Last week, schools across the nation shuttered their doors en masse, prompted by an unprecedented public health scare, the ramifications of which are yet to be fully realized. Leaning in, school districts pivoted to a de facto war footing, hastily organizing remote learning for millions of students. Every copier machine, Chromebook, and cable provider was called into service. Teachers, wittingly or not, are becoming online instructors on the fly as everyone adjusts to the brave new world of social distancing and virtual almost-everything.
For all the hype about rapid adoption of distance learning, and a host of anecdotes pointing to heroic effort and creative ingenuity in the near term, so far we’ve seen few signs of real imagination and foresight in terms of how all this is going to play out. Yes, it’s early days. Schools face weeks and months of this, as do families who will revolt if this crisis drags out into the summer, to say nothing of further school disruptions in the fall.
But let’s begin to face a fundamental reality: Few American youngsters are going to be well educated for an extended period of time. I’ve already heard happy talk about using virtual instruction to focus on SEL (all the more so now that spring testing has been torpedoed), and educators are being counseled to “release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.” Suffice it to say that the “homework gap” engendered by the digital divide and the pernicious effects of “summer learning loss” will pale in comparison to COVID-19’s devastating effects on student learning.
This week, many districts here in Colorado are on an extended spring break, scrambling to stitch something together for their quarantined students when learning resumes. If we’re honest, what comes out the other end is not going to be very good. Simply training up the nation’s 3.6 million teachers on distance instruction is in its way more daunting than developing a coronavirus vaccine. Not much of it is going to get accomplished, certainly not at scale, during the next couple of months.
Face it. The end of the school year is just eight or ten weeks away, and the coming school year, whether students return physically or not, is only five months from now. If we’re going to avert a big, steep learning cliff (and prevent my colleague Mike Petrilli from writing a seven-part series titled “NAEP 2021: The terrible impact of the coronavirus”), now is the time to act. As I see it, states should have two big things on their radar—and education leaders should have on their computer screens.
The first is a vision for remote learning in every school. Although few schools presently have great infrastructure or resources to deliver quality online programming effectively and efficiently to all their pupils, states might consider this as an opportunity to begin building. My friend and former Dallas ISD superintendent Mike Miles, now running a CMO that he founded, has been planning—well before the current crisis—to put his entire curriculum online. Paired with high-quality educator training, the aim is to be well suited to deliver instruction online at the drop of a hat. Imagine if all schools had something like this underway, for use in normal as well as difficult times.
Yes, this requires money and other incentives. In many states, including Colorado, rigid seat-time requirements discourage districts from thinking outside the box. Look no further than Michigan, which recently announced that online learning would not count as school days. Nevertheless, many schools are expected to advance students to the next grade, regardless of months of missed coursework or whether the kids are actually ready.
In the meantime, Miles and his team are clear about the goal of their distance learning model: emerging from the immediate crisis ready to start a new school year with students who have made enough academic growth or proficiency to succeed at the next grade level. All of his students will be required to participate in daily online classes; those who do not risk being retained. The new promotion criteria have been provided to parents as a weekly checklist. Accountability is particularly important to ensuring a rigorous e-learning program.
The second big thing is summer school (assuming that health officials give the okay). The Brookings Institution’s Douglas Harris recently made a compelling case for the Congressional stimulus package to include funding for students who want—or, better, are required—to participate. Why summer school? Harris explains:
Studies of online learning suggest not only that students learn less in online environments, compared with in person, but that disadvantaged students learn the least. And that’s true even when online teachers have experience and training with online teaching. Under the current emergency, most teachers will not have any experience at all with this approach.
Now more than ever, a first-rate summer school is needed to bring some light to the end of the present education tunnel for our children. Summer school would also serve as a form of economic stimulus. Teachers could earn higher incomes at a time when their spouses and relatives have experienced pay cuts or layoffs. Assuming a third of the nation’s teachers continued to work, Harris estimates that six weeks of summer school would cost about $8.1 billion, a drop in the bucket in light of the enormous stimulus bill being negotiated. Certainly there will be contractual, logistical, and budgetary issues to overcome, but the past few weeks have been precedent shattering already.
To be fair, states are still in reactive mode, and many deserve credit for responding as quickly as they have been doing to information as it becomes available, all this in a country that was broadly unprepared. Yet the current course of action is not nearly enough—nowhere even close—to remedy the significant learning loss our students are facing. Even acknowledging the perils, fears, and fragility of the present moment, the COVID-19 outbreak has provided an illuminating and slightly harrowing look into how woefully unprepared and inflexible America’s education system really is.