Handling Outbreaks after COVID-19 Re-openings: The Case of Germany

By guest blogger Nathan Storey*

As schools across the U.S. are beginning to reopen in hybrid or full formats, unanticipated outbreaks of COVID are bound to occur. To help schools prepare, we have been writing about strategies schools and districts in other countries have used to combat outbreaks.

In this week’s case study, I examine how Germany has responded to outbreaks and managed school reopening nationwide.

Germany

Over one month since reopening after the summer holiday, German schools are largely still open. Critics and health experts worried in the early weeks as cases in the country appeared to increase (Morris & Weber-Steinhaus, 2020), but schools have been able to continue to operate. Now students sit in classes without masks, and children are allowed to move and interact freely on the playground.

Immediately following the reopening, 31 outbreak clusters (150 cases) were identified in the first week of schooling, and 41 schools in Berlin (out of 825 schools in the region) experienced COVID-19 cases during the first two weeks of schooling, requiring quarantines, testing, and temporary closures. Similar issues occurred across the country as schools reopened in other states. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the first state to reopen, saw 800-plus students from Goethe Gymnasium in Ludwigslust sent home for quarantine after a faculty member tested positive. One hundred primary school students in Rostock district were quarantined for two weeks when a fellow student tested positive. Yet now one month later, German schools remain open. How is this possible?

Germany has focused its outbreak responses on individual student and class-level quarantines instead of shutting down entire schools. Due to active and widespread testing nationwide in the early stages of the outbreak, the country was able to get control of community-level positivity rates, paving the way for schools to reopen both in the spring, and again after summer break. Rates rose in August, but tracking enabled authorities to trace the cases to people returning from summer vacation, not from schools. At schools, outbreaks have generally been limited to one teacher or one student, who have contracted the virus from family or community members, not from within the school.

When these outbreaks occur, schools close for a day awaiting test results, but reopen quickly once affected individuals are tested negative and can return to class. At Sophie-Charlotte High School in Berlin, three days after reopening, the school received word that two students tested positive from the girls’ parents. The school in turn informed the local health authority, leading to 191 students and teachers asked to quarantine at home. Everyone was tested and two days later they received their test results. Before the week was up, school was back in session. By one estimate, due to the efficient testing and individual or class quarantines, fewer than 600 Berliner students have had to stay home for a day (out of more than 366,000 students) (Bennhold, 2020).

So far, there has been one more serious outbreak at Heinrich Hertz School in Hamburg, where a cluster of 26 students and three teachers have all received positive diagnoses, potentially infected by one of the teachers. The school moved to quarantine grades six and eight, and mask wearing rules were more strictly followed. The school and local health authorities are continuing to study the potential transmission patterns to locate the origin of the cluster.

Testing in Germany is effective because it is extensive, but targeted to those with direct contact with infections. At Heinz-Berggruen school in Berlin, a sixth grader was found to be infected after being tested even though she had no symptoms. Someone in her family had tested positive. Tracing the family member’s contacts, tests determined the source of the infection stemmed from international travel, and Heinz-Berggruen remained open, with just the infected student quarantined for two weeks. At Goethe Gymnasium in Ludwigslust, mentioned earlier, the infected teacher was sent home, and all 55 teachers were subsequently tested. The school was able to reopen less than a week later.

Some challenges have arisen. As in the US, German states are responsible for their own COVID-19 prevention measures and must make plans for the case of outbreaks. One city councilor in the Neukölln district of Berlin revealed there was confusion among parents and schools about children’s symptoms and response plans. As a result, children whose only symptoms are runny noses, for instance, have been sent home, and worries are increasing as to how effectively schools and districts will differentiate COVID-19 from flu in the winter.

The German case provides some optimism that schools can manage outbreaks and reopen successfully through careful planning and organization. Testing, contact tracing, and communication are vital, as is lowering of community positivity rates. Cases may be rising in Germany again (Loxton, 2020), but with these strategies and new national COVID management rules in place, the country is in an excellent position to address the challenge.

*Nathan Storey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education

References

Barton, T., & Parekh, A. (2020, August 11). Reopening schools: Lessons from abroad. https://doi.org/10.26099/yr9j-3620

(2020, June 12). As Europe reopens schools, relief combines with risk. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/world/europe/reopen-schools-germany.html

Bennhold, K. (2020, August 26). Germany faces a ‘roller coaster’ as schools reopen amid Coronavirus—The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/world/europe/germany-schools-virus-reopening.html?smid=em-share

Holcombe, M. (2020, October 5). New York City to close schools in some areas as Northeast sees rise in new cases. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/05/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html

Loxton, R. (2020, October 15). What you need to know about Germany’s new coronavirus measures for autumn. The Local. https://www.thelocal.de/20201015/what-you-need-to-know-about-germanys-new-coronavirus-measures-for-autumn-and-winter

Medical Xpress. (2020, August 7). Germany closes two schools in new virus blow. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-08-germany-schools-virus.html

Morris, L., & Weber-Steinhaus, F. (2020, September 11). Schools have seen no coronavirus outbreaks since reopening a month ago in Germany—The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/covid-schools-germany/2020/09/10/309648a4-eedf-11ea-bd08-1b10132b458f_story.html

Noryskiewicz, A. (2020, August 25). Coronavirus data 2 weeks into Germany’s school year “reassures” expert. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-school-germany-no-outbreaks/

The Associated Press (2020, August 27). Europe is going back to school despite recent virus surge—Education Week. AP. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/08/27/europe-is-going-back-to-school_ap.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2&M=59665135&U=&UUID=4397669ca555af41d7b271f2dafac508

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

How Much Have Students Lost in The COVID-19 Shutdowns?

