To Tell the Truth

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

No matter where you turn, you’ll find a news story lamenting the importance of getting kids back to face-to-face education. And, you’ll also find stories of schools bringing kids back to school badly. Complicate this further with predictions of how long we as a nation and globally will be battling this pandemic. If we are to have the greatest possible success during this time, we need to be honest about what was and wasn’t working for kids in school.

I invite you to share your thoughts and research.

Here are a few topics to get us started:

Kids are going to fall behind in their studies.

This worry has been voiced by state superintendents, district administrators, teachers, parents, and pediatricians. An study of over 1600 people in the general population and over 800 parents of school aged children indicated that 46% of parents are either very worried or extremely worried about their students falling behind and another 36% were moderately or slightly worried, leaving only 18% not worried at all. So, it seems logical to join in the chant to bring kids back to school.

And then there are the states and districts that are adding 5 days to the school year to help students “catch up” for the 50 or more days of instruction they missed last year.

The truth is that most students in any grade level were already NOT performing on grade level before the pandemic hit and many of them were already more than a year behind grade level performance. And as each day passed, the gap for these students got wider. See my blog for specifics on this.

In reality, parents should have been up in arms about their children falling behind well before this pandemic ever hit and the media should have been all over this. School boards, district leaders, and teachers should have been laser focused on addressing the fact that the longer kids are in school, the further behind most of them get. And, sadly, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, certain ethnic groups, and limited English speakers make up the majority of these students.

Many parents, though, don’t know how far behind their child was/is performing. They see their child passing from grade to grade, so they must be on grade level, right? Wrong. Social promotion has become the norm. And, while social promotion itself isn’t evil, to practice this and not address each learner’s gaps is sinful. See more on this in my blog. Parents need to demand truth and transparency from educators about where their children are really performing. Keep in mind that being “average” does not mean the child is on grade level. To be on grade level, this child must perform well above the 50th percentile. That’s not average.

As schools restart, new structures and processes should be implemented to replace the traditional age-based lock-step approach and instead meet students where they are in their learning and move them forward as quickly as possible. Yes, returning to school is important, but returning to school the way we did it before won’t keep kids from falling further behind.

Kids need 6 hours of instruction every day.

While it is common for students to physically be in school 7 to 7 ½ hours a day, most schools have a daily schedule that provides students with about 6 hours of class. The mistake is in believing that students are really getting 6 hours of instruction and that students who only got 3 or 4 hours of instruction during their distance learning experience were somehow being short-changed. In reality, those 3 to 4 hours of instruction may have provided more instruction than a typical day in school.

Anecdotally, many parents indicate that their children were more engaged with the material and had more personal attention from their teachers. In many instances students felt that they were learning more than in regular school. They cited being distracted by peers and interruptions to the learning environment as reasons that their online or otherwise facilitated distance learning mode was preferred.

It is true that in traditional school, there are many interruptions to instruction. Whether it is the teacher stopping to address a behavior issue, a call from the office, or just normal movements in the classroom, these all distract from learning. Research has indicated that it takes 10 minutes to mentally return to the previous state of engagement after being any disruption. And then there are all the other disruptions including taking attendance, coordinating field trips, standardized testing, intervention programs, assemblies, rewards celebrations, student stores, fire drills, terrorist drills, field days, and more.

Even without these kinds of disruptions, the direct instructional time a student receives can be significantly less than believed. Consider a typical elementary ELA block, for instance. During this two hour period of instruction, the teacher may do a whole group lesson for 15 minutes and then meet with small groups for 15 minutes each. This means that a single student receives 15 minutes of whole group instruction and 15 minutes of instruction more tailored to their needs, but still with other students, leaving an hour and a half that the student might be working on the computer, doing a writing assignment, or reading silently. Having observed many classrooms with this practice, I am aware that student engagement when not in small group with the teacher is generally quite low, despite the teacher’s attentive efforts to manage this. While middle schools and high schools operate somewhat differently, class periods still are often a short period of direct instruction with some time to practice or implement what is being taught with little to no individualized instruction. Again, the level of student engagement during this time can be quite low. While some may argue that I have somehow mischaracterized all classrooms here, the truth is that for many students, their level of engagement on most days is quite low and, if totaled up, likely well below 3 or 4 hours.

