As U.S. schools reopen in the fall, a year and a half after nearly all of them closed due to the pandemic panic, what should be different? What needs to change if kids are actually to catch up? What’s important to retrieve from pre-Covid days? And what other changes, changes that should have been made pre-Covid, is there now a rare opportunity to initiate?
Several colleagues and I at the Stanford-based Hoover Education Success Initiative suggest answers to those key questions in a brand-new book, How to Improve Our Schools in the Post-Covid Era, edited by Margaret (Macke) Raymond and hot off the (virtual) presses. Its ten chapters are primarily aimed at state-level education leaders, many of whom—members of the Initiative’s “practitioners council”—supply comments that are incorporated into those chapters, turning them into unusual (and often lively) dialogues on important policy challenges. Where the think tank meets the road, one might say.
Two of those chapters are mine. They shorten, update and sharpen policy guidance on the future of assessments and accountability, some of which you may previously have encountered in a long HESI paper on that topic. What’s changed is deeper understanding of the consequences of the 2020 assessment “holiday” that Secretary DeVos granted states and of the damaging and unrecoverable data gap that will follow if we lack 2021 data, too. We know, of course, that the Biden administration has pushed states to test this spring (though not to use the results of those assessments for accountability purposes), but we also know that the U.S. Department of Education has been cutting them a lot of slack to do it differently and, in a few cases, not to test at all. Without this assessment data, which I term “education’s indispensable GPS,” policy leaders would be lost come autumn as to which kids and schools need what kinds of catch-up. While the diagnostic tests that a number of districts are using will inform teachers and parents about immediate learning gaps and needs, they’re not very useful for monitoring students’ progress in relation to state standards.
Restarting orderly statewide assessments of reading and math is just the beginning, however. My chapters also delve into needed changes going forward in what and how we measure, and how we judge student learning and school performance. Those test scores should be just the beginning Along the way, I get some great feedback from the likes of Colorado state board chair Angelika Schroeder and 50CAN veep Derrell Bradford.
Rick Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Macke Raymond each authored two of the other substantive chapters (and Macke soloed with the book’s introduction and conclusion).
Besides addressing immediate post-pandemic challenges, all look beyond to the more fundamental rebooting that our K–12 system needs. Hanushek focuses on smarter district budgeting (those federal relief dollars aren’t going to last forever!) and overhauling our whole approach to engaging, deploying, evaluating, and compensating teachers.
Peterson tackles school choice broadly, including new forms that erupted during the shutdown. He also looks closely at the pros and cons of “portfolio” districts. And Raymond grapples both with the extensive learning losses that schools must contend with in the near term and the long-overdue need to reinvent the high school experience and put significance back into the diploma.
All three also receive (and the book presents) perceptive commentary—some supportive, some critical—from the veteran practitioners that have been advising the HESI project. For example, Raymond’s plea that high schools finally replace seat time and Carnegie units with flexible measures of student competency drew this comment from Arkansas education secretary Johnny Key: “The most significant hurdle is overcoming the comfort with the Carnegie Unit and seat time. Through legislation, we eliminated the seat-time requirement in Arkansas high schools in 2017, yet school leaders have difficulty knowing how to design a high school experience that does not retain some element of seat time.”
Peterson’s case for wholesale expansion of the portfolio district model got this endorsement from veteran school executive Don Shalvey, now CEO of a Stockton-based education group called San Joaquin A+: “There is a real push from communities across the country for schools to be better preparing students for jobs in health care, agriculture, education, and other industries that are a bridge to the future. Portfolio options can help address that stakeholder voice, particularly in communities where schools haven’t always been so responsive. In my local community, I am hearing calls for new types of schools that will better prepare students for the workforce.”
As Macke Raymond observes in the conclusion:
[E]ven before the pandemic there was vigorous discussion of how the schools could deal with new demands from the economy and do so in a more equitable way. The pandemic has amplified the need for picking up on this prior discussion and for making desired improvements a reality.
There is both quantitative and qualitative evidence that the school closures that began in March 2020 and the subsequent hesitant restart of schools during the 2020–21 school year harmed an entire cohort of students.... The virus-induced learning impacts will haunt these students throughout their work lives and will also result in a future U.S. economy that will suffer from a less-skilled workforce—unless a way is found to make up for the effects of the pandemic....
The challenges mount when we realize that the losses aren’t the same for every child. Raymond goes on to explain that:
The pandemic underscores a number of areas where we need to move beyond our pre-pandemic starting point. First, it is almost certainly the case that both learning and its mirror—learning loss—have not been evenly distributed. More-advantaged students with a broader set of supporting resources have on average done much better than less-advantaged students.... The pandemic experience also strongly suggests that schools will need to move to more individualized instruction that meets the student at the proper level, not some rough average for a student based on time spent in school.... [S]chools will [also] need to recognize the new variety in delivery, attendance, and mode of instruction. Most likely, many schools will want to—or will be forced to—mix traditional classroom-based instruction with hybrid instruction in at-times remote environments....
Will fundamental changes in K–12 education be easier or harder to make in the wake of the pandemic? Indeed, Raymond asks, “Are changes possible, or should we simply be satisfied with returning as much as possible to the pre-pandemic schools of February 2020?”:
Practitioners rightfully warn of the difficulties and time involved in making any significant changes in the structure and operation of schools. But, beyond the social imperative of helping the current students, it is also the case that parents have become more involved in the schooling process. The hope for clear and continuing improvement of the schools rests significantly on parents pushing for the kinds of quality improvements that will bring us successfully out of the pandemic-era quagmire.
The single biggest education question out there today is whether American K–12 education’s goal for the fall is restoration of what was or breakthroughs to what should be. Our new book insists that both are needed.