When children of the pandemic are old and gray, they won’t remember their remote learning lessons. They will reminisce about the time their teachers paraded past their house because the schools were closed. They don’t have the vocabulary today to describe it, but the lesson will stick and become clear in the retelling. It’s about social cohesion, love and loyalty, and how good people step up when we need them to
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary.” —Sebastian Junger
Those of us with parents or grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II sometimes envy their experience and how it shaped them. No sane person wishes for hard times and deprivation, but there’s a sense of purpose that overtakes us when normal life stops. How remarkable—how clarifying—to have been alive in such times.
Events are conspiring, as they sometimes do, to make us feel purposeful again. Perhaps for a few weeks, perhaps quite a bit longer, even the simple act of staying home, forgoing the pleasures of a ballgame, a drink with friends, a church service, a hug or a handshake, is a matter of national urgency. Our collective action and attentiveness are demanded. Don’t feel ashamed if you feel a tingle of excitement about all this. You were made for this. It feels good to be necessary.
Before COVID-19 canceled school nationwide and turned America overnight into Social Isolation Nation, I’d been on the road, visiting far-flung schools, meeting with educators and recharging my batteries. One memorable stop was in Sullivan County, a small rural school district in eastern Tennessee. My visit was little more than a drive-by, just a few hours on a February morning. But it didn’t take long to notice that this small, rural district had a cohesive culture of learning and caring for kids.
When schools closed in mid-March, the immediate concern in Sullivan County, as in so many districts, was ensuring that thousands of kids who rely on school meal service could still be fed. With a tiny district staff, the logistics of organizing such an effort were daunting. The leadership team posted a call for help on Facebook. In less than twenty-four hours, 125 teachers had volunteered, and “Sullivan Serves” was up and running. On the first Monday, 6,000 meals were distributed—school meals for children, plus donations from food banks and community groups for other family members. School cafeteria staff prepared the meals, which were distributed entirely by volunteer teachers.
The first two weeks of the crisis spanned a scheduled spring break, buying the district time to get its remote learning plans in place to launch April 1. Neighboring districts pooled resources to “build the train tracks of content,” as Robin McClellan, supervisor of elementary curriculum and instruction, put it, and to get teaching materials in the hands of all 600 Sullivan County teachers. Digital devices are being made available to families who need them, but it’s all being offered both digitally and in print. McClellan is adamant: “We are not going to teach only the children who have resources and devices,” she told me. “So any child who needs print can either pick it up at the school or it will be delivered to them.” That means a lot of making copies—and a lot more volunteers organized by the district’s principals. “I wasn’t going to put that on them,” McClellan said. “But they were like, ‘No, you’re not doing that. We’re doing that.’”
I tell this story not because it is remarkable, but because it is unremarkable. Stick a pin in a map, and there you will find similar tales of teachers and administrators doing what needs to be done, whether it’s feeding families, creating educational videos or live online lessons and activities, or just checking in on kids. One South Dakota sixth-grader needed help with her math homework; her teacher showed up at her home with a whiteboard and taught from the other side of her porch door. Social media is awash with posts from parents grateful for the efforts of their child’s teacher, even if it’s simply reaching out to make sure kids are safe, connected, and reassured.
Those of us who work in education policy gnash our teeth in frustration at our inability to get best practices to scale. Yet one idea that sprang up organically, and that is now being replicated dozens of times a day all across the country, involves motorcades of teachers parading down the streets where their students live, while gleeful kids stand curbside, holding signs and waving at the teachers they haven’t seen in weeks. These humble little processions are not contractually required, a response to accountability demands or an “innovation” hatched at a think tank or conference. It’s a simple act to show children that the people they love and depend on are still here and still care. I doubt many teachers view it as burdensome. They probably get as much from it as the kids. It feels good to feel needed.
This is not to suggest that efforts to transition American education on the fly to remote learning are a fool’s errand. If we feel necessary right now, it’s because the things we value and that sustain us are at risk and need protecting. The lives and health of our family and friends. Our jobs and businesses. Continuing with school in any shape or form is one way in which we signal to our children what matters, even in hard times, even if the conditions for learning are less than ideal. The effort matters. It’s necessary.
