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[Educator Network] Exploring Opportunities for Better Learning

[Educator Network] Exploring Opportunities for Better Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic and the largest unplanned technology experiment created an opportunity for real restorative change. States and districts made a formidable effort to distribute devices, connect students to the internet, renewed the urgency to identify and support homeless students, and put in place new regulations and benchmarks on remote instruction. COVID-19 has amplified achievement gaps and exposed flaws in school systems around the world. However, educators now have an opportunity to reimagine a more equitable and resilient K–12 education system that delivers better education to all children. There is a unique moment to use this crisis to build things back in a better way, and drive system-level changes. We can grab the silver lining and make some changes by:

  • Rethinking teaching practices and coaching
  • Diagnosing learner needs with accuracy and speed
  • Personalizing instruction while maintaining grade-level expectation
  • Involving ALL learners via social-emotional and culturally responsive habits
  • Expand learning time

Rethink teaching educators

No one can argue that teachers are the lifeblood of our education system. In a year where they have found themselves learning how to pivot and rethink how to translate their magic to multiple platform it may be time to rethink how we teach teachers to teach. One method could involve a more practicum-based approach to teacher professional proficiencies and innovation in the application and role of the teacher.

Diagnose learner needs with accuracy and speed

School systems can use this as an impetus to build in processes that address student learning and the splintered abilities of some students without over-testing, so students don’t miss any precious instructional time. These systems and strategies can be targeted to the students who need them most. A healthy starting point is knowing what grade level the student is currently preforming on, so educators can fine tune instruction. Districts can start now to create acceleration plans using evidence-based strategies that support students with the critical steps like more time and more dedicated attention.

To combat learning gaps, whether brought about by COVID-19 or for other reasons, the first step is learning how to identify them. Understanding the data through thorough analysis is the first step to identifying what to do next. Organizations like The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and the Council of the Great City Schools have categorically found that focusing on grade level expectations is the appropriate process for continuing student learning. Folded into that “just-in-time” and “just in case” scaffolding keeps the learning goal and student engagement as the primary focus and critically analyzes instructional decisions and structures.

Another more extreme approach to fighting learning loss could be throwing grade levels out all together and instead focus on sequencing skills, but let’s save that conversation for another time.

It is an economic and humanitarian imperative that we find a way to build up students. Students will likely need additional learning hours to make up the loss. That can take many forms; extended school-day and structured after-school programs, weekend school, and summer school programs. Governments, foundations, and school districts should work together to create national initiative to bring locally driven, evidence-based summer learning programs to every student who needs it.

That requires bringing more talent into the system to provide “high dosage” tutoring and coaching.

Personalize instruction while maintaining grade-level expectation

While it’s tempting for educators to focus their efforts on supporting students learning the skills they are missing, research on school districts that experienced extended school closures has taught us there is a better choice. A proven method for accelerated learning is one-on-one support for students and with consciously supporting identifying students with highly effective teachers in small classes. Small group instruction and globalizing the RTI format to really find the scaffolds for students to grow into and support grade level expectations.

What about meeting kids where they are, building on skills endlessly and throwing out grade level expectations? That is a conversation that moves us into a dialogue about expectations and unconscious bias a rabbit hole for another day.

Involve all learners via social-emotional and culturally responsive habits

Schools can lean into the holistic view of their role in a student’s life that has been exposed. It is time to reimagining elements of curriculum, instruction, technology and the supporting infrastructure, and health of the community in ways that go far outside the school building. Starting with a revised lens on early childhood education and support. Continuing with ensuring high-quality instructional materials in every classroom, integrating best-practice personalized, blended learning to help students master content and supporting teachers in the practice and resources of these initiatives. It is futile to put these ideas in place if there has been no advice on how to do this or any follow-up with practical plans.

The constant and erratic shift in students’ learning environments has interrupted the safe and nurturing atmosphere educators have worked so hard to create. Recapturing that reliable, engaging, and encouraging space will be paramount.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of investing in mental-health support, motivational coaching, skills training, and new support structures that could lead to an improved education experience for both students and educators.

Expand learning time

School systems must also think creatively about how to encourage ongoing learning over the summer. Proposals might include expanding existing summer-school programs, working with the community and agencies that run summer camps to add academics to their activities, and enlisting businesses to identify and train volunteer tutors.

Since the world changed over a year ago, there has been a justified focus on the toll of school closures and remote learning. Students with no devices or proper space to study, or inadequate and/or absent Internet connectivity have struggled to learn. They are the most vulnerable. Addressing some of the most pressing challenges first, like closing the digital divide by providing increased access to the internet and technology must take priority. The gap was already in place, built by inequity. Education Endowment Fund predicts learning loss could erase a decade of efforts to close gaps between low- and high-income kids. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture. UNESCO has suggested that there are as many as the 24 million students across the globe who may never return to education.

There has always been a need for creating a system that will work better on meeting the needs of children everywhere, the past year that has been underlined. There is huge difference between a learning slide and a learning gap. We have the opportunity to change education to address this.

If this sounds like a tough assignment, it is. If it sounds like a lot of effort—well, it is. However, if nothing else, everyone now knows how well educators rise to a challenge.

winnie.oleary's picture
Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.