Paul Goldberg

Paul Goldberg, EdD, was principal of John Muir Literacy Academy (elementary school) and Robert Frost Junior High School and has also been an elementary school teacher and a junior high school assistant principal. He has led diverse, low-income schools to high levels of success.

“Blurring the Lines” in an Elementary School

What would it look like if we “blurred the lines” in our school? How would schools function if every student received what he or she needed regardless of disability or language? At a hypothetical “Blurring the Lines Elementary School,” every student receives solid initial core instruction aligned to the grade-level standard. Support is scaffolded, and instruction is balanced. During the literacy block, students receive regular shared reading, guided reading, writing, independent reading time, and appropriate word work. During the math block, they receive a balance of whole-group teacher modeling and differentiated guided math to accelerate learning for both struggling students and on-level students. No student misses this instruction for intervention or anything else.

Blurring the Lines Elementary School recognizes that some students need extra time and support to master the grade-level standard, while others need to be accelerated beyond the grade-level standard. At this school, there are daily acceleration blocks for both reading and math where all new instruction stops. All the classroom teachers are available during this time, along with other staff who have appropriate literacy and math expertise. The staff who join the classroom teachers to provide instruction might be special services teachers, English learner teachers, and reading specialists. This provides smaller student-to-teacher ratios for struggling students and appropriate class-size groups for on-level and beyond students. What is taught during this time is aligned with the curriculum taught during initial instruction. The school refers to this model as curriculum-aligned acceleration.

Here are three examples (based on actual students and situations) of how Blurring the Lines Elementary School provides acceleration for all students:

  1. Johnny is a third grader with an IEP. He reads at the 10th percentile. His Fountas and Pinnell Level is around a K. An on-level reader in third grade would be reading around a P. During the literacy acceleration time, Johnny works with a teacher in a group with four other students all reading at a K, L, or M level. For about a month, the teacher working with the group is an English learner teacher; the next month, a classroom teacher with a strong expertise working with struggling readers takes over. By the third month, the special services teacher is with the group since her strengths also align with the needs of the group. The point is, anyone who can effectively accelerate learning for these students can teach the group. Johnny’s progress and all other students’ progress is constantly monitored. If his learning accelerates at an appropriate rate, the intervention continues. If he isn’t accelerating and instruction is occurring with fidelity, he then receives a third layer of instructional support.
  2. Susy is a newcomer and English learner in first grade. Her WIDA level is a one. She is reading far below grade level in English and is a native Spanish speaker. She happens to have early literacy gaps similar to three other native English speakers in her grade who are general education students. They are all grouped together. Susy’s classroom teacher is an excellent literacy teacher, but lacks an English learner endorsement, but that’s OK. She works with Susy’s group, and the students make astounding progress. The whole group ends up reading at grade level by the end of the year.
  3. Juan is a gifted fifth grader and performs above the 90th percentile in math. During the math acceleration block, he is taught by the special services teacher who has a track record of accelerating learning. The students in the class range in ability from being just on-level through the 99th percentile. Some students are English learners, some have IEPs, and most are general education students. The teacher uses strategies aligned with what is taught during initial instruction but at an accelerated level. Instruction is differentiated for struggling students receiving guided support, and high-achieving students receive challenging math tasks to advance their thinking on rigorous standards.

There are a manageable number of students at Blurring the Lines Elementary School who need more support than what they receive during initial instruction and the acceleration blocks. When students need more help, a third layer of support is also provided regardless of whether a student has a special need or language need. In fact, many students with IEPs or who are considered English learners do not receive a third level of support because they do not need it. Students who require additional support to accelerate their learning receive targeted intervention by a teacher who can best accelerate their learning. The teacher who provides this support often meets with students in groups of two or three and regularly communicates with the classroom teacher (tier 1) and acceleration teacher (tier 2) to align instructional methods.

While this model alone can’t be inclusive of every circumstance or every child, it can serve as a model that meets the needs of considerably more students than most current systems of support. Every student gets what they need, when they need it, by a teacher who can accelerate their learning. There are variations to this model that will certainly work, and there are individual students who will occasionally need a different plan to meet their needs. Regardless of all these factors, let’s “blur the lines” in our schools so every child gets what they need to be successful. We can’t afford to wait.


Shannon Nedds

This is a great reminder that what we are doing works and is worth it. I am in a school that follows this model and a large part of what allows us to do so is that we are a Public Montessori school. Students are grouped pre-K and K (PPK) then Lower Elementary (grades 1 and 2) and Upper Elementary (grades 3 and 4). These groupings allow us to put students together more efficiently and effectively. It is very difficult work, but reading about the "Blurring the Lines" school inspires me to keep at it because it is a model I believe in and I have seen the difference that it makes.

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Paul Goldberg

This model has proven to work effectively in early childhood and elementary schools. With some variations, it also works in junior highs or high schools. We have also seen it structured effectively across single grade or multi-grade schools. (ie. 1st/2nd grades coordinating acceleration for ALL students) What matters most is that students receive extra time and support when they need it and as often as they need it.

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Nicole Craig

This model of support could be so effective for learning at the early childhood level. Research proves that with early intervention, students with learning needs can have a higher chance as overcoming those needs. Currently I participate in a model of intervention for students where there is one intervention block per grade level per day. Unfortunately because of the vast number of needs at the early childhood level we are finding it difficult to use the block to it's effectiveness. This model would propose that we group students with like needs across the school, not just the grade level to which their age aligns. With this idea you are proposing we have the chance to access all students learning needs effectively.

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