/UCLA_NASP_Brief_FINAL.pdf

  • NASP presented the summary of this work at a variety of coalition meetings including such groups as the National Alliance for Pupil Services Organizations, Success for All, Communities in Schools, and the National Coordinating Committee for School Health and Safety. NASP and the UCLA Center then disseminated organizational sign-on letters addressed to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate Education and Labor committees and the U.S. Secretary of Education to request that they refocus their attention in the reauthorization process on building policies and promoting practices that support a “3-component model.” These letters were sent in November with 29 national and state organizations signing on in support of this effort.

  • NASP leaders and other leaders representing school counselors and school social workers involved in the Building Collaborative Cultures for School Mental Health practice group began development of a dialogue guide to be used in conjunction with the four-page brief policy document compiled by NASP and UCLA.

  • In mid-November, NASP leaders and staff met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff and shared information about the critical importance of learning supports and how existing proposals outlined by the U.S. Department of Education in the Administration’s Blueprint for Reform need to better address the critical role of learning supports and support services personnel in their proposals, policies, and practices.

  • NASP sponsored a Congressional briefing in honor of National School Psychology Week in mid-November focusing on “Learning and Social–Emotional Supports for Students Experiencing Family Transitions: Meeting the Needs of Military, Foster, and Homeless Children.” At this briefing, information about the 3-component model was discussed and the four-page policy brief was disseminated.

  • Over the last 5 months, NASP staff and leaders have presented information about the 3-component model and presented the four-page summary at national, state, and local professional development sessions across the country. These presentations have reached school psychologists, teachers, school administrators, and elected officials.

The more that we focus public discussions on the integral nature of learning supports to school improvement, the more likely it is that individual policy makers will ask themselves (without our prompting) about what resources and supports for struggling learners are present and who is providing them in their own systems. Learning supports must become part of the daily dialogue about school improvement in the same way school leaders always ask about teacher quality, instructional strategies, curriculum, and the organizational and management issues in schools. Contrary to popular belief, the best evidence of the effectiveness of NASP’s Advocacy in Action is not the number of school psychologists who have reached out to their elected officials to discuss an issue important to school psychology. (Don’t get me wrong, this is of critical importance; it is just not the best evidence.) Instead, it is the number of elected officials, state policy makers, school administrators, parents, teachers, and students that spontaneously talk about the critical importance of our services and how they are integral to improved student learning.

Anastasia Kalamaros Skalski, PhD, is NASP Director of Public Policy.