Here’s a letter I just received from an experienced K-4 school principal.

Dear John,

You asked how I would go about reopening schools this fall. My answer focuses on the schools I know best, K-grade 4, but I believe these ideas are applicable at all levels of public education.  

Others proposals, including those from teacher unions, Education Week, and think tanks, concentrate on the practical, physical arrangements necessary to open school safely, with such strategies as ‘Staggered opening,’ ‘One week on, two weeks off,’ and ‘Bubble classrooms.’  

In addition to testing for the virus, social distancing, and basic hygiene, I would insist on the following SEVEN steps: 

1) Internet access for all students

2) Clearly defined benchmarks that students are expected to achieve during their five years at the school but NOT by grade level. Along the way, ‘accomplishment levels’ that are clearly defined;

3) Students randomly assigned to a team (the number of teams being dependent upon the size of the school). Create a point system that rewards a student’s team for his or her individual accomplishments, such as reaching an ‘accomplishment level’; 

4) Absolutely no talk of “learning loss” or “pandemic deficits” when discussing what students may or may not have achieved during the school year that was interrupted by Covid-19;  

5) A “Tutoring Corps” of older students, retired adults, and others who want to help students reach “accomplishment levels;” 

6) As much free play and recess as possible; and 

7) absolutely NO standardized, machine-scored bubble tests.

1.   ACCESS TO THE INTERNET: This is a non-negotiable condition for reopening, which means School Boards and the town’s leadership better get cracking.  Figure out which families don’t have it and come up with a plan for meeting that need.  Raise the money from corporations, foundations, wealthy families, and your State government.  Do whatever you have to do, but make it clear that nobody goes to school until everyone has access. (One source of funds: The savings from Step #7.)

This matters because it’s possible–and even probable–that all students will be learning at home some part of the year, perhaps even one or two days a week, in order to comply with social distancing rules. 

2. BENCHMARKS: It’s essential for educators, parents, other community members, and older students to reach agreement on what students are expected to be able to do after attending four years of school, seven years of school, ten years of school, and twelve years of school.   

For example, in my school, I believe the following skills should be the floor for children after four years of school (plus Kindergarten). They should be able to:

  1. Read with understanding.
  2. Paraphrase and summarize–orally and in writing–what they have read (and not merely recite what happened in the story).
  3. Write coherent short essays in standard English.
  4. Add, subtract, multiply, and divide large numbers.
  5. Multiply and divide fractions.
  6. Speak confidently to a group.
  7. Ask and answer questions in a second language.

The idea is to establish a reasonable floor, not a ceiling.  

An obvious challenge to this idea is its unfamiliarity:  All of us went to graded schools, and so did our parents.  But perhaps not our grandparents and great grandparents, who may have attended one-room schools.  However, grouping children into First Grade, Second Grade, Third Grade and so on is an administrative convenience to make schools run smoothly, rather than a strategy based on how children actually learn.  Because individual 9-year-olds learn at different rates and in spurts, there’s as much variation among 9-year-olds as there is between 9-year-olds and children who are 8 or 10.  And because children learn at different rates and grow in unpredictable spurts, schools should establish larger groups of students, not grades per se but ages 5-9, 10-13, and so forth.  

We’re not abolishing grades, merely minimizing their importance.  Students will still meet by grade at the beginning and end of every day, in their ‘homeroom’ and have opportunities to talk about whatever is on their minds.

However, the current practice of automatically segregating children by age creates a pecking order, with the older kids picking on the younger ones. I know I’m not the only adult with dark memories of 7th grade and the cruel bullying by some 9th graders.

A challenge to my benchmark strategy is the fact that a few 6-year-olds will reach some of the goals before some 9-year-olds.  That means dividing children into ‘accomplishment levels’ (not ‘ability groups,’ please).  And some 6-year-olds may be in a higher group in mathematics and language but lower down in English or the second language they are studying. 

Here’s what matters most: No one should be permitted to languish, and everyone should get whatever help is needed.

As students reach interim benchmarks in these areas, their accomplishments will be heralded, because hard work and achievement must be rewarded.  These accomplishments also earn valuable points for the student’s team–as explained below.  

Again, these agreed-upon benchmarks are floors, not ceilings, and teachers and parents need to work with students to see that they continue to learn and grow

3. TEAMS: To minimize the possibility of high-achievers making fun of those who are lagging, every school must strive to become a community of supportive learners.  Here, rewards for teamwork will help. First, randomly assign students to teams (Epsilon, Gamma, Theta, for example). Then develop a point system for positive accomplishments.  When an Epsilon asks and answers questions in a second language, she earns points for her team.  An older Gamma who tutors a younger student and helps him read with understanding earns points for Gamma.  Individual and group accomplishments are encouraged, celebrated, and rewarded, with a community-wide celebration at year’s end for the team with the most points.  This gives students a vested interest in the success of everyone on their team, regardless of age.

