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Reinventing School in the COVID Era and Beyond

Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series art

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

In his letter to students and families in Providence, Rhode Island, Superintendent Harrison Peters sums up the challenge facing every U.S. school district:

“We have the responsibility to reopen schools in a manner that keeps our kids and entire school community safe, that attends to the trauma that many have suffered, that acknowledges the district’s role in disrupting systems of racial oppression, and that provides every student equitable and excellent opportunities to learn and thrive.”

In Providence and around the country, policymakers and educators are faced with the daunting task of reopening schools, either in person, online, or through a blended learning model. But beyond the immediate decisions about where learning will take place, we also have an historic opportunity—a responsibility, even—to reinvent school to better serve students, educators, and families, now and in the future.

The outdated factory model of schools designed a century ago sought to enable mass education intended to transmit limited information and efficiently select and sort students into their roles in life. That system has served to reinforce disparities and entrenched divisions based on race and class while undermining personalized relationships and access to deeper learning. Now is the time to reimagine traditional structures and practices; to rethink the way in which schools are organized around time, physical space, educator expertise, curriculum, and instruction; and to redesign schools around principles of authentic learning, stronger relationships, and wraparound supports centered on the whole child.

Returning to business as usual in education is not an option. As the disruptions created by the pandemic require new approaches to “doing school,” we can make decisions intentionally, grounded in our growing knowledge of human development, learning, and effective teaching, to create the model that will carry us into and through the next century.

In Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond, LPI puts forth a framework organized around 10 evidence-based priorities to guide educators and policymakers in these unprecedented times. The framework is grounded in a vision of authentic and equitable learning for every student and is rich with examples of schools and school systems that have taken up the mantle of change and are already enacting empowering, equity-focused alternatives. The report also includes specific policy and practice recommendations to achieve these goals.

The framework is grounded in a vision of authentic and equitable learning for every student and is rich with examples of schools and school systems that have taken up the mantle of change and are already enacting empowering, equity-focused alternatives.

These priorities offer some immediate steps that are needed in the short term, but also represent a long-term vision for our schools. They begin with the basic digital infrastructure needed to make distance and blended learning successful, progress to cover the authentic learning opportunities and formative assessments that identify what students need and how to help them, and proceed through the social and emotional learning and wraparound supports needed to reinvent schools so that they can better support students, particularly those marginalized by race, income, language, or other factors. We conclude our priorities with an emphasis on the educator learning opportunities and school funding reforms that are foundational to enacting these shifts.

If we want to leverage this moment to build back better, we will need to:

1. Close the digital divide. The funding needed to ensure that every student has a computer and connectivity is only $6 billion—less than one-half of 1% of the federal dollars already spent on the recovery. Finally closing the digital divide is essential for every student’s future, regardless of whether they are in schools that open physically this fall or not. In addition to necessary federal investments and new regulations that treat broadband like telephone service, states can help expand broadband access, as Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina have done. States can also consider developing a digital learning plan like the one Wyoming used to leverage the federal E-Rate program to achieve 100% WiFi connectivity for all school districts and to create engaging curriculum and standards that empower students.

2. Strengthen distance and blended learning. As educators step up to tackle the challenges of online learning, they can benefit from research showing how to use technology most effectively, including making face-to-face time connected and supported, using interactive materials to supplement live instruction, teaching students to manage their learning, and enabling them to use technology to research ideas and present their insights. States and districts can help by providing carefully selected interactive materials that augment face-to-face instruction in order to boost learning for all students, including English learners. They can learn from districts such as Lindsay Unified, which has spent the last five years successfully implementing “Anywhere/Anytime” blended learning with positive results. And they can help fund and organize learning hubs for students whose education has been most disrupted, as San Francisco is doing, while conditions prevent in-person instruction.

3. Assess what students need in terms of social, emotional, and other supports (for example, housing, health care, food, technology) in addition to their academic needs. Many states and districts are organizing surveys, curriculum tools, and personnel, so that the beginning of the school year can be used to make connections, mobilize resources, and build community that allows students to truly engage. Experts urge that assessments focus on formative and diagnostic tools that reveal where students are in their learning and on teaching that supports targeted acceleration of progress, rather than labeling and remediation. This is also a time to incorporate authentic formative assessments—paired with actionable feedback and opportunities to revise work—that support substantial learning gains. States such as New Hampshire provide examples of how “meaningful, real-time assessments” can offer an effective strategy not only for determining what students know and can do, but also for developing their abilities in the process.

4. Ensure supports for social and emotional learning (SEL). States and districts are increasingly aware that social and emotional supports and learning are a critical foundation for academic learning and must play an explicit role in today’s and tomorrow’s schools. Many school systems, like Portland, Oregon, planned to use the first few weeks of school to set the stage for more intentional SEL-focused opportunities throughout the year. They are building learning communities through daily meetings and advisory classes. In addition, school districts are replacing exclusionary discipline practices and policing with equity-oriented restorative practices that make schools safer, strengthen relationships, reduce dropout rates, and improve achievement.

