Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts about envelope-pushing strategies schools might embrace to address students’ learning loss in the wake of the pandemic. Find the first one here.
With a fair amount of luck, almost all students will be back in classrooms five days a week by September 2021, as a vaccinated population allows Covid-19 to fade into the rearview mirror. That will mark the beginning of a new and monumental challenge for our nation’s schools: educational recovery. Most will likely go back to something approaching normal, with some supplemental strategies, like high-dosage tutoring and beefed-up mental health supports added to the mix.
But that’s not the only path to recovery and it may not be the right one. It is my fervent hope that at least a handful of schools will experiment with much bolder approaches, especially strategies that blow up our traditional thinking about moving kids through the grade levels in lockstep fashion, as we have done for over a hundred years. In coming weeks I’ll explore some of these options, such as getting away from grade levels entirely and embracing “personalized pacing“ instead.
Today we’ll dig into another radical idea, though one that doubles-down on grade levels. Quite literally: Experimenting with adding a “second 2nd grade“ to elementary schools, or at least some high-poverty ones. In my opinion, this was a good idea long before the pandemic, is an especially good idea in the wake of the pandemic, and is a good enough idea to embrace long after the pandemic is history.
The reason is that even our very best elementary schools fail to prepare all of their students for the rigors of middle school. To my knowledge, not a single high-poverty school in the country gets all of its students to grade-level standards by the end of the fifth grade. Few schools even come close. As I wrote a few years ago, even KIPP-DC, which starts with three-year-olds, spends over $20,000 a year, embraces evidence-based practices, and provides extended learning time, doesn’t reach this lofty mark.
And that was before the pandemic stole a year or more of classroom instruction from many of our disadvantaged children—kids whose schools were more likely to be remain shuttered throughout the crisis, and for whom remote learning has proven particularly challenging.
The failure to prepare students for middle school results in much of the educational dysfunction that follows. Teachers face the impossible task of instructing students who are two or three or four grade levels behind; adolescents experience frustration and failure; and few teenagers reach the finish line having tackled the challenging academic or technical courses that will prepare them for success in higher education or beyond.
How much better off we’d be if we made sure that most students mastered the elementary school curriculum before moving on to the next level, with strong foundations in reading, writing, and mathematics, plus a growing knowledge base of American and world history, geography, science, and the arts. Not to mention the social and emotional skills to succeed in school and in larger society.
This is what excellent elementary schools have forever aimed to achieve. But because of the tragic challenges of poverty, few schools serving disadvantaged children can claim to come close to hitting these goals. The best ones get in the ballpark, thanks to a strong curriculum, excellent and well-supported teachers, an obsession with maximizing instructional time, and the other timeless elements of effective schools. But true readiness for middle school is a very high bar—especially since the adoption of the Common Core and other college-and-career readiness standards—and poor children continue to enter kindergarten with academic skills that already put them years behind their more affluent peers. They need and deserve highly effective schools. But they also need a whole lot more time to get on track for success in sixth grade and beyond.
Great schools have long known this, and have found smart ways to give their charges more time on task. They reduce disruptions to a minimum, they lengthen the school day and school year, and they expect their students to work hard at home, too. Some are lucky enough to start with their students at age three or four. And this works, and gets their scholars much closer to grade level by the time they leave their care.
All of this is worth trying by all schools, everywhere, especially when recovering from the pandemic. Expanding the school year is particularly worthwhile, if vaccinations allow for universal summer school this June, July, and August.
But it still won’t be enough. Not for kids who were already behind, and will have been effectively out of school for fifteen months or more. So why not give them a whole extra year of instruction? Rather than taking six years to move through grades kindergarten through five, why not do it in seven—a boost of 17 percent more instructional time.
Next fall’s kindergarteners, especially those in high-poverty schools, are going to be even less “kindergarten ready” than normal. This year’s kindergarteners, especially those who have yet to set foot in their actual schools, are going to be in no shape to deal with the academic demands of first grade, given that they missed out on all of the in-person kindergarten activities designed to acclimate them to school in the first place. And this year’s first and second graders probably aren’t doing great shakes either.
