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

A Marshall Plan for Post-COVID-19 Recovery

In World War II, my father was in the U.S. Navy.  In 1945, he was serving on a specially outfitted destroyer preparing for the invasion of Japan.  He always claimed that had the invasion gone forward, he would have been doomed.  He was in charge of his ship’s “radio-radar countermeasures,” new technology that would have been able to blind the radio and radar of the Japanese Navy so that there would have been only one ship they could detect: his.  Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered on October 14, before the invasion was set to begin.

I’m sure you’ve seen the famous picture of jubilant crowds in New York celebrating the surrender.  My father’s experience was different.  He was landed in Tokyo as part of the occupation forces.  He described Tokyo as a city whose former industrial and military areas had not one stone standing on another.  Many others have described similar scenes in Europe and Asia.  Like all servicemen, he was relieved that the war had ended, that he had survived.  But the extent of the destruction was horrifying, even to the victors.  How could a normal country grow back from this desert?

But it did.  Even the countries that suffered the greatest destruction were able, with American and other help, to rebuild, and ultimately to prosper.  The U.S. Marshall Plan, in particular, was a far-sighted investment in reconstruction that led the way in enabling destroyed countries to rebuild their societies and their economies.

Now we face another challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic.  I write from Baltimore at the point of inflection, when new cases of the disease have started to decline.  But it will still take a long time for everything to return to normal.  Compared to the death and destruction of World War II, COVID-19 is far less of a challenge, but day to day, it does not feel that way.  And unlike VJ Day, there will not be a day when it all ends, when everyone knows they are safe.

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For Americans, World War II was awful, but it was far away.  Life went on.  Schools and universities were open.  COVID-19 is different, because it profoundly affects the daily life of every American.  Most relevant to the readers of this blog, COVID-19 is severely interrupting the education of a generation.  This is a particular problem, of course, for disadvantaged students, whose parents are more likely to get the virus, who are less likely to have technology at home, and who were often already having difficulties in school.  How will we rebuild?  How will we help students regain the learning and the sense of security they once had?  And can we use this sobering experience to make lasting improvements in education?

Educational leaders are starting to think about what comes next.  Most are overwhelmed with the present, trying to figure out how, for example, to use distance learning to substitute for in-person school.  But anyone who has a child, or knows a child, or has ever been a child or parent, knows that distance education is not going to be enough, certainly not for most children, even in areas where students have plenty of computers, access to the Internet, excellent support from teachers teaching online, and parents who are willing and able to fill in to make sure that students are taking full advantage of whatever the school is providing their children. There will be happy exceptions, but there is a reason that homeschooling is rare.  When the schools open, hopefully next September, there will be a huge job to be done to repair the damage COVID-19 will have done to the educational futures of the 50 million U.S. children in grades PK to 12, as well as hundreds of millions more throughout the world.

One thing that seems highly likely is that when schools do open, they will open into an economic recession.  Currently, there is much concern for people who have lost their jobs, and initial efforts by the federal government have focused on propping up businesses and helping people who were employed, but happened to work for companies that had to close due to the pandemic.  This is essential, of course.  However, there is another problem that also needs attention: people who are just entering the workforce.  Since the Great Depression, economists have known how to respond to such crises: invest massively in people, to jump start the economy.

I would propose a solution that could help both with the schools and the recession. Schools should hire, train, and deploy large numbers of recent (and not so recent) college graduates as tutors, and in other essential roles in schools.

There is no intervention known that has an impact larger than that of tutoring.  One-to- one is most effective, but one-to-small group can also make a substantial difference in reading and mathematics performance in elementary and middle schools, and reaches many more students at a much lower cost per student.  Our recent research reviews (Baye et al., 2019; Neitzel et al., 2020; Pellegrini et al., 2020) tell us that teaching assistants, with proven materials and expert professional development, can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers working as tutors.

Imagine that every school could receive up to five well-trained, well-supported teaching assistant tutors, with the number of tutors determined by the school’s needs. This tutor corps could work with the students who are struggling in reading and/or mathematics, for as long as they need the assistance.  Our experience with small-group tutoring of this kind suggests that the cost per student tutored would be around $600 per year (Madden & Slavin, 2017).  Title I schools, especially those serving the most disadvantaged students, should be first in line for this assistance.  $600 per pupil per year is serious money, but well worth it in light of the need.  (Note: there are people suggesting that all students who missed school should repeat their most recent grade.  At an average per-pupil cost of $12,000 to do this, $600 per year sounds awfully reasonable as an alternative).   There are tutoring programs operating right now that can routinely obtain effect sizes of 0.40, or roughly 5 additional months of learning.  This  could go a very long way to not only solve the problems of students whose progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also help the many students who had problems before, which now need to be urgently addressed).