Trust me on this: There’s a good chance that, years from now, you will feel a bit sentimental for these weeks spent in social isolation. We’re built for challenging times. We are writing the stories we will tell our children and grandchildren. Driving down a suburban street waving to elementary school children may not have the historical gravity of landing on Omaha Beach or working on a wartime assembly line. But when the children of the pandemic are old and gray, they will reminisce about the time their teachers paraded past their house because all the schools were closed. It will be a warm memory, even though so many people got sick, lost their jobs, and were afraid. They don’t have the vocabulary today to describe it, but the lesson will stick and become clearer in the retelling. It’s about social cohesion, love and loyalty, and how good people step up when we need them to.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by The 74 Million.
With more states and districts foreclosing upon the possibility of in-person learning through the end of the school year, the next few months will tell us a lot about whether our sector can muster the will and skill to overcome the contractual, logistical, and budgetary hurdles required to sufficiently meet the current challenge. To put a finer point on this, states and districts must soon be able to answer the question of what “social distancing” will look like in reopened schools this fall, and then figure out how to best leverage federal stimulus dollars to ensure a safe learning environment while preparing for the next exigency.
This presumes that things won’t be back to normal in the fall and that public health officials won’t advise against schools re-opening, so long as they can do so without allowing students to crowd together. Having spent a significant part of my career supervising elementary school cafeterias, I can attest that schools and crowding are like white on rice; my friend Rick Hess recently went into how schools might go about doing this. In all likelihood, it would involve reducing the number of students in school by staggering their schedules (i.e., having students come in on alternate days or adopting a half-day model in which some students attend in the morning, others in the afternoon) and rethinking time periods when large numbers of students typically congregate (e.g., hallway transitions, meals, and physical education). Transportation would also need to be reconfigured if districts were to reduce the number of students—perhaps halving the allowable maximum—permitted on any given bus route.
None of this will be easy or ideal. As long as a vaccine isn’t available (there almost certainly won’t be one until 2021), there will be some element of fear and apprehension about face-to-face schooling. To wit, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb says, “We’ll be running an 80 percent economy;” similarly, our aim this fall is to run schools at 80 percent capacity. (Not in reference to student enrollment, but capacity in the sense that things will be suboptimal.) Doing this well is, in its way, even more important—and even more knotty—than the current focus on feeding students and getting them online. Through no fault of their own, our education system obviously should have been better prepared for all of this, but that doesn’t justify an indiscriminate spending spree if we end up doing more of what we’ve always been doing. Instead, here are a few things elected officials and policymakers should focus on to help as many students return to school as quickly as prudently possible.
Democrats have already made known their interest in investing in highways and roads, among other infrastructure projects, as part of a potential fourth round of stimulus funding. School facilities and transportation should be part of this consideration. For example, coronavirus has put bankrupt hospitals back in demand as local governments seek to add beds. For schools, stepped-up classroom cleaning is a good start. But many districts, especially those located in large cities, have shuttered or underutilized buildings that could be leveraged to disperse students in safer numbers. Once the pandemic passes, newly retrofitted buildings could provide the added benefit of housing new schools (yes, including charter schools) where facilities space is highly coveted.
More bus routes during the day will put additional strain on both personnel and operating costs, so federal dollars here could provide states and districts some breathing room. Where available, city buses should be enlisted, too, assuming fewer people will be taking public transportation. Ridesharing also deserves attention. HopSkipDrive currently has seven thousand drivers transporting kids in over a dozen cities. In addition to taking some of the burden off of school and public transportation services, ridesharing brings with it the potential of solving the school choice transportation puzzle. Stimulus dollars would be well spent if the capacity of companies like theirs could be expanded safely and expeditiously.
Unlock the virtual classroom
Closing the digital divide will require a monumental effort akin to the federal project that brought electricity to darkened regions of the country during the New Deal. As commonsensical as this may seem, it’s unclear whether the nation is ready to make such an investment. Absent that, a robust and resilient K–12 distance learning system remains years away, but a federal infusion could help with the low hanging fruit. For starters, more school buses should be equipped with Wi-Fi, especially in districts serving low-income neighborhoods. Turning buses into hotspots has to this point been largely confined to discrete districts, but South Carolina’s statewide effort is a model that could be adopted in other states.
If students were to attend school in an attenuated fashion, districts would do well to look to higher education as a model, especially for middle and high school students. They could adopt a “flipped classroom” approach, borrowing from the college setting where there’s more independent work and less face-to-face time. But everyone will need to be able to work independently at home for this to work, so the current moment should be thought of as a dry run for this purpose.
Teacher training will also be an ongoing but necessary investment. As one veteran recently remarked, “This is my sixteenth year teaching, and I feel like I’m a first-year teacher. The amount of work and new things that I’m encountering on a daily basis is astounding.” If the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, the feds should be interested in helping states make it a giant leap by turning to the trailblazers for insights and advice.
