To Succeed in the Post-COVID Era, Our Schools Need to Stop Batch-Processing Kids

To Succeed in the Post-COVID Era, Our Schools Need to Stop Batch-Processing Kids
(AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

As school winds down for this year, discussion in education circles has turned to next year. After a spring of uneven distance learning and a long summer, should classes pick up where they were last March—or where they would normally start? Should they ask those who did not participate in distance learning to repeat a year?

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But these questions miss the point. All students arrive, every year, at different stages in their academic growth. Some are multiple years behind grade level; some are near grade level but have gaps in their learning, topics they have never mastered. And some are at or above grade level.

Schools full of low-income children have struggled with this reality for years, because many of their students are years behind grade level. Many charter schools were founded to serve such students, and they have led the search for answers. The high performers assess their students with brief tests at the beginning of the year and then every six weeks or so, offering intensive help to those who are behind.

This might include small group sessions with a teacher or aide; intensive catch-up sessions on Saturdays and during school breaks; educational software that can help students fill their learning gaps and move more rapidly toward grade level; and tutoring.

Regular assessment and intensive catch-up is known in education circles as “Response to Intervention” (RTI), an admittedly odd name. The broader process of using software and other methods to meet every student where they are and help them move forward is called “personalized education.” These two ideas define what every school should do next fall—and beyond.

Salman Khan, who founded Khan Academy and authored The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, talked about this in a recent webinar. Teachers teach slices of curriculum, he pointed out, then give tests. But when students get only 60 or 70 or 80 percent correct on the test, the teachers still move on. Some of the kids never master certain topics, so they accumulate learning gaps.

“And at some point, they get to, say an algebra class—the first class where all of that math knowledge up until then has to be fluent, and you see an equation, and it has an exponent in it, it has … negative numbers, and there’s no way you’re going to understand that, because of your gaps, and so you fail. It’s not because you’re not bright; it’s not because the teacher’s not good; it’s because there’s no way for you to remediate that.”

Khan compares it to building a house but only allowing two weeks for each piece of work, then moving on, even if that work is only 70 percent complete. Pretty soon the house collapses.

He advocates what he calls “mastery learning,” in which each child continues to work on each topic until they have mastered it—often using educational software to augment the teacher’s instruction or provide more practice.

This will be even more important in a post-COVID-19 world, because kids will have even more learning gaps than usual. “If there is a silver lining here,” Khan says, “it’s my hope that this (mastery learning) might become a bit more mainstream.”

There is one big obstacle in the way of such change: it requires a very flexible organization. A school with one teacher in front of every classroom of 25 students will rarely be able to do it. The charter schools that pioneered personalized learning changed their personnel configurations, to include more aides and tutors, for instance. They also moved money around to buy computers and software and pay for teacher training.

But typical district schools don’t control their own budgets and can’t shift their configuration of personnel. Those decisions are made at central headquarters. Formulas set long ago determine how many teachers each school gets and how 99 percent of the money is allocated. And union contracts often lock in pay scales for all teachers, regardless of their roles.

Nor are all teachers willing or able to make the shift from being “the sage on the stage” to being “the guide by the side,” coordinating large- and small-group instruction, software, tutoring, Saturday sessions, and so on. Yet most district teachers have tenure, so schools are stuck with them.

Charter teachers lack tenure; hence charters have more flexibility to manage the transition. (Charters are public schools that operate outside many district and state rules; in exchange for this autonomy they are held accountable for actually educating students—and often closed if they fail.)

Fortunately, some districts are beginning to give their schools more autonomy, because they understand that rule-driven organizations rarely innovate. Denver Public Schools has 54 “innovation schools” and 60 charters, which together educate almost half its students. Indianapolis Public Schools will soon have 26 “innovation network schools,” operated by nonprofit organizations. Texas is encouraging its districts to replace failing schools with in-district charters called “partnership schools,” operated by nonprofits with significant autonomy. Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., call their equivalent “renaissance schools.”

There are now dozens of school districts moving in this direction, and if we want effective urban schools, that number should swell into the hundreds. Those schools should use their flexibility to shift to personalized systems that continually check for learning gaps and help students fill them.

Schools predicated on the notion that every member of a class will learn at the same pace are guaranteed to fail some students and bore others. By using RTI, personalized learning, and technology, we can avoid that trap.

Our best charter schools have proven that. Now our districts need to give their schools the flexibility and incentives to follow suit.

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