College graduates could also be trained as health aides, to use proven strategies to ensure that students who need them receive and use eyeglasses, or receive needed medications for asthma and other chronic illnesses that affect children’s school success as well as their long-term health).  They might also be trained and deployed to work with parents on issues such as attendance, social-emotional development, and mental health.

The problems of schools after the COVID-19 health crisis has passed must be addressed, with sufficient power and intensity to ensure that they get solved.  A return to normal is not sufficient.

We may never have a V-COVID Day, as we did a V-J Day after World War II.  But we must have a Marshall Plan for schools.  Universal access to tutoring and other essential services for students who need them would be a feasible, cost-effective start to a plan to reconstruct our schools.

Photo: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly, 54 (2), 133-166.

Madden, N. A., & Slavin, R. E. (2017). Evaluations of technology-assisted small-group tutoring for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 1-8.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2020). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at www.bestevidence.com. Manuscript submitted for publication.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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

COVID-19 and School Closures: Could Summer Help?

If there is one educational benefit of the otherwise dismal experience of closing virtually all of America’s schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: I’ll bet parents are developing a lot of respect for teachers. I’m hearing a lot about parents finding out that online lessons are no substitute for capable, in-person teachers.

Because of the essential health need to reduce contacts among students and school personnel, schools all over the U.S. have closed. School leaders are scrambling to provide on-line coursework. It is difficult everywhere to go from zero to online in a very short time, but in schools in high-poverty areas, where many or most students lack home computers or reliable internet access, it is well-nigh impossible. But even if every student had a working computer and internet access, there seems to be widespread use of computerized worksheets, and other uninspiring content. In some schools and districts, in which online work is already well used and computers are universally available, the situation is surely better, but even there, online all day every day is no substitute for in-person teaching. Very conscientious and self-motivated students, the kind who already use Khan Academy just for fun, are probably thriving, but such students constitute a small minority, even in the finest schools.

School closures are likely to extend into May, leaving little if any of the regular school year for things to return to normal. Two states, Kansas and Virginia, have already announced that schools will not re-open before the end of the year, and others will surely follow.

The Summer Solution

In light of the realities we face, I think most schools are struggling to teach all of their children during the school closures. Parents are doing their best, as are some students, but nationwide, trying to keep schools going as they always have, except online, is not a satisfying solution.

I have an alternative solution. It has two simple steps.

  1. As soon as feasible, declare schools to be on break. Instant vacation.
  2. When it is safe to open schools, do so. Hold an in-person two-month session, starting (let’s say) on June 1 and running through the end of July.

During the instant vacation, provide parents and students with a menu of engaging activities that are fun, engage students’ energies and curiosity, and optional. These could focus on science, social studies, writing, art, music, and other subjects often blog_4-2-20_masks_500x343given short shrift during the school year.  These would be facilitated by teachers; in my experience, every school and district has many teachers who are crazy about one or more topics that they rarely get to talk about in school.  Teachers may be Civil War reenactors, world travelers, art experts, amateur musicians, or published writers, even if those are not the topics they teach.  In three days, max, any school district could find extraordinary people with fierce passions for something they want to share with kids. Students might be given a choice of activities, and they might choose to do none at all. It’s vacation, after all. The reason to have these activities is to give students shut in at home useful and interesting things to do. I’m sure there are loads of great online activities already out there that are rarely used because of the lack of time for such activities in the regular school year. Imagine any of the following, facilitated by teachers who love these topics:

  • Online trips to faraway places or to periods of history
  • Online book clubs in which students could choose topics they’d like to read about and then discuss age-appropriate books on them with others from all over their school, district, or state.
  • Science clubs, in which students could explore topics of their choice in groups from all over. One interesting topic: epidemiology.  Science clubs could find out everything there is to know about space travel, or the science of music, or the science of sports.
  • Writer’s workshops, in which kids from all over could enroll in groups working on writing their own mystery stories, fantasy stories, sports stories, or biographies of famous people.  That’s how the Bronte sisters learned to write, shut in in small-town Yorkshire, surrounded by poverty and disease.  They wrote stories with and for each other, throughout their childhoods.
  • Art or music appreciation, history, or techniques
  • How students can get jobs and internships (in normal times)
  • Post-secondary options for secondary students

I think you get the idea. Trying to cover all the usual school subjects in the usual way, but online, is sure to be boring and ineffective for most students. But on vacation, shut in students could select learning activities to do not for a grade, not under pressure from parents or teachers, but to satisfy their own curiosity.

When the crisis is over, presumably in the summer, students could return to school and resume their usual lessons, with in-person teachers.  I’m sure there would be practical difficulties, but I’m willing to bet that this could work, perhaps in some places, perhaps in many. At least it seems worth a try!

Photo credit: zhizhou deng / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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