Everyone knows that school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are having a serious negative impact on student achievement, and that this impact is sure to be larger for disadvantaged students than for others. However, how large will the impact turn out to be? This is not a grim parlor game for statisticians, but could have real meaning for policy and practice. If the losses turn out to be modest comparable to the “summer slide” we are used to (but which may not exist), then one might argue that when schools open, they might continue where they left off, and students might eventually make up their losses, as they do with summer slide. If, on the other hand, losses are very large, then we need to take emergency action.

Some researchers have used data from summer losses and from other existing data on, for example, teacher strikes, to estimate COVID losses (e.g., Kuhfeld et al., 2020). But now we have concrete evidence, from a country similar to the U.S. in most ways.

A colleague came across a study that has, I believe, the first actual data on this question. It is a recent study from Belgium (Maldonado & DeWitte, 2020) that assessed COVID-19 losses among Dutch-speaking students in that country.

The news is very bad.

The researchers obtained end-of-year test scores from all sixth graders who attend publicly-funded Catholic schools, which are attended by most students in Dutch-speaking Belgium. Sixth grade is the final year of primary school, and while schools were mostly closed from March to June due to COVID, the sixth graders were brought back to their schools in late May to prepare for and take their end-of primary tests. Before returning, the sixth graders had missed about 30% of the days in their school year. They were offered on-line teaching at home, as in the U.S.

The researchers compared the June test scores to those of students in the same schools in previous years, before COVID. After adjustments for other factors, students scored an effect size of -0.19 in mathematics, and -0.29 in Dutch (reading, writing, language). Schools serving many disadvantaged students had significantly larger losses in both subjects; inequality within the schools increased by 17% in mathematics and 20% in Dutch, and inequality between schools increased by 7% in math and 18% in Dutch.

There is every reason to expect that the situation in the U.S. will be much worse than that in Belgium. Most importantly, although Belgium had one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the world, it has largely conquered the disease by now (fall), and its schools are all open. In contrast, most U.S. schools are closed or partially closed this fall. Students are usually offered remote instruction, but many disadvantaged students lack access to technology and supervision, and even students who do have equipment and supervision do not seem to be learning much, according to anecdotal reports.

In many U.S. schools that have opened fully or partially, outbreaks of the disease are disrupting schooling, and many parents are refusing to send their children to school. Although this varies greatly by regions of the U.S., the average American student is likely to have missed several more effective months of in-person schooling by the time schools return to normal operation.

But even if average losses turn out to be no worse than those seen in Belgium, the consequences are terrifying, for Belgium as well as for the U.S. and other COVID-inflicted countries.

Effect sizes of -0.19 and -0.29 are very large. From the Belgian data on inequality, we might estimate that for disadvantaged students (those in the lowest 25% of socioeconomic status), losses could have been -0.29 in mathematics and -0.39 in Dutch. What do we have in our armamentarium that is strong enough to overcome losses this large?

In a recent blog, I compared average effect sizes from studies of various solutions currently being proposed to remedy students’ losses from COVID shutdowns: Extended school days, after-school programs, summer school, and tutoring. Only tutoring, both one-to-one and one-to-small group, in reading and mathematics, had an effect size larger than +0.10. In fact, there are several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring models with effect sizes of +0.40 or more, and averages are around +0.30. Research in both reading and mathematics has shown that well-trained teaching assistants using structured tutoring materials or software can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers as tutors. On the basis of these data, I’ve been writing about a “Marshall Plan” to hire thousands of tutors in every state to provide tutoring to students scoring far below grade level in reading and math, beginning with elementary reading (where the evidence is strongest).

I’ve also written about national programs in the Netherlands and in England to provide tutoring to struggling students. Clearly, we need a program of this kind in the U.S. And if our scores are like the Belgian scores, we need it as quickly as possible. Students who have fallen far below grade level cannot be left to struggle without timely and effective assistance, powerful enough to bring them at least to where they would have been without the COVID school closures. Otherwise, these students are likely to lose motivation, and to suffer lasting damage. An entire generation of students, harmed through no fault of their own, cannot be allowed to sink into failure and despair.

References

Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

Maldonado, J. E., & DeWitte, K. (2020). The effect of school closures on standardized student test outcomes.Leuven, Belgium: University of Leuven.

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

Healing Covid-19’s Educational Losses: What is the Evidence?

I’ve written several blogs (here, here, here, here, here, and here) on what schools can do when they finally open permanently, to remedy what will surely be serious harm to the educational progress of millions of students. Without doubt, the students who are suffering the most from lengthy school closures are disadvantaged students, who are most likely to lack access to remote technology or regular support when their schools have been closed.

 Recently, there have been several articles circulated in the education press (e.g., Sawchuk, 2020) and newsletters laying out the options schools might consider to greatly improve the achievement of students who lost the most, and are performing far behind grade level.

The basic problem is that if schools simply start off with usual teaching for each grade level, this may be fine for students at or just below grade level, but for those who are far below level, this is likely to add catastrophe to catastrophe. Students who cannot read the material they are being taught, or who lack the prerequisite skills for their grade level, will experience failure and frustration. So the challenge is to provide students who are far behind with intensive, additional services likely to quickly accelerate their progress, so that they can then profit from ordinary, at-grade-level lessons.

In the publications I’ve seen, there have been several solutions frequently put forward. I thought this might be a good time to review the most common prescriptions in terms of their evidence basis in rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental research.

Extra Time

One proposal is to extend the school day or school year to provide additional time for instruction. This sounds logical; if the problem is time out of school, let’s add time in school.

