Building Back Better

Yesterday, President Joe Biden took his oath of office. He is taking office at one of the lowest points in all of American history. Every American, whatever their political beliefs, should be wishing him well, because his success is essential for the recovery of our nation.

In education, most schools remain closed or partially open, and students are struggling with remote learning. My oldest granddaughter is in kindergarten. Every school day, she receives instruction from a teacher she has never met. She has never seen the inside of “her school.” She is lucky, of course, because she has educators as grandparents (us), but it is easy to imagine the millions of kindergartners who do not even have access to computers, or do not have help in learning to read and learning mathematics. These children will enter first grade with very little of the background they need, in language and school skills as well as in content.

Of course, the problem is not just kindergarten. All students have missed a lot of school, and they will vary widely in their experiences during that time. Think of second graders who essentially missed first grade. Students who missed the year when they are taught biology. Students who missed the fundamentals of creative writing. Students who should be in Algebra 2, except that they missed Algebra 1.

Hopefully, providing vaccines as quickly as possible to school staffs will enable most schools to open this spring. But we have a long, long way to go to get back to normal, especially with disadvantaged students. We cannot just ask students on their first day back to open their math books to the page they were on in March, 2020, when school closed.

Students need to be assessed when they return, and if they are far behind in reading or math, given daily tutoring, one-to-one or one-to-small group. If you follow this blog, you’ve heard me carry on at length about this.

Tutoring services, using tutoring programs proven to be effective, will be of enormous help to students who are far behind grade level (here, here, here). But the recovery from Covid-19 school closures should not be limited to repairing the losses. Instead, I hope the Covid-19 crisis can be an opportunity to reconsider how to rebuild our school system to enhance the school success of all students.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that schooling in America was ailing long before Covid-19. It wasn’t doing so badly for middle class children, but it was failing disadvantaged students. These very same students have suffered disproportionately from Covid-19. So in the process of bringing these children back into school, let’s not stop with getting back to normal. Let’s figure out how to create schools that use the knowledge we have gained over the past 20 years, and knowledge we can develop in the coming years, to transform learning for our most vulnerable children.

Building Back Better

Obviously, the first thing we have to do this spring is reopen schools and make them as healthy, happy, welcoming, and upbeat as possible. We need to make sure that schools are fully staffed and fully equipped. We do need to “build back” before we can “build back better.” But we cannot stop there. Below, I discuss several things that would greatly transform education for disadvantaged students.

1.  Tutoring

Yes, tutoring is the first thing we have to do to build better. Every child who is significantly below grade level needs daily one-to-small group or one-to-one tutoring, until they reach a pre-established level of performance, depending on grade level, in reading and math.

However, I am not talking about just any tutoring. Not all tutoring works. But there are many programs that have been proven to work, many times. These are the tutoring programs we need to start with as soon as possible, with adequate training resources to ensure student success.

Implementing proven tutoring programs on a massive scale is an excellent “build back” strategy, the most effective and cost-effective strategy we have. However, tutoring should also be the basis for a key “build better” strategy

2.  Establishing success as a birthright and ensuring it using proven programs of all kinds.

We need to establish adequate reading and mathematics achievement as the birthright of every child. We can debate about what that level might be, but we must hold ourselves accountable for the success of every child. And we need to accomplish this not just by using accountability assessments and hoping for the best, but by providing proven programs to all students who need them for as long as they need them.

As I’ve pointed out in many blogs (here, here, here), we now have many programs proven effective in rigorous experiments and known to improve student achievement (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Every child who is performing below level, and every school serving many children below grade level, should have resources and knowledge to adopt proven programs. Teachers and tutors need to be guaranteed sufficient professional development and in-class coaching to enable them to successfully implement proven programs. Years ago, we did not have sufficient proven programs, so policy makers kept coming up with evidence-free policies, which have just not worked as intended. But now, we have many programs ready for widespread dissemination. To build better, we have to use these tools, not return to near universal use of instructional strategies, materials, and technology that have never been successfully evaluated. Instead, we need to use what works, and to facilitate adoption and effective implementation of proven programs.

3.  Invest in development and evaluation of promising programs.

How is it that in a remarkably short time, scientists were able to develop vaccines for Covid-19, vaccines that promise to save millions of lives? Simple. We invested billions in research, development, and evaluations of alternative vaccines. Effective vaccines are very difficult to make, and the great majority failed.  But at this writing, two U.S. vaccines have succeeded, and this is a mighty good start. Now, government is investing massively in rigorous dissemination of these vaccines.

Total spending on all of education research dedicated to creating and evaluating educational innovations is a tiny fraction of what has been spent and will be spent on vaccines. But can you imagine that it is impossible to improve reading, math, science, and other outcomes, with clear goals and serious resources? Of course it could be done. A key element of “building better” could be to substantially scale up use of proven programs we have now, and to invest in new development and evaluation to make today’s best obsolete, replaced by better and better approaches. The research and evaluation of tutoring proves this could happen, and perhaps a successful rollout of tutoring will demonstrate what proven programs can do in education.

4.  Commit to Success

Education goes from fad to fad, mandate to mandate, without making much progress. In order to “build better,” we all need to commit to finding what works, disseminating it broadly, and then finding even better solutions, until all children are succeeding. This must be a long-term commitment, but if we are investing adequately and see that we are improving outcomes each year, then it is clear we can do it.            

With a change of administrations, we are going to hear a lot about hope. Hope is a good start, but it is not a plan. Let’s plan to build back better, and then for the first time in the history of education, make sure our solutions work, for all of our children.

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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