Jay McClain is an assistant superintendent for Hopewell City Public Schools in Hopewell, Virginia, a district that serves about 4,200 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
As an educator for over 30 years, serving as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent, I have never seen a school year like this one. This hasn’t just been an unusual year, it has been a year of shared trauma. And like any traumatic experience, it takes a while to realize what has happened and how we have been shaped by it.
As COVID has shuttered many schools and caused a strange masked and distant environment in others, the first thought that many seem to have is that this has been a “lost” year. It is certainly a year of great loss. Loss of an incomprehensible number of lives. Loss of the basic human connections and interactions that we crave and take for granted. But a “year of loss” and a “lost year” is not the same thing. When we say “lost year,” the loss we are describing is “normal school.”
Let’s take a look at this “normal” that many say we want to regain. Our education system is mostly unchanged from what it looked like a century ago, in spite of enormous societal changes in professions, life skills, and communication. Normal is the growing number of students disenchanted with school: the percentage of students engaged in school drops from 76% to 44% in the years from elementary to high school. Normal is also an institution that was never built for our Black and Brown children, and sends a highly disproportionate number of them to be pushed out, suspended, or on the path to prison. Normal systematically bars them from programs that could provide them increased opportunity.
The longstanding crisis of racism in education is compounded by the current crisis of the pandemic. As with the first crisis, races are experiencing both differently. Just take a look at the recent poll by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, which found that the top health concerns among Black parents were racism, followed second by COVID illness. Neither racism nor COVID illness made the top ten concerns of white parents. Instead, white parents’ main concerns are social media, followed by healthy eating and exercise habits. Since the start of this year, in communities where in-person learning is an option, white families are disproportionately choosing in-person learning while many Black families are choosing to stay home.
Can we really respond to these two crises by just returning to “normal?”
With the pressure to reopen, it is far too easy at this point for us to grab hold of the narrative that we need to begin to return to normal, and thus find ourselves recommitting to the out-of-date, racist education system we are used to. This would be a grave mistake. Let’s look at this double crisis as a call to find ourselves. Let’s look at this year as a welcome jolt to find the soul of what education should be for our students and families.
For example, there have been four persistent elements in education that should instead be viewed as variables to fit students’ needs: Time, Place, Group, and Curriculum. If we see this as a found year we have the opportunity to use these four elements to transform and reinvent schools.
Prior to COVID, time has been fixed in many ways across our schools. While some schools have explored and used block schedules, or a slight change in the time school starts, the packaging of time within the day is fixed into bell schedules tied to isolated subjects. The variations in school time have been linked usually to the logistics of transportation, not tied to what may most benefit students, such as teens’ biological sleep patterns.
During this pandemic, learning time has looked different. Some schools began with a regular full day of online synchronous instruction and soon found that this was not sustainable. Students were rarely able to maintain attention on the screen for seven hours. Thus, schools began to look at the mix of synchronous and asynchronous time, and also began to experiment with providing student choice with when to do the asynchronous work.
With this in mind, last summer I was consumed with trying to find opportunities to wrap the school day around what families needed rather than the other way around. This led us to start looking at ways to experiment with a shorter synchronous day, more student choice with activities, and more time for individual check-ins with students and families. Our district launched an option for some classes to occur in the late afternoon and evening times to meet a COVID family schedule, and there has been no shortage of interest by families. Some of these families needed the school time to look different for their own survival as they balanced health and the need to maintain jobs and income.
It is time to rethink time. As we look to a post-pandemic era, this is an opportunity to create choices for when students are in school. Time can become a choice in terms of when most of the learning happens – morning, afternoon, or evening. This goes well beyond just making it possible for teenagers to have a schedule more aligned with sleep schedules. Think of the impact that this could have for high school students who need to have a job, watch their siblings, or whose parents work a late shift. We are due for a mindset shift in which the time of school gives students and families the best option for success.
Before the pandemic hit, the concept of place was rarely challenged in the model of schools. Students came into a building at the same time each day and were separated into classrooms. In most communities, students attended a school based on their address. Learning was seen as taking place while students were at school, and what happened outside of school was not a part of the learning process, except for students doing homework.
The concept of place certainly changed during the pandemic, and this happened nearly overnight. That is the most visible change and one that will likely live on beyond the pandemic, as a growing number of families are likely to choose virtual schooling options rather than brick-and-mortar. And, I’m not sure the choice needs to be one or the other. What if it was more like a sliding scale where families choose the amount of in-person instruction from a continuum of options?
As something like this is put into effect, another aspect of place that can change is a school attendance zone. With fewer students in school buildings at one time, there could be more choice offered across a geographic zone. In our district we piloted classes where students who needed a different timing and version of school were joined across attendance zones, with plans to bring these students together in spaces outside the school. If students are coming in-person with less frequency, and possibly in smaller groups, there is the ability to use a wider array of spaces for learning – including libraries, parks, and more.
All of this depends on ensuring that we have the wifi infrastructure and accessibility to technology across communities that have been so lacking. Access to the internet is understood now, more than ever, as not only essential to commerce and the operation of government in a pandemic, but also to the learning of students. We cannot allow this to be subject to the ability of a family to afford it, but rather it needs to be as much a basic right as a mailbox for one’s home. Learning should be able to happen anywhere, and for that, we have to ensure that the technology infrastructure is in place.