The effects of extra time depend, of course, on what schools provide during that additional time. Simply providing more clock hours in which typical instruction is provided makes little difference. For example, in a large Florida study (Figlio, Holden, & Ozek, 2018), high-poverty schools were given a whole hour every day for a year, for additional reading instruction. This had a small impact on reading achievement (ES=+0.09) at a cost of about $800 per student, or $300,000-$400,000 per school. Also, in a review of research on secondary reading programs by Baye, Lake, Inns & Slavin (2019), my colleagues and I examined whether remedial programs were more effective if they were provided during additional time (one class period a day more than what the control group received for one or more years) or if they were provided during regular class time (the same amount of time the control group also received). The difference was essentially zero. The extra time did not matter. What did matter was what the schools provided (here and here).

After-School Programs

Some sources suggest providing after-school programs for students experiencing difficulties. A review of research on this topic by Kidron & Lindsay (2014) examined effects of after-school programs on student achievement in reading and mathematics. The effects were essentially zero. One problem is that students often did not attend regularly, or were poorly motivated when they did attend.

Summer School

As noted in a recent blog, positive effects of summer school were found only when intensive phonics instruction was provided in grades K or 1, but even in these cases, positive effects did not last to the following spring. Summer school is also very expensive.

Tutoring

By far the most effective approach for students struggling in reading or mathematics is tutoring (see blogs here, here, and here). Outcomes for one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring average +0.20 to +0.30 in both reading and mathematics, and there are several particular programs that routinely report outcomes of +0.40 or more. Using teaching assistants with college degrees as tutors can make tutoring very cost-effective, especially in small-group programs.

Whole-School Reforms

There are a few whole-school reforms that can have substantial impacts on reading and mathematics achievement. A recent review of our elementary school reform model, Success for All (Cheung et al., 2020), found an average effect size of +0.24 for all students across 17 studies, and an average of +0.54 for low achievers.

A secondary reform model called BARR has reported positive reading and mathematics outcomes for ninth graders (T. Borman et al., 2017)

Conclusion

Clearly, something needs to be done about students returning to in-person education who are behind grade level in reading and/or mathematics. But resources devoted to helping these students need to be focused on approaches proven to work. This is not the time to invest in plausible but unproven programs. Students need the best we have that has been repeatedly shown to work.

References

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

Borman, T., Bos, H., O’Brien, B. C., Park, S. J., & Liu, F. (2017). i3 BARR validation study impact findings: Cohorts 1 and 2. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T., Neitzel, A., & Slavin, R. E. (2020). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Manuscript submitted for publication. (Contact us for a copy.)

Figlio, D. N., Holden, K. L., & Ozek, U. (2018). Do students benefit from longer school days? Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida’s additional hour of literacy instruction. Economics of Education Review, 67, 171-183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2018.06.003

Kidron, Y., & Lindsay, J. (2014). The effects of increased learning time on student academic and nonacademic outcomes: Findings from a meta‑analytic review (REL 2014-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.

Sawchuk, S. (2020, August 26). Overcoming Covid-19 learning loss. Education Week, 40 (2), 6.

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

The Summertime Blues

            A long-ago rock song said it first: “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”

            In the 1970s, Barbara Heyns (1978) discovered that over the summer, disadvantaged students lost a lot more of what they had learned in school than did advantaged students. Ever since then, educators have been trying to figure out how they could use time during the summer to help disadvantaged students catch up academically. I got interested in this recently because I have been trying to learn what kinds of educational interventions might be most impactful for the millions of students who have missed many months of school due to Covid-19 school closures. Along with tutoring and after school programs, summer school is routinely mentioned as a likely solution.

            Along with colleagues Chen Xie, Alan Cheung, and Amanda Neitzel, I have been looking at the literature on summer programs for disadvantaged students.

            There are two basic approaches to summer programs intended to help at-risk students. One of these, summer book reading, gives students reading assignments over the summer (e.g., Kim & Guryan, 2010). These generally have very small impacts, but on the other hand, they are relatively inexpensive.

            Of greater interest to the quest for powerful interventions to overcome Covid-19 learning losses are summer school programs in reading and mathematics. Studies of most of the summer school programs found they made little difference in outcomes. For example, an evaluation of a 5-week, six hour a day remedial program for middle school students found no significant differences in reading or math (Somers et al., 2015). However, there was one category of summer school programs that had at least a glimmer of promise. All three involved intensive, phonics-focused programs for students in kindergarten or first grade. Schachter & Jo (2005) reported substantial impacts of such a program, with a mean effect size of +1.16 on fall reading measures. However, by the following spring, a follow-up test showed a non-significant difference of +0.18. Zvoch & Stevens (2013), using similar approaches, found effect sizes of +0.60 for kindergarten and +0.78 for first grade. However, no measure of maintenance was reported. Borman & Dowling (2006) provided first graders with a 7-week reading-focused summer school. There were substantial positive effects by fall, but these disappeared by spring. The same students qualified for a second summer school experience after second grade, and this once again showed positive effects that faded by the following spring. There was no cumulative effect.

Because these studies showed no lasting impact, one might consider them a failure. However, it is important to note the impressive initial impacts, which might suggest that intensive reading instruction could be a part of a comprehensive approach for struggling readers in the early grades, if these gains were followed up during the school year with effective interventions. What summertime offers is an opportunity to use time differently (i.e., intensive phonics for young students who need it). It would make more sense to build on the apparent potential of focused summer school, rather than abandoning it based on its lack of long-term impacts.

            All by themselves, summer programs, based on the evidence we have so far “Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.” But in next week’s blog, I discuss some ideas about how short-term interventions with powerful impacts, such as tutoring, pre-kindergarten,  and intensive phonics for students in grades K-1 in summer school, might be followed up with school-year interventions to produce long-term positive impacts. Perhaps summer school could be part of a cure for the school year blues.