As we try to figure out how to practice social distancing in our current facilities, it might help if we realize we don’t need all kids in classrooms like they were pre-pandemic and on the same schedule they were on before. What if we organized for learning that truly engaged each student and then accepted that other time in the facility might be necessary to support families trying to return to work, but maybe we don’t need to pretend that every minute is needing to be spent on “instruction”? What if we organized students in small groups for direct instruction and got honest about how much direct instructional time is really beneficial? Then maybe some students don’t need to be in the facility all day and for those that do need a place to be safe while parents are at work, we organize non-academic time creatively based on students’ needs and interests. If we think along these lines, we might be able to bring some students in at one time and others at another time, reducing the overall number of students in the building and any one time and increasing distance between students while decreasing the number of possible vectors. What if schools were open all year instead of just 180 days?

These kinds of scheduling changes may also allow us to staff differently. At a time when the teacher shortage has quickly become a national crisis due to teachers not returning to work and substitute teachers are non-existent, we need to consider using non-certified staff to oversee students’ non-instructional activities. These staff are typically compensated at lower rates, so maybe through all this, we could also figure out how to give teachers much more appropriate levels of compensation, commensurate with their professional peers.

Kids are miserable.

Again, we are inundated with media and experts that want us to believe that kids are suffering due to not being in school. We recognize that teachers often become aware of children being abused and/or neglected and know to report these concerns, so interactions with teachers are important for monitoring student safety and well-being. But what about the rest of the student population. Turning again to the study, we note parents reporting that 45% of the children do feel significantly more stress than they did before the pandemic, 21% are neither more or less stressed, and 34% are less stressed, with 17% being significantly less stressed. Other sources are often indicating that the children who typically struggle in school are often in the less stressed group. We also need to be careful not to draw a conclusion that whether or not the student is in a face-to-face instructional environment is the causative factor in these findings. The same study reveals that student stress is higher in families that also faced unemployment due to the pandemic, one of perhaps many factors that play into stress levels.

Also important to note is that happiness and stress are not identical. In that same study, parents indicated that a whopping 40% of the students were happier in their pandemic world and 21% were neither more or less happy, leaving 28% unhappier. Again, there may be a variety of reasons for this data, but importantly, not all kids learning at home are more stressed and unhappy than when they were in school. Quite to the contrary.

As we seek to improve environments for students to return to, then, it is important for us to understand what factors do play into student stress and happiness. Again, while many are calling out the importance of social and emotional learning and assessment, we need to understand that the issues our children face are bigger than the pandemic. If we focus our efforts on how the pandemic has negatively impacted students, we will miss how it has positively impacted them, as well, and how schools might not have been emotionally safe places for all students. Good research will consider all these variables and not begin with a foregone conclusion.

A great teacher makes all the difference in the world.

While this is true, sadly, many great teachers don’t have the permission or support or the resources or the power to do what they know needs to be done. Legislators and policy makers have designed a convoluted system that is perfect to get the results we’ve been getting. Funding is tied to practices that may be politically advantageous, but not beneficial for kids. School structures like calendars, schedules, and scope and sequences prevent teachers from adjusting learning and practice based on the needs of their students. Teachers have limited resources, typically grade level only if they have any at all, so are unable to provide material at a more appropriate level for students. And, teachers don’t have the technology and supplies they need. Add to that that teachers’ prep time is often taken up with meetings or covering someone else’s classroom because there aren’t enough substitutes. And, while prep time is never sufficient for teachers to adequately prepare for instruction, loss of it means even more out of school time is spent prepping at the cost of caring for their families, or vice versa.

Federal and state involvement in education needs to significantly decrease. The federal government’s job is to make sure everyone has a fair and equitable opportunity to get a quality education. Empowering parents to choose their child’s school and or learning experiences is a good step in that direction. Millions of dollars are spent in Title programs each year that show little to no positive impact in student learning. These kinds of funding mechanisms that drive ineffective practice are truly a waste of taxpayers’ money. The role of state departments of education should be re-evaluated, as well. Making sure that parents have clear, accurate, and transparent information about how students perform in various schools and instructional groupings is important, but let parent choice be the form of accountability rather than systems built on assessments that don’t measure students well. It’s time for legislative action to return power and real decision-making to the local level so that districts, schools, and teachers have the flexibility they need to serve their communities and students. And ultimately, let’s put the power back in the hands of the parents, where it belongs. Whether a parent chooses to send their students to the local public school, public charter, private school, or to homeschool, or some combination of experiences, we must clearly understand that it is the parents’ place to make such determinations and they shouldn’t have double jeopardy because of an outdated funding model.

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