Right now South Carolina schools are submitting their plans for restarting school in the fall to the State Department of Education. Around the country, similar activities are occurring. Sadly, many of those plans are falling short.

Some districts are recognizing that they are not able to meet the requirements for keeping children and staff safe and have chosen to keep their schools closed to in-person instruction (Los Angeles and San Diego, to name two). Still, the pressure is on to provide in-person instruction five days a week. Even with optimal physical conditions, bringing students back into the classroom is fraught with challenges. Chris Jones shared his real life experience with this in an article entitled, “I Spent 3 Weeks in School, With Kids, Under Covid-19”. It’s well worth the read.

Despite cautions from folks like Chris, though, schools are planning to bring students back for in-person instruction or some blend of online and in-person instruction. The focus for many of these plans, though, is purely on the physical aspects of bringing students back to the classroom. Whether students continue their learning in-person or online, there are other needs that must be addressed in these plans. Specifically, schools must attend to the social and emotional needs of learners now more than ever. Additionally, whether or not predictions like those from NWEA are accurate, we can be assured that learners’ performance levels will be even more diverse than pre-Covid. School plans must account for academic needs, as well.

Charleston County School District’s “Safe Restart” plan is an example of a thoughtful, holistic approach to restarting school. In addition to heeding advice about delaying the start of school to allow the current rate of positive tests to wane after South Carolina’s recent rise to the top, Charleston found creative ways to spread returning students out and implement mitigation strategies when they can’t. They are also offering parents the fully online option. As importantly, though, they have plans to assess each student’s level of performance so that teachers can target instruction to their individual needs. The district has already identified and purchased additional support resources to help teachers fill the anticipated gaps. Instruction to support the social and emotional learning needs has been planned and integrated into the curriculum. They’ve clearly thought about special circumstances for students with disabilities, early childhood, performance-based classes, and extracurricular activities. And, they have planned for teacher professional development aligned with these activities. Further, they have contingency plans in place for when circumstances change and a clear approach for monitoring data and information so that they can be agile in their response to changes when they do occur.

As students return to learning, whether in-person or online, district leadership, school administration, teachers, parents, and learners must understand that now more than ever, learning needs to be tailored to the individual needs of students. Standards-based timelines are plans for teaching the content, not the learners. A mastery-based approach focuses on making sure each student acquires needed knowledge and skills before progressing to the next stage of learning. Failing to ensure mastery is a house made of cards.

School boards and district leadership, have you developed comprehensive plans that are providing for your students' unique learning, social, and emotional needs, as well as their physical well-being? Are you prepared to support your students and staff with a mastery-based learning approach and the resources needed to support students where they are? If not, you are missing some essential school supplies.

Can you imagine flying with a pilot that only nails 80% of his landings? How about going under the knife with a surgeon that has a 75% success rate? Or having your house built by construction workers who measure lengths and angles with a confidence interval of 10%?

Absurd, isn’t it?!

We know the importance of mastery for success in the real world. So, why is it that we don’t value mastery as a foundational practice in our education systems? There are really only two possible answers. Either we don’t believe kids need to learn all the standards we have set before them and their teachers, or we don’t have the will to change our practices and be honest with parents and students about where students are really performing. Or both.

There is a growing consensus that not all students need to learn all the standards typically defined by state departments of education. More and more, we are recognizing that all students need a foundation of literacy: reading, writing, communicating, numeracy, scientific, and civic. And then their paths may take different trajectories depending on their aspirations, abilities, and opportunities.

Sadly, though, structures today prevent the kind of personal learning needed to support these notions. Instead, we continue to group students by age throughout their school careers and insist that they get instruction on the same thing in the same way on the same day, regardless of whether they learn it or not. Students (and teachers) get a specific amount of time for this content and then they must move on. Equally frustrating is the learner that needs to endure instruction related to content she has already mastered.

And, if the expected learning outcomes are organized the way the writers assert, then they are intended to build or scaffold on prior knowledge. With this assumption, the lagging student’s situation spirals quickly. Do the math. If a student only gets 80% of what he is to learn each year, in elementary school alone the learning can be calculated by:

K = 80%

1 = 80% of 80% of K = 64%

2 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 1 = 51.2%

3 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 2 = 41%

4 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 3 = 32.8%

5 = 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 80% of 4 = 13%

Is it any wonder that 1 out of 4 eighth graders in the United States is functionally illiterate? Functionally illiterate! While these numbers are certainly arguable, the concept is clear. Social promotion and our current model of schooling is failing the majority of our students. If you don’t believe me, just check out the percentage of students scoring below basic and basic on your state accountability exams. Basic is not on grade level. And, many of these students are many years below grade level. (See my first blog.)

It’s time that we get honest and real about what students know and are able to do. It is unfair to continue to communicate to students and parents false assurances in the form of satisfactory grades when in reality, students are not on track to be ready for college, career, or some other future goal. And, it’s time that we break the mold for class structures, schedules, and calendars. Let’s replace them with a model where students learn what they are ready to learn next, master it, and take as much or as little time as they need to do it.

As schools explore scenarios for bringing students back to school, it will be more important than ever to make sure we know where each student is and put a plan in place for each student to successfully move forward. Superintendents and staff need to be hard at work right now overhauling the system. Boards need to be setting expectations for systemic change and preparing to support the superintendent by communicating effectively with parents, the community, and the media about change and why it’s needed. Policy makers and state departments of education must remove any legislation or funding models that require seat time, that students attend school a specific number of days or hours, or any other practices that prevent schools from implementing flexible learning practices driven by individual student’s needs. Requirements to report rigid schedules and seat time in student information systems need to be eliminated. Carnegie unit courses need to be replaced by proficiency-based learning experiences and instead of discrete content domains, those experiences need to be based on real world learning where content domains are integrated and relational. Traditional grading practices need to be replaced by mastery-driven, competency-based reporting systems.