References

Borman, G. D., & Dowling, Ν. M. (2006). Longitudinal achievement effects of multiyear summer school: Evidence from the Teach Baltimore randomized field trial. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 28, 25-48. doi:10.3102/01623737028001025

Heyns, B. (1978). Summer learning and the effect of schooling. New York: Academic Press.

Kim, J. S., & Guryan, J. (2010). The efficacy of a voluntary summer book reading intervention for low-income Latino children from language minority families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 20-31. doi:10.1037/a0017270

Somers, M. A., Welbeck, R., Grossman, J. B., & Gooden, S. (2015). An analysis of the effects of an academic summer program for middle school students. Retrieved from ERIC website: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED558507.pdf

Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2005.00260.x

Zvoch, K., & Stevens, J. J. (2013). Summer school effects in a randomized field trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.05.002

Photo credit: American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action (CC BY-NC 4.0)

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

Could Intensive Education Rescue Struggling Readers?

Long, long ago, I heard about a really crazy idea. Apparently, a few private high schools were trying a scheduling plan in which instead of having students take all of their subjects every day, they would take one subject at a time for a month or six weeks. The idea was that with a total concentration on one subject, with no time lost in changing classes, students could make astonishing progress. At the end of each week, they could see the progress they’d made, and really feel learning happening.

Algebra? Solved!

French? Accompli!

Of course, I could not talk anyone into trying this. I almost got a Catholic school to try it, but when they realized that kids would have to take religion all day, that was that.

However, in these awful days, with schools nationwide closing for months due to Covid, I was thinking about a way to use a similar concept with students who have fallen far behind, or actually with any students who are far behind grade level for any reason.

What happens now with students who are far behind in, say, reading, is that they get a daily period of remedial instruction, or special education. For most of them, despite the very best efforts of dedicated teachers, this is not very effective. Day after day after day, they get instruction that at best moves them forward at a slow, steady pace. But after a while, students lose any hope of truly catching up, and when you lose hope, you lose motivation, and no one learns without motivation.

blog_8-13-20_tripletutor_333x500So here is my proposal. What if students who were far behind could enroll in a six-week intensive service designed to teach them to read, no matter what? They would attend an intensive class, perhaps all day, in which they receive a promise: this time, you’ll make it. No excuses. This is the best chance you’ll ever have. Students would be carefully assessed, including their vision and hearing as well as their reading levels. They would be assigned to one-to-small group or, if necessary, one-to-one instruction for much of the day. There might be music or sports or other activities between sessions, but imagine that students got three 40-minute tutoring sessions a day, on content exactly appropriate to their needs. The idea, as in intensive education, would be to enable the students to feel the thrill of learning, to see unmistakable gains in a day, extraordinary gains in a week. The tutoring could be to groups of four for most students, but students with the most difficult, most unusual problems could receive one-to-one tutoring.

The ideal time to do this intensive tutoring would be summer school. Actually, this has been done in a few studies. Schacter & Jo (2005) provided intensive phonics instruction to students after first grade in three disadvantaged schools in Los Angeles. The seven-week experience increased their test scores by an effect size of +1.16, compared to similar students who did not have the opportunity to attend summer school. Zvoch & Stevens (2015) also provided intensive phonics instruction in small groups in a 5-week reading summer school. The students were disadvantaged kindergartners and first graders in a medium-sized city in the Pacific Northwest. The effect sizes were +0.60 for kindergarten, +0.78 for first grade.

Summer is not the only good time for intensive reading instruction. Reading is so important that it would be arguably worthwhile to provide intensive six-week instruction (with time out for mathematics) and breaks for, say, sports and music, during the school year.

If intensive education were as effective as ordinary 40-minute daily tutoring, it might be no more expensive. A usual course of tutoring is 20 weeks, so triple tutoring sessions for six weeks would cost almost the same as 18 weeks of ordinary tutoring. In other words, if intensive tutoring is more effective than ordinary tutoring, then the additional benefits might cost little or nothing.

Intensive tutoring would make particular sense to try during summer, 2021, when millions of students will still be far behind in reading because of the lengthy school closures they will have experienced. I have no idea whether intensive tutoring will be more or less effective than ordinary one-to-small group tutoring (which is very, very effective; see here and here). Planfully concentrating tutoring during an intensive period of time certainly seems worth a try!

References

Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2005.00260.x

Zvoch, K., & Stevens, J. J. (2013). Summer school effects in a randomized field trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.05.002

Photo credit: American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

 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

 

“Am I Even Real Anymore?” The Truth About Virtual Learning

“My 8-year-old was sobbing last night because she misses playing with her friends at recess, she misses her teacher, and she is worried that everyone has forgotten her. At one point, she asked me if she was even real anymore.”

This appeared in a letter that ran in the July 25th Baltimore Sun. It was written by Jenny Elliott, a Catonsville mother of elementary students. In it, Ms. Elliott tells how she and her husband have been unable to get their kids to do the virtual learning assignments her kids’ school has assigned.

“(Virtual learning) just doesn’t work for them. I can’t physically force them to stare at their devices and absorb information. We’ve yelled, we’ve begged, we’ve made a game of it…we’ve tried everything we can think of. We failed.”

One of the most poignant parts of Ms. Elliott’s letter is her feeling that everyone knows that virtual learning isn’t working for most kids, but no one wants to say so.

“I am begging someone to speak honestly about virtual learning. I have only the perspective of an elementary school parent, but I have to imagine this negatively impacts children at all levels. The communication coming (from authorities) all over the country…it feels delusional.”