An extra year of elementary school, for the Covid generation, may not be enough to get them all to middle school readiness by the end of the fifth grade, given the massive learning loss they have experienced. But it will get them a lot closer than doing business as usual. And for the kids who follow them, 17 percent more instructional time just might be enough to send most into middle school ready for grade-level material.
Here’s how it might work.
Introducing grade 2.5
The leaders of Innovative School District decide they like the idea of giving their students more time to master the elementary school curriculum, so they add grade 2.5 to all of their elementary schools, starting with the 2021–22 school year. Today’s second-graders matriculate to grade 2.5 instead of third grade. Today’s third, fourth, and fifth graders keeping move forward as usual.
Over the summer, district officials and early elementary teachers work together on adjusting the scope-and sequence for grades K–2, spreading out the material over four years instead of three. Third grade teachers work together on their plans for grade 2.5, which is the level they will be teaching going forward.
In the short term, the addition of grade 2.5 poses few logistical challenges. The elementary schools in Innovative School District haven’t grown any larger, and its third grade teachers just switch to grade 2.5. But bigger changes are coming. In the 2022–23 school year, today’s second graders will be ready for third grade, to be taught by today’s fourth grade teachers. In 2023–24, they will be ready for fourth grade, to be taught by today’s fifth grade teachers. And in 2024–25, they will be ready for fifth grade, to be taught by today’s sixth grade teachers—teachers who are currently at Innovative Middle School.
That’s also the year that ISD’s elementary schools will have seven grade levels instead of six. That could pose logistical challenges in terms of finding extra space, though it helps that student enrollment in the early grades is down in Innovation, like most school districts, because of the nation’s ongoing baby bust.
As the first cohort of grade 2.5 students matriculate through the system, there will be other challenges to tackle. Innovation Middle School will shrink for a year when it has virtually no sixth graders; Innovation High School will do the same the year it has virtually no ninth graders.
I say “virtually” because it will be important for ISD to identify students who are ready to accelerate through this new, slower pace of instruction. (That may be particularly important for kindergarten-age students whose parents “redshirted” them this year rather than enroll them in remote school.) High-achieving kids may not need grade 2.5, or might be ready to leap over other grade levels in the progression. ISD should make it feasible for them to do so. The difference between today’s practice is that an extra year of elementary school will become the norm, the default. This isn’t about “holding students back” because most kids will get the opportunity of the additional learning time.
And what about the money? The student population of Innovation School District won’t actually grow until this year’s second-graders reach the twelfth grade, a decade from now. At that point, the district will have fourteen age-cohorts of kids instead of thirteen, an increase of 8 percent. Which also implies in increase in costs of 8 percent. That’s a hefty price tag, but the good news is that the district has ten years to prepare—and lots of time to convince state officials to pay for the added expenses.
That raises another important question: Will it be worth it? Some economists may say no, since an additional year of K–12 schooling also means that students will spend one less year in the labor market. Others will worry that more students will drop out of high school, given that they will hit the legal age for leaving school before they cross the graduation stage. That age, of course, could be raised.
So the answer to “Is it worth it?” is surely “It depends.” If the extra year of instruction is maximized, then more students will enter middle school and then high school ready for the challenges therein and graduate ready to succeed in post-secondary education—and the extra investment will have been worth making. Plus, if students are experiencing more success as adolescents because they are better prepared for their courses, they will be less likely to drop out. But if ISD just takes longer to do the same old same old, then you have what Secretary of Education Bill Bennett used to call the thirteen-egg omelet problem: You don’t improve a bad twelve-egg omelet just by adding another egg.
Discerning readers will notice that there are more questions than answers here about how adding a grade 2.5 might play out in the long run. That’s another good reason for embracing this idea as an experiment. Allow a few school districts to try it, and promise to cover their costs ten years hence. Design an evaluation with treatment and control districts, and see if students who get the benefit of extra time in the early elementary grades do better as they move through school and beyond. What happens to the high school dropout rate? College attendance and completion? Do students enjoy gains in wages that would make up for the year in lost income? There’s only one way to know for sure, and that’s to give it a try.