Along with the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak and widespread school closures come hopes for reimagining schools as they reopen. These hopes for the future, however, rest on making the concrete improvements in schools that we know we can make today.
Despite the enormity of the challenges and the massive race and income-based inequities in society and schools that the coronavirus exposed – again – the pandemic has also made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these challenges. In New York City, in the first month of the school closure, the Department of Education worked with businesses like Apple and Microsoft to provide almost 500,000 computers and iPads to students who needed them. Across the US and around the world, even with limited digital infrastructure, communities are opening up hotspots for public use, equipping buses with Wi-Fi (and sometimes solar power), and pursuing other innovative ways of getting students online. Given the existing possibilities, one commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission testified that the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” If it can be done, then it should be done. No need to wait any longer.
Getting students connected to the internet is no panacea for educational challenges, however, particularly in many parts of the developing world, where almost half of all students don’t have a computer at home and over 40 percent lack access to the internet. We also know that even with Internet access and online opportunities, significant improvements in students’ learning depend on developing more powerful instructional practices and providing better support for educators. Nonetheless, the responses to the coronavirus show that we have the capacity to address some inequitable learning opportunities, and we can take these steps right now by developing a coordinated set of strategies to pursue what my colleagues in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents and I call high-leverage problems.
- Concentrate on issues widely recognized as central to the development of more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes;
- Present opportunities for visible improvements in relatively short periods of time; and
- Establish a foundation for long-term, sustained, systemic efforts that improve teaching and learning.
Addressing high-leverage problems depends on developing a keen sense of what matters to people and what matters in an organization. It requires careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them. It relies on a powerful repertoire of strategies that meet the specific demands of different situations and groups of students and on developing new practices and resources when necessary. All together, these steps can lead to the “quick wins” that help propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.
#Learningloss & Learning to Read
Take the critical concern for the “learning loss” likely to be created by the massive disruptions to schooling that so many children around the world are experiencing. That term – now almost a one–word hashtag – actually obscures a host of challenges that have to be unpacked to be addressed productively. First, different children experience learning loss to different degrees; they may experience it in some academic areas and not others; learning loss may also be affected by experiences of trauma and the stresses and socio-emotional challenges that come with the pandemic; it may result from inaccessibility to online learning and school support services including free meals and counseling; and it may stem a loss of relationships with peers and teachers, disengagement with school, and prolonged absences from learning in person or online. Such a litany of problems can make any first step seem inadequate. Nonetheless, unpacking learningloss and zeroing in on a related high leverage problem like learning to read yields a coordinated series of strategies that many communities already have the capacity to pursue:
- Make books by authors from a variety of backgrounds freely accessible.
- Find children with vision problems and provide them with glasses.
- Develop an understanding of why some children are chronically absent from school and online learning and support regular attendance.
- Identify children who are struggling to learn to read and provide targeted interventions.
The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read. In each case, research and successful programs in both the US and the developing world demonstrate what can be done to benefit students, Black students, indigenous students, and students of color.
Of course, these coordinated strategies may not reach every student right away, and any initial success has to be followed by developing educational activities that foster more advanced skills and a broader set of developmental needs – an even more challenging proposition. Ultimately, addressing these challenges will depend on truly reimagining schooling, and, reconceptualizing notions like “learningloss,” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind.
In short, the pandemic itself will not change schools: Nothing will change in schools unless we change it. Yet coordinated efforts to make books accessible, to provide glasses, to address chronic absences, and to offer targeted support in reading can lead to real improvements in schools – even in the midst of a pandemic – if we choose to dedicate the time, resources and commitment to put them into practice. We can take these critical steps to make the schools we have more efficient, more effective, and more equitable today and to lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole in the future.
This post draws from The Education We Need For A Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin 2021) to be published in February.