Ms. Elliott expresses enormous guilt. “As a parent, I’ve had to see this every day for the last five months, and every day I feel crushing guilt that I can’t make any of it better.” She expresses gratitude for the efforts of her kids’ teachers, and feels sympathy for them. (“I love you, teachers. I am so sorry this is your reality too.”)

blog_8-6-20_computerbordom_500x338 Ms. Elliott notes that if anyone should be able to make virtual learning work, it should be her family: “…a secure living situation, two parents, food security, access to high-speed internet, access to an internet-powered device, etc.” I might add that Catonsville is in suburban Baltimore County, which has a national reputation for its substantial investments in technology over many years.

Since I have written many blogs about schools’ responses to the Covid school closures, I’ve been expecting a letter like this. Informally, my colleagues and I have been chatting to teachers and parents we know with kids in school. Almost every single one tells a story like Ms. Elliott’s. Highly educated parents, plenty of technology, tech-savvy kids, capable and hard-working teachers, all different ages, it does not seem to matter. Teachers and parents alike refer to motivated and successful students who log on and then pay no attention. The kids are  communicating on a different device with their friends, playing games, reading, whatever. There are kids who are engaged with virtual learning, but very few that we’ve heard about.

Much of the reporting about virtual learning has emphasized the lack of access to the Internet, and districts are spending billions to provide devices and improve access. There is a lot of talk about how school closures are increasing learning gaps because disadvantaged students lack access to the Internet, as though school closures are only a problem for disadvantaged students. But if Ms. Elliott is representative of many parents, and I’m sure she is, the problem is far larger than that of students who lack access to technology.

Everyone involved with schools seems to know this, but they do not want to talk about it. There seems to be a giant, unspoken pall of guilt that keeps the reality of what is happening in virtual learning from being discussed openly. Parents feel guilty because they feel deficient if they are not able to get their kids to respond to virtual learning. Teachers feel guilty because they don’t want to admit that they are not able to get more of their students to pay attention. School administrators want to be perceived to be doing something, anything, to combat the educational effects of extended school closures, so while they do talk about the need to obtain more devices and offer teachers more professional development, they do not like to talk about the kids who do have devices, but don’t do much with them. They promise that things will soon be better, with more devices, more professional development, and better lessons turning the tide. Ms. Elliott is sympathetic, but doubtful. “I appreciate those efforts and wholeheartedly believe the educational system is doing the absolute best they can…but I can’t pretend that the virtual school plans will work for our kids.”

Ms. Elliott states at the beginning of her letter that she has no solution to suggest, but she just wants the truth to be known. I have no sure-fire solutions myself. But I do know one thing. Any workable solutions there may be will have to begin with a firm understanding of what is really happening in schools using virtual learning.

In most of the U.S., opening schools in August or September should be out of the question. The rates of new Covid cases remain far too high, and no amount of social distancing inside schools can be safe for students or staff when there are so many carriers of the disease outside of schools. The only true solution, until cures or vaccines are widely available, is to return to the one thing that has worked throughout the world: mandating universal use of masks, shutting down businesses that put people close to each other, and so on. This is the only thing that saved China and South Korea and Italy and Spain and New York City, and it is the only solution now. The faster we return to what works, the sooner we can fully open schools, and then start the long process of healing the terrible damage being done to our children’s learning.

I am not suggesting giving up on virtual learning. If schools will be closed for a long time, it is all we have. But I am pessimistic about trying to fix the current approach to virtual learning. I think we could use all those computers and educators online to much greater effort by providing online tutoring to individuals and small groups, for example, rather than trying to create a classroom community out of children working from home. Perhaps there are ways other than tutoring to use online instruction effectively, but I do not know them. In any case, we need immediate investment in development and evaluation to find the most effective and cost-effective solutions possible, while we wait for a safe time to open schools. We’ll all get through this, one way or the other, but in order to minimize the negative impact on student learning, let’s start with the truth, and then build and use the evidence of what works.

 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

The Case for Optimism

In the July 16 New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an article with a provocative title: “We Interrupt This Gloom to Offer…Hope.”

Kristof’s basic point is that things have gotten so awful in the U.S. that, in response, with any luck, we could soon be able to make progress on many issues that we could never make in normal times. He gives the example of the Great Depression, which made possible Social Security, rural electrification, and much more. And the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Could the crises we are going through right now have even more profound and long-lasting consequences? The Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the lack of preparedness and the profound inequities in our health systems that everyone knew about, but that our political systems could not fix. The Black Lives Matter movement is not new, but George Floyd’s killing and many other outrages caught on video are fueling substantial changes in attitudes among people of all races, making genuine progress possible. The shockingly unequal impacts of both Covid itself and its economic impacts are tearing away complacency about the different lives that are possible for rich and poor. The attacks by federal troops on peaceful demonstrators in Washington and Portland are likely to drive Americans to get back to the core principles in our Constitution, ones we too often take for granted. When this is all over, how can we just return to the way things were?

What is happening in education is appalling. Our inept response to the Covid pandemic makes it literally murder to open schools in many parts of the country. Some districts are already announcing that they will not open until January. With schools closed, or only partially open, students will be expected to learn remote, online lessons, which author Doug Lemov aptly describes as “like teaching through a keyhole.”

The statistics say that a tenth or a quarter or a half of students, depending on where they are, are not logging into online learning even once. For disadvantaged students and students in rural areas, this is due in part to a lack of access to equipment or broadband, and school districts are collectively spending billions to increase access to computers. But talk to just about any teacher or parent or student, including the most conscientious students with the best technology and the most supportive parents. They are barely going through the motions. The utter failure of online education in this crisis is a crisis in itself.

The ultimate result of the school closures and the apparent implosion of online teaching is that when schools do open, students will have fallen far behind. Gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students, awful in the best of times, will grow even larger.

So how can I possibly be optimistic?

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There are several things that I believe are highly likely to occur in the coming months in our country. First, once students are back in school, we will find out how far behind they have fallen, and we will have to declare an educational emergency, with adequate funding to match the seriousness of the problems. Then the following will have to happen.

  1. Using federal money, states and districts will contract with local agencies to hire an army of tutors to work individually or in small groups with struggling students, especially in elementary reading and mathematics, where there are many proven programs ready to go. Frankly, this is no longer optional. There is nothing nearly as effective as one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Nothing else can be put in place as quickly with as high a likelihood of working. As I’ve reported in previous blogs, England and the Netherlands have already announced national tutoring programs to combat the achievement gaps being caused by school closures. My own state, Maryland, has recently announced a $100 million program to provide tutoring statewide. Millions of recent college graduates will be without jobs in the recession that is certain to come. The best of them will be ideal candidates to serve as tutors.
  2. America is paying a heavy price for ignoring its scientists, and science itself. Although there has been rapid growth in the evidence base and in the availability of proven programs, educational research and proven programs are still paid little attention in school policies and practices. In the education crisis we face, perhaps this will change. Might it be possible that schools could receive incentive funding to enable them to adopt proven programs known to make substantial differences in learning from Pre-K to 12th grade and beyond? In normal times, people can ignore evidence about what works in reading or mathematics or science or social-emotional learning. But these are not normal times. No school should be forced to use any particular program, but government can use targeted funding and encouragement to enable schools to select and effectively implement programs of their choice.
  3. In emergencies, government often accelerates funding for research and development to quickly find solutions for pressing national problems. This is happening now as labs nationwide are racing to develop Covid vaccines and cures, for example. As we declare an education emergency, we should be investing in research and development to respond to high-priority needs. For example, there are several proven programs for elementary students struggling in reading or mathematics. Yet we have few if any proven tutoring programs for middle or high schools. Middle school tutoring methods have been proven effective in England, so we know this can work, but we need to adapt and evaluate English models for the U.S., or evaluate existing U.S. programs that are promising but unevaluated, or develop new models for the U.S. If we are wise, we will do all three of these things. In the education emergency we face, it is not the time to fiddle around the edges. It is time to use our national innovative capacity to identify and solve big problems.

If America does declare a national education emergency, if it does mobilize an army of tutors using proven programs, if it invests in creating and evaluating new, ever more effective programs to solve educational problems and incentivizes schools to use them, an amazing thing will happen. In addition to solving our immediate problems, we will have learned how to make our schools much more effective, even in normal times.

Yes, things will someday get back to normal. But if we do the right things to solve our crises, we will not just be returning to normal. We will be returning to better. Maybe a lot better.

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

Let’s Learn from Peer Countries How to Open Schools Safely

*Guest blogger Nathan Storey is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University

The time to develop and finalize plans for the reopening of U.S. schools in the fall is closing. Labor Day is little more than a month away. How are states to determine the best methods of reopening schools? What issues should receive the most attention when developing plans? Students’ physical health and safety is always a concern in schools, but teachers, administrators, and staff are particularly at risk, especially staff over 50 and those with certain health conditions. Many school districts are grappling with this question.

One potential source of information about school opening may be the experiences of other countries that have already opened their schools.  Fortunately, a number of other countries have been conducting a natural experiment, whether they think of it that way or not, and the United States has the opportunity to draw important lessons from their experiences in order to create plans for safe instruction. Increasing numbers of schools have decided to close this fall, in light of the high and rising rates of new cases in most states. However, when schools do open, we should learn from the experiences of peer nations.

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While we wait for more data to come in, the experiences of other nations demonstrate what approaches may work best and what approaches are too expensive, labor intensive, insufficient, or downright unsafe. For instance, we have seen some nations initially open in a phased approach or using alternative day attendance, but later loosen school processes due to lowering COVID rates or implementation challenges. The Washington Post recently reported that Belgium and Japan reopened following an alternative day attendance structure, and recently loosened protocols in schools. Both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium opened in phases, first for key grades (grades leading to a certification) in primary and secondary education, and later, following an open letter signed by 269 pediatricians, for all grades in kindergarten and primary schools. But each section of the country took different approaches in the opened schools. French-speaking Belgium implemented “bubbles” of classes that stayed together throughout the school day, not interacting with other students, and entering and exiting the building through different doors or according to staggered hours for instance. Within the classroom, students were not required to wear masks or socially distance from one another. In Flemish-speaking Belgium, classes were split into two groups, with each attending school in person two days per week, with Wednesday as a cleaning day.

Belgium was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, but by early June, had largely contained the coronavirus. The reopening of schools was considered a success: there were only 15-20 Covid cases among the children from 2,500 schools in the French section, apparently not linked with school but rather with home conditions. No case involving children required hospitalization. A national increase of 66% in mid-July did not appear to be linked to schools. Nationwide, just four schools partly closed, and only one school needed to close completely, as the bubble concept allowed schools to quarantine single bubbles where infections occurred instead of closing and quarantining the entire school population.

These moves towards normalizing and adjusting as necessary are possible because Belgium and other countries, including Denmark, have done the work to minimize spread in the population and have put into place protocols in case of infection spread, such as contact tracing and quarantines. Similarly, Australia reopened schools and eventually loosened social distancing within schools, but when cases increased, in the Victoria (Melbourne) region, they returned to lockdowns. However, school closures are a small part of this. Israel began limiting class sizes when they reopened schools in May, and required masks to be worn by anyone over seven years of age. As cases spiked in the past weeks, the country moved all instruction for fourth grade and up to remote instruction. Israel now has plans to reopen schools for all grades with smaller class sizes, additional teachers, and hybrid education for middle and high school students.

Some hope for U.S. states may be found in Sweden. Sweden has essentially stayed open throughout the pandemic, without restrictions on class sizes or social distancing requirements for all except grades 10 and up, which were closed from March to mid-June. COVID cases among students connected to schools have been similar in prevalence to those in nearby Finland, and teachers of all grades appear to be at the same risk of infection as other adults. It is unknown, though, why this might be the case. One journalist speculated that naturally smaller class sizes and the exclusion of older students may play a role.

Reopening schools will be a work in progress. There does not seem to be one single approach that solves all COVID-related problems for schools. The countries that have had more success and had schools that have stayed open for the most part have generally been those that have contained the virus within their borders and have developed contingency plans for when infections occur. Meanwhile, in most U.S. states, COVID rates are on the increase. No country has opened schools when rates of new cases were high and rising, as is true today in the U.S. We have a long way to go before we are ready for full in-person schooling. But when U.S. rates of new cases diminish to, say, European levels (about 16 per hundred thousand; the U.S. is over 100), we should look carefully at what other countries have done and what their results have been, so that we can make wise choices to keep students and staff safe.

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

Large-Scale Tutoring as a Solution for School Closure Losses: Is the Idea Taking Hold?

What will America’s schools be like when they reopen in fall, 2020?  There are many things we don’t know, and conditions will vary considerably from state to state and school to school.  To begin with, we need to strengthen our schools, to be sure they have the teachers and administrators and supplies they need to do their essential work.  However, schools will need more than just a return to the status quo.  One thing we can absolutely predict is that millions of children will have fallen far behind in their educational progression. In particular, many elementary students in the early stages of learning reading and mathematics will need effective and rapid assistance tailored to their needs to get back on track.  Dedicated teachers and other educators will do everything in their power to bring students back up to speed, but without additional assistance, it will be very difficult to overcome the losses so many children have experienced.  States and school districts will be struggling economically, so no matter how clearly they understand what needs to be done, they will need help.  Yet at the same time, there will be large numbers of capable people eager to help struggling children who will be on the sidelines, without jobs that enable them to make the difference they want to make.

If you have been following my blogs for the past month or so (here, here, here, and here), you will be aware that I have been writing quite a bit about the idea of recruiting, training, and deploying large numbers of tutors to work in schools that have been closed for many months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Our research and reviews of research have found that several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring approaches that use teaching assistants (usually people with college degrees but not teaching certificates) have demonstrated effect sizes of +0.40 or more, roughly equivalent to five additional months of learning over a school year.  No other type of educational service comes close to these impacts.  My argument has been that in the recession we will be facing when school opens in the fall, it would be good for the economy as well as essential for students to have government fund thousands of tutors to work with students who have fallen far behind grade level in reading or mathematics.

This idea may be taking hold.  For example, the State of Tennessee recently announced a plan to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to recruit and train people to serve as tutors, as a response to the school closures (here and here). On May 15, the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, which includes substantial additional funding for K-12 education.  This includes “initiatives to reduce education gaps.”  This could certainly include tutoring.  I heard that there was talk in the Senate about funding that could also support tutoring.  None of these federal initiatives are certain, but at this point, what is important is that solutions of this kind are in discussion.

blog_5-28-20_tutor_500x333          In addition, other observers are also proposing large-scale tutoring as a solution for the educational damage done by school closures (and as a means of providing essential employment to thousands of recent college graduates otherwise unable to enter the job market).  Jill Barshay wrote about this in a recent article in the Hechinger Report.  Matthew Kraft and Michael Goldstein wrote on the topic in a recent Brookings blog.  Susan Dynarski wrote an op-ed on the proposal in the New York Times.

One concern I have heard expressed about the tutoring plan is that with all the uncertainties about the progression of Covid-19 and plans to re-open schools, it is not clear whether schools will re-open on time or not, and whenever they do open, they may use double sessions or other means to reduce the number of children being taught at a given time, to allow for social distancing within schools.  If neither cures nor vaccines are available by the fall, late or partial school openings are indeed possible.  We and other tutoring providers are developing and piloting distance tutoring models, and are willing to share them with other tutoring providers, should this be necessary.  And if schools do not open in September at all, then the need for intensive solutions such as tutoring are that much greater, whenever schools open.

If large-scale tutoring is to be used as part of recovery plans for schools, then preparations need to be begun as soon as possible, to coordinate the efforts of various providers, and then begin to recruit and train tutors, trainers, and others whose efforts will be needed to make this all work.  It would be wonderful if some number of tutors could be ready to go, starting with the elementary grades, soon after students arrive in school, and then expand services to add capacity to serve additional children in need over the 2020-2021 school year.

In the late 1930s, the extraordinary potential of penicillin to treat wounds and diseases was known by scientists and government officials in Britain, and they knew that war was coming and that penicillin could save millions of lives.  However, no one knew how to mass produce enough penicillin to matter.  The British contracted with an American company to work rapidly on the problem, and by the start of World War II, there was enough penicillin for a start, and massive manufacturing capacity to make more.  In a way, we are in a similar situation with tutoring.  We know what has to be done to provide millions of American children with the most effective service known to put them back on track, and it is clearly going to be necessary to do so.  Yet we have a lot of work to do to make this happen in time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused great devastation in our economy, our society, and our schools.  There are many things we must do to repair these losses.  In each arena, we have to use the best methods we have to cost-effectively solve problems caused by the crisis.  In our field of education, there are many things that must be done, but tutoring, to ensure that students can catch up to grade level, should be part of this great effort.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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

Recovery 2020

After a harsh winter, spring has come.

It’s May.  The weather is gorgeous on the Chesapeake, the weather is getting warm, the air is delicious, the flowers are blooming.  From a slight distance, everything seems so normal.   But up close, nothing is normal.  People have settled into patterns of behavior that would be completely bizarre in normal times.  They are wearing masks everywhere as though they have always done so.  Neighbors  are  being as friendly as they can be without getting too close.   Not far away, we know there is chaos and catastrophe, and we all do what we can.  But every day, there is life to be lived, jobs to be done, children to cherish and nurture.

The school year is coming to an end.  In some places, schools have already closed weeks early.   Educators have gotten through the challenges of trying to operate schools when there are no schools to operate.  They have had to use stopgaps, such as distance learning, because there were gaps to stop.  But now we are entering a new phase: Recovery 2020.

Part of Recovery 2020 will be a struggle to open schools while minimizing health risks.  Schools may not even open in September, or may only partially open.  But whenever they fully open, the challenge we face as educators will be to create schools ready to provide extraordinary education to every student, however long they have been out of school and whatever they have experienced in the interim.

In a series of blogs over recent weeks (here, here, and here), I’ve proposed a number of actions schools should take to put students on a new trajectory toward success, engagement, self-esteem, health, and safety.  In this blog, I want to get more specific about some ideas I’d propose to make Recovery 2020 more than a return to the status quo.  More like Status: Go!

  1. Strengthen the Core

First, we have to make sure that the  core of the schooling enterprise, teachers, principals, and administrators, are supported, and their jobs are safe.  There will be a recession, but it cannot be allowed to do the damage the last recession did, when schools could not focus and innovate because they were scrambling to hold on to their staff, just to cover classes.  Federal and state funding must be used to ensure that school staffs can focus on their work, not on managing shortage-induced chaos.  Current school staff should also be able to receive top-quality professional development to enable them to use proven, effective teaching methods in the subjects and grade levels they teach, so they can enhance and accelerate their students’ progress.  School nurses, counselors, and other specialists in whole-child development need to be in every school.

  1. Train and Deploy Thousands of Tutors in Every State and District

blog_5-12-20_tutorcollage_333x500In fall, 2020, schools will open into a recession, yet they will have to make more of a difference in their students’ development than ever before.  Securing the jobs and professional support of school staffs is essential, but not enough.  Students will need personalized, effective support, so they can achieve greater success in school than they have ever had.

If there is a recession, many people will struggle to keep their jobs or to find new ones.  But as always, those who suffer most in a recession are people who are entering the labor market.  There will be millions of college graduates and others ready to work who will find enormous barriers to entering the labor market, which will be overwhelmed keeping experienced workers employed.  This is a huge problem, but also potentially a huge opportunity.  Schools will need help in accelerating student achievement to make up for losses due to school closures and then to continue beyond making up losses to growing gains.  An army of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people will be eager to get involved serving children.  Government will have to provide relief to these and other unemployed people, so why not have them make a difference in children’s education, rather than just receiving  emergency support?

The solution I am proposing is for government to create a fund, a Marshall Plan for education, to recruit, train, and deploy thousands of tutors in schools across America.  The tutors would be trained, coached, and supervised by experts to deliver proven small-group tutoring models, focused in particular on reading and math, in elementary and middle schools.  They would be paid as teacher assistants, but equipped with specific skills and supports to work with students who are behind in reading or mathematics in elementary or middle schools.  Schools would receive a number of tutors depending on their size and levels of disadvantage and achievement deficits, up to five or more tutors per school.  The tutors would work with struggling students in small groups, using tutoring models proven in rigorous research to be particularly effective.  These models are known to be able to add five or more months of gain to students’ usual yearly progress each year, more than making up the losses most students have experienced.  As time goes on, students who need more tutoring can receive it, so that they can continue to make more than one year’s gain each year, until they reach grade level.

While tutoring is worthwhile in itself, it will also serve a purpose in introducing promising young people to teaching.  School leaders should be enabled to identify especially capable young people who show promise as teachers.  Someone who has been a great tutor will probably become a great teacher.  These people should then be given opportunities to participate in accelerated teacher training leading to certification.  The quality and commitment the tutors show in their daily work will help school leaders identify an extraordinary group of potential teachers to enter classrooms eager and prepared to make a difference.

  1. Train and Deploy School Health Aides

Especially in schools serving many disadvantaged children, there are many children who are achieving below their potential just because they need eyeglasses, or suffer from chronic diseases such as asthma.  Trained health aides can be deployed to make sure that students receive needed eyeglasses, regularly take medication for asthma, and otherwise solve health problems that interfere with success in school.  Working with school nurses, health aides will also be needed to manage ongoing protections against Covid-19 and other threats to health.

After a harsh winter, spring has come.  The wise farmer celebrates, but then he plants.  In the same way, America’s education leaders should celebrate that we have somehow made it this far.  But celebration is not enough.  We have to plan, and to plant, anticipating the opportunity this fall not just to get back to normal, but to create a new normal, better than the one we had, in which we use our nation’s strengths to heal and to build.

Recovery 2020 will take efforts and expenditures beyond just returning schools and students to normal.  But this is essential, and the short- and long-term benefits to our children and our society are clear.  If we are are wise, we will start this process now, to prepare to mobilize resources and energies to open in the fall the best schools we ever had.

Photo credit: Collage photos courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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