Yes, this is a huge undertaking. But, the adage “pay me now or pay me later” applies. Failing to prepare our children to be successful, productive members of society not only puts a financial burden on its citizens, but dooms the country to take business and industry abroad, devolve from leading with inventions and innovation to mass producing you-name-it, and destroying quality of life. It’s time to take an honest assessment of the situation and fix it.

Let’s do it!

Updated: Jun 17

(Updated June 17, 2020)

We have entered an unprecedented period in which e-learning has moved from an option that was "nice to have" to a "necessity". This period is creating a new landscape for educators, parents, and learners. Many companies, individuals, and organizations are offering a plethora of free e-learning resources for K-12 students to encourage and support distance learning. Resources that go above and beyond for e-learning are marked with a star (☆).

We know we've missed great resources! If you have any you'd like us to update this list with, please leave a comment or reach out to us via the Contact Us page! Thanks!

Age of Learning (Preschool - 8th Grade)

Amazon's Future Engineer, free computer science options (Grades 2 - 12)

• American Museum of Natural History, "Ology" Studies and "Explore" for a variety of science-based learning

American Panorama, visualize data through maps

Arcademics (Grades 1 - 6), Free Math, Spelling, Geography web-browser games

Arizona State's Virtual Field Trips

Arizona State's Ask an Anthropologist

Arizona State's Ask a Biologist

Babbel, learn a new language (K - College) Currently free for 3 months.

Bark (For Students & Parents), Introduction to safe e-learning and online practices

Big Universe (Grades K - 12), 17,000 eBooks in a variety of topics

Boolean Girl (Ages 8 - 18), learn to code! STEM.

Bunk (Grades 8 - 12), History-based, thoughtful articles about world events

Chalk Academy, Multi-lingual learning resources (Primarily Chinese/Korean)

Classroom Cereal, Grammar practice worksheets

Curriki (Grades K - 12), Resources in Math, Science, Language Arts, & more!

Data Nuggets (Grades K - 12+), scientist based data and research in a variety of areas

Discovery K12 (Grades K - 12), 16,000 lessons, eBooks, Quizzes & Tests in all standard subjects

Dr. Roger's Math Neighborhood (Grades 8 - 12) Advanced math explanation videos

Educational Insights (Grades K - 6), Reading/Language Arts worksheets

Education Modified, resources for special needs students (Spanish version available)

Exploratorium, Covid-19 science learning

FLINN, science videos and live labs & FLINN High School Science Activities

Great Minds (Grades K - 12), instructional videos in Math, Language Arts, Science

Hand2Mind (Grades K - 8), Math activities

HippoCampus (Grades 8 - 12), 7,000 videos in 13 areas

Khan Academy (Grades Pre-K - 12), Videos on a variety of subjects (ELA reading included)

Legends of Learning, standards aligned Math & Science games

Learning Resources (Grades K - 3), Inspire playful learning

Loving2Read (Ages Pre-K - 8), adventures for kids in Science, STEM, Math, and more

• MEL Science (Ages 5 - 16), Live Webinars & Library of Chemistry experiments/articles

National Constitution Center (Grades 6 - 12), eight-week series of interactive, daily courses

OpenStax (Grades 8 - 12) Opensource textbooks in Math, Science, Social Sciences, & More

PandaTree (Ages 2 - 10), daily Story Time in Spanish & Chinese

Phet (Grades 6 - 12), Over 650 million free simulations in Physics, Math, Chemisty, & more

ProjectExplorer (Grade 3 - 12), 250+ Free Videos/Lesson Plans

• Rubenstein Center for White House History (Grades K - 5) & (Grades 6 to 12)

Scholastic Learn at Home (Grades K - 9)

Smithsonian Distance Learning (Grades Pre-K - 12), expansive collection on a variety of topics

Sophia (Grades 9 - 12), take courses for college credit! Currently free until 7/31/2020

Varsity Tutors Learning Tools (Grades 8 - 12), a free collection of resources for standardized testing enabling students to increase scores. Includes interactive questions and flashcards.

Virtual field Trips (Grades K - 12), destination-based videos for Social Studies, Geography, Etc!

Virtual School Day (Grades K - 12), Incredible virtual classroom learning opportunities across 9+ subject areas. (Check out their science courses!) Many free options.

Virtual Summer Camps (Ages 5 - 18), Operating from June through August 2020, over 300 half-day learning camps encourage learning in everything from Minecraft to theater.

Walkabouts (Grades Pre-K - 2), Integrates movement with Math, Reading, & Language Arts

The above listed resources are fantastic, free, and available for anyone with an internet connection. Just the same, there are also a multitude of learning experiences that can be had outside of the traditional classroom. Bake a cake with your child. Take apart an engine. Collect chicken eggs or milk a cow. Build a Lego fort. Have a conversation about current events. Think outside the box. Here's a thought to leave you with:

"Support education in all its forms. Overcome the bias of the cookie-cutter approach to education which presupposes that all worthwhile knowledge can only be attained from a traditional setting. Challenge the idea that school is the only place to get a worthwhile education."

- Mike Rowe, 2017

© 2020 Sepati Ingera, LLC.