As much as we can try to use modern technological tools to help students continue learning over the coming months, sometimes it’s best to do things the old-fashioned way. Canceling summer vacation or redshirting some kids this fall would both require a nontrivial financial outlay, but it would be one worth making, knowing what we know about the potentially staggering learning loss in front of us. And contrary to what some may suggest, testing and accountability are arguably more important now that the federal testing requirement has been waived. How many states will keep open the possibility of assessing this fall or creatively improvise?
Figuring all of this out will be extraordinarily difficult, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of getting started. Assuming that testing continues to trend upwards, infections downwards, and an effective therapeutic drug is made available this summer, schools may be able to safely reopen this fall in areas of the country that are away from infection clusters. Teachers and students would have the confidence to return to school, even if the virus is still circulating, knowing that a robust treatment was available to reduce the chance of severe illness. But schools will also need to do their part to minimize the risk of infection, and federal funds directed toward the investments outlined above could make all the difference.
“Our sight was on winning the whole thing this year. And now I will likely never coach some of these boys again.” —Steve Cardoso, Rhode Island teacher and baseball coach
These were the words of my son’s middle school baseball coach when I spoke to him about the loss of this season in the wake of COVID-19. He described it as “crushing.” As a father and grandfather with plenty of life and loss under his belt, he knows that in the big picture, a forfeited baseball season is a blip. But in the small world of his players, especially his eighth graders, it’s devastating.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to them,” he said. “It feels like an unfulfilled promise.”
It is hard to overstate the fundamental role school sports play in the lives of millions of America’s students. It is central to their identity. Some eight million children participate in scholastic sports. In my conversations with coaches and former elite athletes, their primary worry is not about missed games or undeveloped skills on the field or in the pool. It is on the loss of identity and purpose that student athletes are inevitably feeling right now.
It cuts even more deeply for the seniors, whose hearts break across the nation over missed games and the loss of that last at-bat, that final swim, that final game in the net. The cancellation of the season is, for a senior, the end of an era—and an identity—that came without warning. And without closure. And without a chance to be in that final team huddle to hear the coach’s final parting words and put all those hands in one last time.
The sudden disintegration of a peer community is no small thing. Teammates share an interest, a passion in many cases, and there is no virtual substitute for the camaraderie that develops during long bus rides, in the weight room, and during practices and games. They push their bodies and their minds in pursuit of a shared goal. And seemingly overnight, it is gone.
“I can't imagine being sent home with a moment's notice without any direct contact with coaches or teammates,” said Torrey Palmer, an Olympic rower, sports mom, and a Project Director at TNTP. “We were a family—spending so much time together, laughing, crying, fighting, building each other back up. Losing that...would be very hard.
Andrew Kelton is a high school administrator and multi-sport coach in Massachusetts. He is also a sports dad and my former colleague. He says that in addition to the lost camaraderie is the loss of constant improvement that comes with practice. He hopes that student athletes, including his own son, can recalibrate the external rewards and gratification from sports to an internal sense of accomplishment based upon their individual preparation during the pandemic. He acknowledges that this can be very difficult for fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds.
Eric Kalenze, current teacher and former varsity football coach, wonders how current coaches are finding ways for kids to keep networking and maintain connection with kids. He noted the “huge amount of touch” during a season and believes it’s important to strive for players and athletes to still find ways to mentally connect with one another. He suggests having the team and coaches find a way to watch a game “together” somehow and then talk about it, pose questions, and observe what players are doing right and where they are going wrong. “Players can have their identities as athletes affirmed and confirmed without being able to hit the field together,” he says.
Palmer agrees. She urges athletes to reach out to coaches and teammates and take an active role in building a “virtual team” for support. She suggests that coaches set up weekly or bi-weekly sessions and encourage their athletes to share and log workouts.
This won't last forever,” she says, “so see what you can do now to get stronger, mentally and physically, for when you return to the field or the pool.”
Parents and grandparents are reeling, too. The New York Times reported that “even the most well-informed health professionals felt the hole in their heart at the prospect of missing their daughters and sons competing for who knows how long?” Speaking personally, we are a baseball family. And with three boys who play, two on school teams, baseball season is part of our family identity. Between school games and little league, we regularly spend more than fifteen hours a week watching our boys play baseball. We love it. And we lost it.
