September, 2020: Opening School Doors to New Opportunities for Universal Success

“Now is the time for all good schools to come to the aid of their country.”

In times of great danger, nations have always called upon their citizens to volunteer to do what is necessary to solve their most pressing problems. Today, our most immediate crisis is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, the heroes who have come forward are health care providers, who risk their lives to save the lives of others. The many people who work in essential services, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, also subject themselves to risks so that others can survive. Teachers across the country are working day and night to prepare online lessons, as well as helping get food to hungry students.  Behind the scenes, scientists are working to find cures, expand testing, and determine when it will be safe for our society to return to normal.

In a few months, we will face a new emergency. Schools will open. Hopefully, school opening will not pose major health threats to students and staff, assuming that the danger of infection has passed. But we will without any doubt face a new set of challenges in the education of the more than 50 million children in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S., as well as the billion students in the world as a whole.

blog_5-7-20_backtoschool500x333 2In the U.S., children re-entering our schools will have been out of school since March. Some may have kept up with their school work online, but most will have had little formal schooling for six months. This will be most serious, of course, among the students most at risk. By next September, 2020, millions of children will not only have missed out on schooling, but many will also be traumatized by what they have experienced since they were last in school. Many will have experienced the disease or death of a close relative. Many will have parents who have lost their jobs, and may have lived in fear of lacking food or safety.

This is a predictable crisis. No one can expect that schools and students will just pick up and carry on when schools re-open, as though they’ve just had a few snow days.  No teacher is going to say on Day 1, “Please open your textbook to the page where we left off last March.”

As educators and policy makers, it would be irresponsible to wait until schools re-open and only then take action to solve the entirely predictable problems. Instead, we need to prepare, starting today, to create the schools students will need in September, 2020, or whenever it is deemed safe for schools to open.

Here are a few ideas I would propose to address the problems students are likely to have.

  1. Bring all students up to grade level in reading and mathematics.

In two recent blogs (here and here) I discussed one aspect of this problem, the fact that many students will have fallen behind in basic skills because of their long absence from face-to-face school. I proposed a Marshall Plan for education, including mobilization of tens of thousands of recent college graduates, and others eager to help, to serve as paid tutors to students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics.  As I noted, research overwhelmingly points to tutoring as the most effective strategy to accelerate the achievement of students who are performing below their capabilities.  According to the evidence, several one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring models can routinely increase student achievement by an effect size of +0.40 in a year (almost equivalent to the difference between middle class and disadvantaged students). But what if students received effective tutoring for two years, or longer? What if their classroom teachers used teaching methods proven to be effective, contributing further to student success? What if schools could provide services to students with problems with their vision or hearing, or chronic health problems such as asthma? Based on what we already know how to do, a goal of steadily increasing the percentage of students performing at today’s definition of “at grade level” could increase each year, until virtually all students could expect that level of performance.

  1. Schools need to welcome back every child.

When students return to school after the long delay and trauma they may have endured, they need to be welcomed back with enthusiasm by all school staff. The return will create a psychological opportunity.  Students will always remember what happened on the first day, the first weeks, the first months. A big party to welcome students back is a good start, but students will need constant and sincere affirmations of their value and importance to the adults in the school. They need to be told, one at a time and by name, how much they were missed, and how glad everyone is that they are back, safe and healthy. I think the theme of each school should be “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to connect with the school,” not “at last, everything is back to normal.”

  1.  Schools need social emotional and health solutions

In addition to using proven academic approaches, schools need to implement proven social-emotional and health promotion strategies to help all students reconnect and thrive.  Strategies to build self-concept, positive relations with peers, concern for the well-being of others, and a commitment to banish violence and bullying will be especially important.  Cooperative learning can help to build friendships, acceptance, and engagement, in addition to improving achievement.

In light of all that has happened, schools need to enthusiastically welcome their students back, and then provide them the success, respect, and love that they deserve.  They need to give them every reason to believe that they have a new opportunity to achieve success.  Students, parents, and educators alike need to have well-founded confidence that out of the destruction caused by the pandemic, there will come triumph.

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

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