Only weeks after the coronavirus pandemic forced American schools online, education leaders across the country have concluded that millions of children’s learning will be severely stunted, and are planning unprecedented steps to help them catch up.
In Miami, the school will extend into the summer and start earlier in the fall, at least for some students. In Cleveland, schools may shrink the curriculum to cover only core subjects. In Columbia, Mo., this year’s lessons will be woven into next year’s.
Some experts suggest holding back more kids, a controversial idea, while others propose a half-grade step-up for some students, an unconventional one. A national teachers union is proposing a massive national summer school program.
“We have to have a recovery plan for education,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “I’m really worried that people think schools and colleges just flipped to digital and everything’s fine and we can just return to normal. That’s simply not the case.”
The ideas being considered will require political will and logistical savvy, and they are already facing resistance from teachers and parents. They’ll also require money, and lots of it, at a time when a cratering economy is devastating state and local budgets, with plunging tax collections and rising costs. As Congress considers another coronavirus spending package, schools’ ability to make up ground may hinge on how much more they can pry from Washington.
The $2.2 trillion stimulus package approved last month included $13.5 billion for K-12 education. In the next round, a coalition of school administrators and teachers unions is seeking more than $200 billion, citing those depleted state budgets.
In New York state, for instance, schools were poised for deep cuts, with the state anticipating revenue losses as high as $10 billion. The stimulus package will reverse those cuts, but without more bailout money, schools won’t get any extra funding to deal with the crisis.
‘We have to figure out something’
Some districts are still working to implement and refine remote learning for this academic year. But elsewhere, school leaders are already weighing, planning and in some cases lobbying for a range of ideas to arrest the inevitable academic losses.
In Cleveland, the schools are considering an August “jump-start” session to get students ready for school. Gordon, the district CEO, said the schools may also need to consider a pared-back curriculum for a “recovery year” focused on the basics.
The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers union, is proposing a one-month summer school for vulnerable kids across the country. “We have to figure out something in terms of the summer to actually nurture kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the union.
But even such a simple idea has detractors, proving how challenging change will be.
“The newest building in our district is 55 years old, and none of them have air conditioning,” said Becky Cranson, who teaches middle-school English in rural Bronson, Mich. “How much learning would happen in a room filled with 30 students when the temperature outside reads 90 degrees? None.”
In Maryland, state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the education committee, has proposed year-round school. Baltimore is considering that for its underperforming schools, along with extending the school day and possibly starting earlier in the fall.
But similar suggestions didn’t go far in Atlanta, said Carstarphen, the superintendent. She floated the idea of a longer school day or school year, she said, but was quickly shut down by middle-class parents who don’t want to give up extracurriculars. Instead, Carstarphen is hoping to channel thousands of additional students into existing summer enrichment programs that focus on topics such as science and the arts. But she said doing so depends on new funding.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a more targeted plan: remediation for the most at-risk students, including those who live in poverty or have disabilities, newly arrived immigrants and those learning English. Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said it’s possible these students will see “historic academic regression.”
The district plans to use online log-in data to determine who has fallen behind and then target interventions. Some students will see school extend into the summer, and some will come back early. The district plans to redeploy staff members who have less work during the pandemic, forming a new one-to-one digital mentoring program for students who need help.
Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, has a more radical idea: Holding back all students in high-poverty elementary schools.
“All of this time away from school is going to be particularly devastating for poor and working-class youngsters, many of whom are already below grade level,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
That idea was rejected by many educators, who said it was akin to punishing children for being poor and unfair to children at low-income schools who are ready to advance. Still, holding kids back is on the table: Many districts are planning to determine who moves on based on work done before schools closed.
A more modest idea is to create half-grades to accommodate children who are socially but not academically ready to move up, said Keri Rodrigues of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group that has tangled with teachers unions and supports various education reforms.
“Maybe it’s 3.5 until they are ready for fourth grade,” she said.
(The Washington Post)