5. Redesign schools for stronger relationships. Research shows that school designs that support caring and continuity in student-teacher relationships are more able to address trauma and strengthen achievement than traditional factory-model schools. As we work to reopen schools safely, we can leverage relationship-centered cohort designs that foster health and safety, as well as personalization and trust. Smaller class sizes and cohorts of students learning together can both reduce disease transmission and foster deeper learning and deeper connections. At the same time, educators can continue to deepen relationships with families that were begun during the pandemic through such strategies as virtual home visits, conferencing, and regular communications via web, text, and email. To understand how to support students each day, districts such as the CORE districts in California are continually monitoring school climate and student needs through surveys and providing updates to teachers about each student.

As we work to reopen schools safely, we can leverage relationship-centered cohort designs that foster health and safety, as well as personalization and trust.

6. Emphasize authentic and culturally responsive learning. Schools that have successfully motivated students to engage in learning even when schooling has been disrupted have connected lessons to real-world applications, allowing students to explore the world around them and to demonstrate what they know through projects and presentations that display the products of their work. States like Oregon and districts like Chicago support curriculum that allows students to meet standards through rich projects, evaluated through performance-based assessments and capstone projects. Schools and districts in New York, Massachusetts, California, and Hawaii have created performance assessment consortia to support this work, rooting it in culturally connected inquiries. Districts like Providence are also adopting culturally responsive teaching and learning frameworks, rooted in research-based strategies, that connect curriculum to students’ experiences in ways that support engagement and achievement.

7. Provide expanded learning time to accelerate student progress. The traditional school day and calendar are not sufficient to offset the learning time that has been lost during the pandemic. States can use a variety of federal programs for supporting districts and schools to extend the length of the school day and year, including multiple funding streams under ESSA and CARES Act funds. The most effective strategies include high-quality tutoring within and beyond the school day, which can produce large gains cost-effectively and even virtually; well-designed summer programs that stem summer learning loss; and after-school programs that align with the school’s academic learning goals and incorporate meaningful activities that engage deeper learning pedagogies. Schools can also make expanded learning more authentic by including afterschool educators in regular lesson planning. In Oakland, schools refer to these opportunities as eighth or ninth period to emphasize their connectedness to the regular day. Some districts are also creating acceleration academies during breaks in the school year that re-teach to fill gaps and pre-teach upcoming course content. Finally, providing all-day early childhood programs can help reduce the gap in learning time between lower-income and more affluent students that begins in early childhood and continues into k-12.

8. Establish community schools and wraparound supports. Community schools offer a path forward to coordinate services for supporting children and families during this stressful time and have demonstrated their capacity to meet students’ needs during the pandemic. The need will continue when the pandemic has subsided. As part of community schools, districts like Cincinnati and New York offer health, mental health, and social services and some also include adult education, legal services, and early childhood programs as part of their full-service community schools. Some states now include continuous formula funding for these schools to ensure that these services are routinely available. Even in states where there is adequate and reliable funding, schools still need technical assistance, usually at the regional level, to coordinate the legion of services that a great community school provides. Federal, state, and county leaders can create Children’s Cabinets or other vehicles to coordinate agencies at the top of the system so funds and services flow to districts and schools more smoothly.

9. Prepare educators for reinventing school. Investments in knowledgeable, skilled, and dedicated educators are key to every change discussed here. As shortages continue to loom, policymakers can support high-retention pathways like teacher and leader residencies, and Grow Your Own programs that bring in candidates well prepared for local contexts. They can also take advantage of the new models of staffing that are emerging with the pandemic—models that include mentored teams of senior with more junior-level staff that break the old self-contained “egg crate” classroom mold. School and district leaders can also continue incorporating long-needed teacher collaboration time, a practice that has emerged with shifts in blended learning schedules. Meanwhile, new models of training can be facilitated through collaboratives such as the Educator Preparation Laboratory, which allows leading-edge teacher and leader preparation programs to share best practices for cultivating socially just and educationally empowering methods.

Investments in knowledgeable, skilled, and dedicated educators are key to every change discussed here.

10. Leverage more adequate and equitable school funding to build capacity for the systems and practice improvements outlined in this framework. Even though state revenue is currently declining, states can seize the moment of the economic downturn to transform their funding systems so that they distribute dollars more equitably when resources return, as Rhode Island and California did in the midst of the Great Recession. In setting expectations for services and allocating federal recovery dollars, they can choose to leverage more equitable learning opportunities. And, to take the long view of closing opportunity gaps, they can begin to incorporate preschool into state funding formulas, phasing in funding as West Virginia did over a 10-year period, which resulted in universal preschool at the end of that decade.

These priorities suggest how to leverage short-term strategies designed to meet the needs of students and educators in this unprecedented moment into long-term, systemic policies and investments that can transform learning and close opportunity and achievement gaps. We have a once-in-a-generation moment to rethink and reinvent our school systems to provide the kind of education that will allow all students to fulfill their potential in much more equitable and empowering ways. Despite—and indeed because of—today’s enormous challenges, it is our hope that this framework will enable policymakers, educators, and their community partners to harness this opportunity to reinvent public education as an engine for social progress for the next century.