This is not some glorified system of ‘external rewards’ that take precedence over learning. Rather, think of a track team.  In that sport, the athlete who does well in an individual event like the broad jump, the 200-meter dash, or the shot put earns personal recognition AND points for his or her team.  Every athlete on the track team has a rooting interest in their teammates doing well.

This is not a new idea. Plenty of independent schools have been doing this for years and years because it builds unity across grades and creates barriers to bullying.

4. NO TALK OF ‘PANDEMIC DEFICITS’: Make it clear that talking about ‘educational deficits’ and ‘pandemic learning loss’ won’t be tolerated.  Too many educators are wringing their hands about how much some kids have fallen behind during the months that schools were closed.  This kind of talk stigmatizes students and sets them up for failure (while potentially providing excuses for their teachers).  With new groupings and reasonable floors for accomplishments, everyone should be considered as making a fresh start. 

Whoever needs help, gets it, in a new era of ‘no fault’ education.  

In my view, this pandemic has exposed a serious design flaw in public education: it’s a sorting system that identifies ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ sending the former off to elite colleges and universities, and the latter to work or community colleges. What’s more, the sorting is deeply flawed, largely ratifying a student’s socio-economic status, family background, race, and ethnicity.  Not only is this fundamentally immoral; it’s also bad national policy because we’re losing the brain power of millions of young people by not asking the right question about each and every one of them.

The operative question about each child is not “How Smart Is She?” but “How Is She
Smart?”  Every child has strengths and interests. The challenge for educators is to work with parents to identify those strengths and interests.  And it may not be all that tough, because children and adolescents who have spent months in social isolation will be hungry for contact. Teachers should respond by emphasizing project-based learning, which brings students together to explore challenging subjects that are of interest to them.

5. A CORPS OF VOLUNTEER TUTORS: Every community has a pool of individuals who would like to make their world a better place, and the coronavirus pandemic means that many of them may have time on their hands.  Consider college students, their campuses shuttered.  Recruit them.  Work with local education institutions to create courses in which their students would get academic credit for helping your students reach desired accomplishment levels. 

Since fluency in a second language is one benchmark, reach out to those in your community whose first language in something other than English and ask them to help. 

This is already happening, of course. Here’s one impressive example worth learning from.

6. PLAY, AND MORE PLAY: Stop denying the age-old truth uttered by the poet Juvenal, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” which translates as “A healthy mind in a healthy body.’ 

During our decades of test-obsession, too many schools eliminated both recess and physical education in order to concentrate on higher test scores.  It didn’t work, of course, although it probably produced a generation of adults who have bad memories of public school.  

Recess shouldn’t be 50 minutes a few times a week. It can be a series of 10-minute breaks AND one 50-minute period of unstructured free play every day.  Children need this.  

This won’t be easy because some districts are deep into plans to subdivide gyms into classrooms, in order to achieve social distancing.  While that may be necessary, those leaders must also have a clear plan for regular and frequent exercise.

If you aren’t convinced, please read Let The Children Play, by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle.

7. NO BUBBLE TESTS: There’s little point in administering so-called ‘end of year’ standardized bubble tests in 2021. They will reveal that most students in wealthy towns like Darien, CT, perform better than their counterparts up I-95 in Bridgeport.  Use those dollars to close the technology gap and to create more learning opportunities in your Bridgeports. 

Use the time that would ordinarily be spent (that is, wasted) on test-prep to continue exploring what students are interested in.

This is not tantamount to abandoning assessment. In fact, that process should be frequent and in the hands of those who know students best, their teachers.  But to make assessment as non-threatening as possible, the operating principle must be ‘Assess to Improve’ (replacing the common–and dangerous–’Test to Punish’ that has been the hallmark of so-called ‘school reform’ for the past 20 years or more).

  • An eighth goal is aspirational: Create a school environment that is physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe for every child.  Physical safety is the easiest of those three.  Emotional safety means more than adults keeping their antenna alert for bullying.  A more effective strategy is to enlist student leaders in this effort, to persuade them to set the bar high and to communicate to other students about bullying and other harassment:  “We don’t do that here!”   In an intellectually safe environment, it’s cool to ask questions and be curious, and it’s admirable to acknowledge when a student isn’t grasping a concept or understanding what the teacher just said.  Displaying ignorance in pursuit of knowledge is to be expected and encouraged, not mocked.  

Fall 2020 will test the proposition that every crisis is also an opportunity.  It’s unfortunate that we do not have strong national leadership that believes in public education, but at least there’s no ambiguity.  We know that it is up to those who care about America’s future to step up.

I hope this is useful.  Thanks for asking me.