Our oldest is a high school freshman. I can’t imagine the feeling of loss that parents of seniors feel. This was their last season to sit on the sidelines and in the bleachers. A far too abrupt ending to what will always be the backdrop for one of the best chapters in their lives.
More and more students are taking advantage of the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school, but we don’t know enough about how they use these credits to shape their postsecondary pursuits. A recent study, conducted by University of Missouri’s Oded Gurantz, examines how Advanced Placement (AP) credit earned in high school impacts students’ course-taking decisions in college.
Gurantz uses data from all AP exam takers who graduated in one large unnamed state in 2004, 2005, and 2006. (We’re told that this state covered all AP exam fees for all students, so it caused a big spike in exam taking.) Students who took an AP course but didn’t take the exam aren’t captured in the data set. Data from those exam takers were then matched to college transcript data from public four- and two-year colleges in the same state. Students who went to private or out-of-state institutions were not included.
Gurantz’s analysis focuses on students who took one of the ten most popular AP exams during this period, divided into STEM exams (biology, calculus, chemistry, etc.) and non-STEM exams (English literature, psychology, government, world history, etc.). The data set includes the students’ raw, continuous score on a scale between 0 and 150 and their integer score between 1 and 5, which is what students see. A regression discontinuity design compares students with essentially identical continuous scores, but who received different AP exam integer scores based on a cut-off. As a result of these minor differences in exam performance above and below the cut-off, students either do or do not receive AP credit that subsequently gives some of them the opportunity to skip introductory courses once they enroll in college.
The analysis finds that being offered course credit for passing the AP exam leads to large reductions in the likelihood that students take introductory college courses and that how they use this freedom from required course-taking varies by exam type and gender. Gurantz points to the actual credit received as the driver for decision-making, as achieving a higher integer score at a threshold that does not offer credit has no effect on courses taken.
Overall, students who are offered STEM credit for passing a STEM AP exam are significantly more likely to take additional STEM courses in their college career; for instance, they take 0.23 more STEM courses during the first year of study than those students who did not pass the same exams. Similarly, students offered non-STEM credit use the opportunity to take more non-STEM courses. But in contrast, earning non-STEM credit leads students to take fewer courses within the same AP exam discipline in the long run. In other words, students who pass AP biology are more likely to take more courses in and even to major in biology, while students who take AP history are more likely to take other non-STEM courses other than history. In short, earning STEM credit appears to lead to a deepening of curricular interests, while earning non-STEM credit appears to free up students to broaden their curriculum.
Finally, females are significantly more likely than males to use the college credit to progress deeper within the STEM disciplines and shift their course-taking patterns. In fact, males take essentially no additional higher-level STEM courses as a result of the earned college credit. As a result, the male-female gap in STEM courses taken shrinks by roughly one-third to two-thirds, depending on the outcome. We’ve known for years that many females tend to avoid the STEM fields, but this study fortunately shows that providing female high school students the opportunity to delve more quickly into higher-level STEM courses—perhaps by “demystifying” STEM and its requirements via AP—increases their overall STEM participation, potentially improving later career prospects.
The research raises a few questions that were out of the study’s scope but that would nonetheless inform policies relative to early college credit. For instance, would knowing one’s continuous score—i.e., how close they were to passing without doing so—also alter course-taking behavior of non-passers? To what extent do colleges structure their course sequences in such a way as to make it undesirable or impossible to skip introductory courses? This could explain, in part, the non-trivial percentage of students in the study who go on to retake the same material in college despite their passing AP scores. Do introductory courses serve an important “non-cognitive” purpose in socializing students to their new environment? And how do college admissions counselors advise students regarding AP credit?
Yes, Advanced Placement is a reliable mechanism for preparing students for college-level work. But it also matters what AP subjects that students take and whether they pass the exam—and how answers to the multiple questions above intersect with these realities.
SOURCE: Oded Gurantz, “How college credit in high school impacts postsecondary course-taking: the role of AP exams,” Education Finance and Policy (2019).
Fervor for improving students’ post-secondary readiness has reached near deafening levels in the education community and beyond, as policymakers, advocates, and researchers grapple with the stark reality that less than half of high school seniors are graduating academically prepared to attend and persist through college. In an employment environment that increasingly favors those with a post-secondary degree, turning this around is vital.
