May 18, 2020
Opinion piece by Elisa B. MacDonald written at the start of the Covid 19 pandemic.
COVID 19 has turned everything that we know works upside down. Memorial services gone virtual, nature walks with masks, grocery shopping with floor arrows directing us through the aisles, first dates 6 feet apart on a park bench, birthday parties by zoom. We are adaptive and continue to figure out how to stay connected and keep living life but, this pandemic has exacerbated what doesn’t fully work in our systems, namely the inequities in our schools.
Since I was a teacher in my pre-practicum in the early 90’s I have known of the “achievement gap”. As a teacher and school leader I saw it live in our students in MA Turnaround schools, and now as a parent of two children with learning differences who are both on IEPs, I see firsthand the skill deficits widening during remote learning at this early stage in the pandemic. Despite teachers and school leaders trying to navigate these difficult circumstances as best as they can, the fact remains that most students have not engaged in the learning they need in the way they need to access it for close to 1/3 of the school year, and it’s likely they will lose more time on learning in the 2020-21 school year.
Our state commissioner has asked parents and educators to submit ideas on how to proceed in the next school year. I wonder... what if we thought differently about the timeline to college and career? What if school was a K-13 path instead of a K-12 one? A follow-up year with the same teacher(s) in the same grade for all students would allow teachers to teach to standards that were “lost” this year, focus on closing skill gaps that already existed, nurture the strains on the social and emotional stress that many students are experiencing, and offer enrichment to those who are ready to go deeper with content. I know this idea is “out there”, so let’s explore a few questions that we’d have to answer.
Does this mean all students are “repeating” or “left back”? No. Teachers were unable to teach 1/3 of their curriculum in ways that all students could learn and in many school classrooms students did not even get exposed to grade level standards. My twins, in 5th grade, have not gained fluency in fractions, decimals and percentages, which math leaders say is a critical foundation for the work they are expected to do in middle school and beyond.
What would we call this next year? I think we would have two options here so that there is no stigma placed on children. Either call it “pre –“ In other words a 5th grader now would enter “pre-sixth grade” in 2020-21 and they would enter“sixth grade” in 2021-2022. Or, we let students know that all current pre-K-11th grade students will be attending school through 13th grade. In this case, current 5th graders would move on to 6th, but focus on 5th grade standards, gap skills, and enrichment. The grade-level standards for 6th grade would bump up to 7th.
What about students who have had to be retained in prior years and already a year older than most of their peers? This could be determined on a case-by-case basis, but likely they would stay with their peers as everyone would be one year older. Yes, it means these students would graduate high school one year older, but knowing they have met the academic standards needed for a strong education and knowing all students who enter college and the workforce with them will be 18-20 instead of 17-19 might be worth it.
What about Seniors in high school and the staff who teach them? They would not participate in K-13, but instead move on to college and careers for 2020-2021 as planned. Teachers who typically teach Seniors could teach other high school grade levels for the 2020-21 year only to reduce the numbers of students in classes. If a student is in 5th grade now, next school year would either be called "pre-6th" or it could be called 6th with the understanding that all K-11th graders now would attend public school through 13th grade.
What would the impact be on colleges? If current 11th graders were to stay in school through "13th" grade, it does mean a year without seniors graduating and attending college. While experts would need to research the impact of not having a graduating class next year, numbers will become more clear when we find out how many seniors defer admission to 2021-22. It’s possible this solution could reduce overcrowding in colleges or a demand that is greater than the spots available, when students do go back.
What about the incoming kindergarten class? If everyone is essentially staying put with their teachers and placement for 2020-21, how do we make room for kindergarteners and staff those classes. Most likely districts would need to go back to what some schools already do of half-day kindergarten. Existing kindergarteners would go for half the day and incoming kindergarteners would go for the other half day. In the even that schools return full-on in Winter/Spring 2020-21, I realize this would generate childcare challenges in districts that typically have full day kindergarten and is an area for more problem-solving. For what it’s worth, we are going to have the childcare issue regardless of sticking to K-12 or going to a K-13 approach, in the event remote learning continues or a hybrid model is implanted.
What would 2020-21 SY look like? No one knows this now, but many are exploring hybrid teaching, some remote learning, some physically attending school, which would limit the amount of time on learning for students. A K-13 approach would take pressure off of teachers to cram the learning of past standards into whatever model we are going to have students participate in in the fall. It would also allow for schools to use any hybrid in person school time to include more social distance socialization, rather than replicating a more stringent home remote learning experience where kids sit at desks surrounded by plexi-glass for hours in a classroom.
I realize this is a very unconventional idea, but as I write this 3 months into the pandemic. I see that these are unconventional times requiring creativity and a focus on closing equity gaps not widening them. The approach is not perfect and would require a shift in mindset about what school “should” look like, but it’s worth considering. I welcome the dialogue.