10 thoughts on “REOPENING SCHOOLS

  1. as one who has taught every grade from 7th through 4 different AP Courses, I might argue that all of the points made by the K-4 principal are just as applicable at the secondary level. Here I think back to the late ed Sizer, who used to argue for having students be able to demonstrate mastery – if they needed more time, great, let them have it. If they needed less, let them move on – or alternatively explore something else about which they are curious. And as one who has spent several decades teaching adolescents it is apparent that most of them need periodic brief breaks: going for 7 or more hours with 5 minutes (if you are lucky) between classes and perhaps 30 minutes for one lunch break (a third of which is spent standing on line) is not conducive either to learning or health (physical, mental, emotional).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, John.
    Just FYI from today’s New Yorker:

    The True Impediments to Racial Justice

    Nicholas Lemann’s thesis, which ends his review of Walter Johnson’s book “The Broken Heart of America,” is a warning: we should expect only “partial victories” when it comes to racial justice in America, and we ought to beware the likes of Johnson, who insists on “deflating and deriding” past progress (Books, May 25th). To Lemann, Johnson errs insofar as he “discourages us from drawing much hope” from the election of an African-American President, the passage of civil-rights legislation, or the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. But Johnson’s contribution—like much of the recent scholarship on racial capitalism—reveals the poison at the heart of these and other celebrated steps forward. The Thirteenth Amendment, for example, contains, in its liberating language, the legal justification for convict labor and chain gangs, and amounts to an impetus for mass incarceration. White supremacy is indeed an adaptable and slippery monster, but the real hazards to forward motion are naïveté, white privilege, and a deficit of imagination and courage.

    Bill Ayers
    Chicago, Ill.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The difference between what should be and reality:

    Young children are attracted to each other. Socialization is innate. Their hands are all over each other .
    They can come to school without any symptoms and still spread Covid.
    Thus, any teacher over a certain age will be out. Any teacher with an underlying health issue will be out.Any
    teacher with a weight problem will be out. Any teacher with others at home who are vulnerable,
    will be out. Who does that leave in the classroom?
    There are many US rural areas without internet connection.
    Remote learning for them is non existent . A friend who is a social worker in Tenn. brought gifts of markers,
    paper and games to rural families with kids at home all Spring to engage them in constructive activity.
    We can’t abandon hope, though restoring a normal school day won’t happen soon.
    It will take leadership, a vaccine, and an understanding of how children really learn


  4. 1) Do you have any idea what life is like in vast swaths of America? It’s not just that families don’t have computers or other ways to connect to the internet, it’s that THERE IS NO INTERNET. It hardly makes sense to build the infrastructure across, say, rural Wyoming, when there might be 8 or 10 families that will use it.

    3) Great, so we’re going to reward (i.e., *bribe*) students to do what we want them to do by giving them “points” for “accomplishments”. Criminey, when will this ridiculous idea ever go out of style? Behaviorism doesn’t work in mental institutions, which is what it was designed for. What makes you think it’s okay to treat students like pets? For everything wrong with this idea, I refer you to the works of Alfie Kohn, who has been writing about the negative effects of rewards for decades and which should be required reading for anyone remotely connected to education.

    6) Play. I fully support this, but not if it’s going to look like those awful pictures from France with students in chalk circles “playing” alone. We seriously need to think about if and how much social distancing is possible or desirable for children, especially the youngest. If we think we’re going to keep little kids 6 feet away from their friends, we need to re-think our opposition to kids in cages because that’s what it will take. The reality is that kids are at very little risk from the disease. They are at far greater risk from isolation, loneliness and depression. The Dutch re-opened schools without social distancing (and without masks) and they have not seen an increase in cases or deaths. Maybe we should consider something similar. Let’s not turn schools into prisons in the name of “safety”.


  5. I really find these ideas very intriguing a thought provoking. Sure there are critical infrastructure hurdles, but I am liking this positive, action focused, agenda. You have also made me feel I maybe need to be available as a big brother style tutor to a school in my area.


  6. I’m the founder of an 11 year old education nonprofit, Thiebaut (tebow) Method, that through volunteer passion cultivators, develops the strengths and interests of underserved students.

    Due to COVID, we converted our successful afterschool program into an online program that engages volunteers anywhere on the planet in cultivating the passions of underserved students. By “cultivate passions”, I mean volunteers collaborate with students on learning assignments based on student strengths and interests that bring them emotional fulfillment and self-motivates them to develop their cognitive, social, and academic skills. 

    Our volunteers collaborate with low-income, black and Hispanic students in one of the nation’s highest poverty and lowest performing school districts, Ravenswood City School District (East Palo Alto, CA). Ironically, Ravenswood is smack in the middle of one of the wealthiest and most booming regions in the world, Silicon Valley, and located just 3 miles from Stanford University. 

    Our goal is to spark a large-scale volunteer movement that empowers underserved students everywhere to do well in school and live up to their potential by cultivating their passions.

    Interested volunteers can learn more at our website

    I truly appreciate your work, John, especially the views you put forth in “Addicted to Reform”! I believe in a better education system and plan to devote the rest of my career to improving it!


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