Before March 2020, nearly all schools operated on a similar concept of how students were grouped. Starting in kindergarten, students were assembled by age and moved in lockstep through the grades until graduation. In elementary school, classes were composed of a similar number of students, and decisions on placement into a group were made by the school – there really was no choice of parents or students to what group/class they were in. The only groupings that went beyond class placement class itself were the ways teachers grouped students within a class, such as with reading groups. The only place where there was a true choice of groupings was usually in high school. Even then, “choice” was normally superseded by “tracking,” so the only area where students could be guided by their own interests were extracurricular activities.
Most schools did not change the typical class groupings during the pandemic. A 3rd-grade class was still a 3rd-grade class, an algebra class was still an algebra class, and so on. However, in some places teachers became specialists in virtual instruction or in-person instruction so that they could better meet those students’ needs. Students who had always attended one elementary school were now in virtual classes with students from other schools. In our district we also challenged the notion that students had to be in a class with students of only the same grade level as the way they were grouped. We found advantages to having students grouped by similar needs for learning, such as an evening class, to be perhaps more important than being grouped by the exact same age.
However, the potential to re-think learning/class groups goes far beyond this. With there being more variability in place and time, groupings could also change to have less large group synchronous time and more learning in small groups and individual check-ins. A greater portion of teacher time could be with those individual check-ins to support and coach students through their learning and life skill development, as students can access more of the typical “lecture” online.
There is also the potential for students to be grouped by interest rather than randomly. Colleges and universities have already begun work on this with freshman writing courses. In these classes, all students are in a writing course, but they are able to choose a topic of interest and are thus grouped accordingly.
From a teacher perspective, thanks to the possibilities of in-person or virtual learning, there is also the possibility of regrouping students throughout the year, and mixing up student rosters based on new interests over the course of the school year. By removing the confines of the four walls of the classroom, teachers can collaborate and work across boundaries with students in flexible ways unlike ever before.
The standards and standardized testing era that started in the latter parts of the 20th century caused schools to rigidly adhere to a set of standards for what was taught in each grade level and subject. Accountability structures at the federal and state level reinforced adherence to the long list of sometimes isolated skills and knowledge. While the intent of this effort was to raise expectations for all students and try to ensure we were serving students equitably, it rarely played out that way. Instead, students who had the most barriers to overcome in order to achieve the standards were in schools most often punished and branded as “failing.” This only further intensified the efforts to focus rigidly on standards, and it put pressure on teachers to teach a narrow set of skills. In other words, the identity and value that students bring have been overshadowed by the need to comply with a set of standards.
A fundamental shift that has long been needed is with the balance between a common curriculum and the context of each child – his/her needs, interests, styles, and passions. Our nation’s “standard” model for education is to impose a common curriculum and then, when possible, we try to tie it to a child’s interests. It is time to flip this paradigm. Imagine scaling back to a smaller set of high-leverage skills, such as reading, writing, investigation, and critical thinking, and then providing space for students to be able to learn in their areas of interest and passion.
What this could look like in 4th grade, for example, is that students are still focused on learning a core set of skills around reading, writing, math, history, and science, but they have choices of whether to do this by learning through a project of constructing a city park playground or working with the animal shelter to develop a new advertising campaign. These projects could shape the class for a year, a semester, or a quarter. The learning context, and ability to bring the individual students into the learning, need to become the primary focus and the core skills of the curriculum become infused into this learning and wrap around the student passions. In this way, we can be more culturally responsive to our students and cause our students to feel a sense of belonging and purpose and not just be taught how to conform.
FINDING A NEW PATH
Before the pandemic, the last several decades have seen efforts to increase choice for students and families. This has occurred to widely varying degrees across our country, with charter schools making strong inroads in some communities and not at all in others. The primary choice has really been for the more privileged families who send their children to private schools or choose to homeschool. In each of these cases, the focus of choice has been much more about which school to attend, rather than choices that may occur within a school.
It is time that we finally make a fundamental shift on what schools have been for the last century or more. But the change is not to create a new one-size-fits-all. The needs of our families, the passions of our students, and our own humanity demand that we meet students and families where they are and give them choice so that we wrap around them, not the other way around.
Choice could be at the school level, where students have more variety with curriculum, classes, teachers, and format, or at the district level, where students have more options among schools for the learning approaches and interests of the students. And for once, where one lives does not need to be such a strong predictor of their likelihood of future success. Choice does not mean we need to take away the elements of our current system that work for some families. Rather, it means we provide a variety of pathways that will work for all families.
It also does not mean we shy away from accountability. Rather, it focuses accountability on how well we are meeting student needs, regardless of the pathway. It has the potential to refocus our accountability on more meaningful measures than ever before – the ability of students to have not only academic skills and knowledge but also the ability to interact with other people in a meaningful way to make a difference and transfer those skills into real-life situations. It is time we create the choices that provide for student need, passion, and ownership.
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE
The pandemic over the past year has caused everyone to do school differently and it will continue to impact schools for a while to come. We had little choice in how schools could immediately react to the pandemic and we coped with it the best we could. But we do now have the ability to determine whether we will use this as an opportunity to reinvent education or continue to follow a one-size-fits all system that truly fits very few of our students.
The pandemic and the broader awakening to racism (at least among white people) have provided a tremendous shock to our system. We have all experienced a shared trauma. Trauma in my own life called me to reevaluate my priorities and change what I spent my time on and what I let go. It helped me see through new eyes and see more clearly what matters.
As we come out of the shock of our crises, we have an opportunity. We have a choice. We can choose to be awakened, to come out of the wilderness, and truly shape learning around our students and families. Or we can choose to pretend this never happened and revert to what wasn’t working. The choice is ours.