One approach has been to reduce students’ need for developmental education after they graduate—more commonly known as remedial coursework—by intervening while students are still in high school. Traditional remedial education administered by colleges typically requires academically underprepared students to take up to three remedial courses before they can begin to earn college credit, an approach that has been criticized for being costly, ineffective, and a barrier to timely graduation (or graduation at all). Several states have thus implemented high school remediation programs meant to target underprepared students early on, including West Virginia’s Transition Mathematics for Seniors, Florida’s FCCRI, Tennessee’s SAILS, and Kentucky’s Targeted Intervention program. (We at Fordham once termed such initiatives “pre-medial education.”) While the evidence base on the effectiveness of these programs is relatively thin, a recent working paper released by the CALDER Center provides a compelling analysis of the effects of the Kentucky Targeted Intervention (TI) program on students’ college outcomes.
In effect since 2010, Kentucky’s Targeted Intervention program measures students’ college and career readiness in math, English, and reading based on students’ scores on standardized tests administered in grades eight, ten, and eleven. The ACT, which all students are required to take, serves as the eleventh-grade standardized test. Benchmarks for math and English proficiency have been set at 19 and 18, respectively, and any student scoring below either is automatically eligible, although not required, to receive TI services their senior year of high school. TI is delivered as a “transition” course, which may be standalone or integrated into existing coursework, or as an extended school service (ESS).
Kentucky’s TI program is distinct from a typical high school remediation program in four important ways. First, program participation does not automatically exempt students from remedial course placement upon college matriculation. Second, Kentucky only requires students to complete three years of math coursework to graduate; thus, participation in a transition course does not necessarily displace students from participating in advanced electives. And because the program is available as an extended school service rather than just a class, students who opt into ESS receive about one hundred extra minutes of instruction per week. Third, high schools and colleges do not define proficiency in the same ways. For example, high schools define a score of 19 on the ACT as “college ready,” although colleges define students with scores of 21 and above as eligible for enrollment in a credit-bearing course. And fourth, unlike many high school remedial programs, there is no evidence that TI instruction includes test preparation.
This particular analysis measured the impact of TI program participation for seven cohorts of students on several post-secondary outcomes, including college enrollment immediately after graduation; first-year enrollment in remedial coursework in math or English; first-year enrollment in credit-bearing coursework in math or English; passing credit-bearing coursework the first year; and other longer-term outcomes that include enrollment in and successful completion of credit-bearing coursework in the second year of college, total credits earned at the end of the first and second years, and student returns to a second year of college.
Overwhelmingly, program participation significantly reduced students’ likelihood of enrolling in remedial coursework during the first year of college, at both two- and four-year institutions. Those students who received math-focused remediation were 5–10 percentage points less likely to enroll in remedial math coursework at two-year colleges, and 7 percentage points less likely at four-year colleges. The effects were much weaker for those students who received English remediation. TI participation similarly had small but statistically significant effects on enrollment in credit-bearing math coursework in the first year—but only for four-year institutions—by around 4 percentage points (no effects on English). And those who enrolled in credit-bearing math coursework were similarly more likely to pass the class.
Notably, certain groups of students benefited more than others. TI math intervention had the greatest impacts on students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, who were around 12 percentage points more likely to enroll in credit-bearing math coursework their first year of college and 9 percentage points more likely to pass the class once enrolled. While these same effects did not hold for this group of students for English remediation, students of color who participated in TI English interventions were 13 to 24 percentage points more likely to enroll in credit-bearing English coursework upon college entrance.
On all other outcomes studied, TI appears to have little or no positive effect. There was no impact on high school graduation or enrollment in either two- or four-year post-secondary institutions, and similarly no significant effects on credit-bearing enrollment in later years, persistence in college, or credit accumulation.
While policymakers can point to the effectiveness of a program like TI in reducing remedial course-taking in college, the results garnered by this analysis raise the question: What is the goal of high school remediation? This analysis clearly illustrates the menial effects of Kentucky’s program on student learning, as evidenced by the lackluster effects on passing rates in subsequent credit-bearing courses for both math and English. If the goal is to simply reduce the instance of students enrolling in remedial courses—not an unworthy goal—then such interventions seem to be worth pursuing. But if the goal is to increase students’ real understanding and mastery of the course material, policymakers may need to question the purpose of high-school remediation efforts altogether.
SOURCE: Zeyu Xu, Benjamin Backes, Amanda Oliveira, and Dan Goldhaber, “Targeted Interventions in High School: Preparing Students for College,” CALDER (February 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Deven Carlson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith for the third installment of our Research Deep Dive series, this one focusing on the impact of school closures, due to poor performance or under-enrollment, on student outcomes—both the students whose schools are shuttered and their classmates at their new schools.