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The calamity and chaos of Covid actually brought some clarity.
When the pandemic disrupted in-person learning and triggered school closures, many students in America experienced significant learning loss. This academic interruption widened learning gaps for students of color and students from low-income families, say experts.
A McKinsey study reported that students were at risk of losing –7 to 11 months of learning when schools suddenly switched to remote instruction. As in-class teaching ended, students from low-income families, without access to conducive learning environments, received low-quality remote instruction and fell behind.
The data on students who are doing poorly as they return to the classroom is discouraging, observed Louis Freedberg, a veteran education journalist, at a March 18 EMS briefing where panelists outlined strategies to offset the disturbing level of learning loss during the pandemic.
“Students who were already struggling before the pandemic are now doing worse. There are too many kids who are disengaged from education.”
Experts on the panel agreed the time had come to shift focus from ‘learning loss’ and reframe the narrative to what students can gain.
“Kids are really excited to be back,” said Freedberg, the past Exec. Dir. of EdSource.
“The key is to focus on what can be done to engage students now that they are back.”
“If we just continue to do things the way they were before – for many kids this is just not going to work.”
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to seize the moment and build on it.”
What will help is a staggering 190 billion dollars that the federal government, (via the American Rescue Plan), has pumped into efforts to bridge the education gap and make schooling more equitable and just. The law stipulates that schools must spend 20% of these funds on evidence-based strategies to address unfinished learning. In California, the good news is that school districts are getting more funding, with an average of $21000 per student, targeting rural schools, low-income students, and English learners.
“More money directed at schools and for programs can help students get through the pandemic and help schools work with kids more effectively,” said Freedberg.
Can community schools bridge that gap and put students back on track academically and socially?
Some education experts think so. In the pandemic, schools and districts with strong relationships with families were quicker to pivot and respond to distance learning and technology gaps.
Community-connected learning is one effective strategy that’s transforming public education. These schools offer a template for rethinking not just academic, but also social and emotional learning as schools and students recover from the pandemic.
“What is most essential to good teaching and learning is the centrality of family and children’s relationships,” explained Hayin Kimner – Managing Director for Community Schools Learning Exchange, and a Senior Policy & Research Fellow for Policy Analysis for California Education. She is a strong advocate of community schools where the focus is on improving programs for the whole school and the whole child.
Community schools use student-centered learning to meet students where they are, and integrate innovative student/teacher supports to meet the challenges of distance and virtual learning.
In these settings, said Kimner, strong relationships and community-connected learning help schools respond organically to the urgency and realities of students and their families. These schools may have a medical clinic or family resource centers. They foster collaborative leadership between leaders, stakeholders, and staff.
“Strong communication and collaboration with local public health departments and CBOs, paved the way to rethink collaborative partnerships that rowed in the same direction,” said Kimner.
California has made an extraordinary ‘big bet’ in its Fiscal 21 budget with a $2.88 billion partnership program grant for community school development and expansion, added Kimner.
Education needs to shift from testing
Freedberg cautioned that grades and exams should NOT be the main driver of teaching and education. “For too long the focus and narrative has been on testing kids, attendance, and turning in assignments on time.”
“That doesn’t work!”
What also won’t work is after-school programs to address unfinished learning. Not all after-school programs are created equal, said Allison Socol of ED Trust, a national research and advocacy organization in Washington DC. To be effective, they need to meet the criteria for enhanced learning alongside enrichment activities like art and music.
Freedberg introduced other innovative strategies like Project-based Learning, which lets students explore real-world problems through individual and group projects.
In The Tiny House Project, a third-grade teacher in San Jose had kids design and build a model house using Minecraft. It got the kids excited and allowed the teacher to teach parts of the whole school curriculum – math by figuring out the square footage, total area, and perimeters with a structural engineer, reading by researching information, and learning skills to make client presentations.
Linking schoolwork with career pathways supported by internships, counseling, and supplemental reading could motivate students, added Freedberg, while offering dual enrollment to successful high school students which would allow them to take community colleges courses for a beneficial change in their normal routine.
Arts and music programs, eviscerated by cutbacks across the country need to be reinstated in school curriculums, added Freedberg; fortunately, an initiative is underway in California to put a billion-dollar investment in arts and music education programs on the November ballot.
Other proven strategies to engage students include targeted intensive tutoring, expanded learning time, and strong relationships, said Allison Socol, Asst. Director of P12 Policy at ED Trust.
“It’s possible to accelerate students learning with resources and support.”
Socol suggested that effective evidence-based strategies such as high dosage tutoring, where a teacher focuses on a skill-building curriculum in one-on-one sessions, or with a small group of 4, could help students master unfinished learning.
Adding instructional time in a school day or to a child’s school day, such as an additional block of reading, could better engage students. The benefit of these strategies is the strong relationships formed through the core of the school day, which can influence academic progress. They enable a better understanding of a student’s social and emotional needs and connect them and their families to the additional support and services. In Nashville, the Navigator Program does just that.
Using assets that are not a part of the school fabric can help schools with limited resources in the pandemic, said Hayin Kimner.
“It’s not just about learning recovery and response to a pandemic, it’s an opportunity for transformation.”
The calamity and chaos of Covid actually brought some clarity, added Kimner.
Moving forward, the challenge is to find opportunities of opening the window into learning and inspire kids to return to in-person learning.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and a 2021 and 2022 grantee from the USC Center for Health Journalism, reporting on domestic violence in the South Asian community. She also is a producer at DesiCollective and covers issues that impact minority communities through the lens of social justice, politics, and the arts.
Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash