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.
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
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.
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