School systems recovering from the COVID-19 crisis may be able to recreate the high level of individual attention students saw in successful pandemic pods.
To make up for lost learning time, set priorities
For students not to fall perpetually behind because of school closures and the difficulties of virtual learning, schools and districts must set priorities. Students need to catch up as quickly as possible on the core ideas and skills that are prerequisites to the material that will come next year. Schools may need to add tutors and other resources to help students master essential skills, and add days on weekends or over the summer. There isn’t time to waste.
These lessons leap out of our ongoing study of what districts and schools are doing about lost learning time. Educators in during the pandemic are thinking anew about official state standards, and they are concluding that some are a lot more important than others. California, recognizing the need for priorities, is simplifying state tests to zero in on the most important content.
The emergency imposes a reality check on aspirational student learning standards. In the past three decades, states and testing consortia have accumulated student learning standards, with every academic discipline and curriculum specialty able to add its own priorities. The result was a broad set of desires that were not checked for whether real schools serving real students could cover them all without watering them all down.
The pandemic has made obvious the folly of this goal. Seeing children who have lost most of a year of schooling, teachers and principals cut to the chase. As one district leader said, “You have to recognize the highest-priority standards and make sure kids master them.” Implicitly, this means a lower priority for other standards—ones that are desirable but not prerequisites to future core courses that a child absolutely must be prepared for.
In an ideal world, all children would get everything they might possibly need. But if something must be filled in later, that shouldn’t be basic math, literacy, and science. Children will need to learn about citizenship and avoiding disinformation, but that‘s possible only if they have prerequisite literacy and reasoning skills.
Priority-setting is evident in districts that are committed to a strategy of acceleration. Educators know that some students will have holes in what they know, but they identify gaps and fill them as the need occurs. A student struggling with a required lesson gets immediate help to master it, but stays with the grade-level course and is never relegated to a remedial classroom.
The old approach to remediation and dumbed-down coursework meant that many children would never learn on grade level. Instead, they would ultimately age out, drop out, or persist in school only to get a diploma that had no credibility with employers or higher education. As Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s CEO Eric Gordon told us: “The old approach wasn’t working before the pandemic, why should we rely on it now?”
There is much to learn about what it takes to prioritize and accelerate work, and what the downsides may be. But as one district administrator told us, if districts and states don’t set coherent priorities, each teacher will set their own priorities willy-nilly. In the process of intentional priority-setting, states may find they can ease the standards and test load on teachers and students, freeing up time to attend to social-emotional and mental health issues, and other needs that are so evident right now.
Districts—like Highline Public Schools in Washington State, and Henry County in Georgia—are showing how school systems can prioritize and support essential skills without backing down from grade-level learning expectations, but they can’t do it alone. States should provide guidance and adjust state testing accordingly. States and localities could also concentrate professional development funds on core content and skills for the time being. The federal government also must provide maximum flexibility in the use of federal funds to ensure schools can reallocate dollars toward accelerating students in high-priority skills.
Finally, the U.S. Department of Education, states, and foundations could support studies documenting these innovations and identifying lessons learned about their effectiveness. Studies should continue until all children experiencing the pandemic era are through high school.
Students have lost valuable learning time that they will never get back. We owe it to them and to their teachers to make sure there is a good reason for everything they are asked to learn going forward. We may discover, in the process, that we should have done that long ago.
States have a historic opportunity to invest in initiatives that will lead to systemic change and address long-standing inequities.
The downsides of the rush to jam everyone back into classrooms are evident.