Going Back to School? Now What?

Because I’ve reached the age and stage where memories blend, fade away, or are exaggerated beyond recognition, I cannot recall whether the insight, “If my students aren’t learning, then I am not teaching,” was uttered by a veteran colleague from my 4-year teaching stint, whether it came from one of the thousands of teachers I interviewed over 41 years of reporting, or whether I read it somewhere.  I know I didn’t come up with it.  But it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that, even though many other factors–such as health, nutrition, inadequate shelter, and abuse–can and do interfere with learning, good teachers always take it personally when their students aren’t succeeding.

That’s why it’s truly depressing to read that, in some school districts, about half of the students are receiving failing grades.  The reliable Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post is on the story.   

Here are a few site-specific stories you might want to peruse:  Maryland. Iowa City, Iowa.  Tucson, Arizona.  Houston, Texas.  Northern California

When the pandemic struck this spring, most school districts shifted to on-line schooling, and grading became ‘pass/fail.’  That approach to grading has been abandoned, even though on-line learning is ubiquitous, because, as Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuck noted,  

“…as the crisis continued and school began in the fall, most districts reverted to their old grading systems, in part because of the infrastructure that depends on those grades: Senior transcripts need to be prepared for college admissions. Grades determine access to specialized middle school programs, magnet schools, and sports scholarships.”

Stop and think about what this means.  First of all, giving out failing grades essentially puts the blame squarely on the students, who must live with the consequences of an unimpressive transcript. Some critics of public education also want to blame teachers for those failing grades, but the venerable truth I began this essay with no longer holds true.  

What’s true in this age of pandemic schooling is this: “When most students are not learning, then the system itself is broken and must be examined from the ground up.”  

Apparently school boards and some educators have been working overtime to ‘get back to normal.’  That’s a huge mistake, because ‘normal’ wasn’t all that great for most students.

I wrote about this at some length in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” and won’t attempt to reprise everything here.  But this point is worth emphasizing: schools should be using assessments to help improve both learning and teaching.  In shorthand, “Assess to Improve. Don’t Test to Punish!” 

High-stakes testing should be a thing of the past for this school year.  Beyond that, we should debate the costs and benefits before embracing the policies of the Bush and Obama Administrations.  Outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has suspended the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, which tests only a small sample of students in a few grades.  At the same time, she and others seem to be supporting end-of-year tests for all students.  This is, to be blunt, just plain stupid!  Keep the NAEP testing, and drop the high-stakes end-of-year tests.

Maybe this school year should be thought of as a game of golf among friends.  If you hit a good shot, great. If your shot goes awry for whatever reason, take a mulligan.  Some students will ask for letter grades, and that’s fine.  Others should have the opportunity to take different paths without fear of punishment.

My essay about this earlier this year included these words: 

With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything.  They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends.  More than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on, and even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that they’re paying attention.  

So the parents and teachers might consider asking questions, instead of simply giving assignments: 

          What would make this material appealing to you? 

          What would persuade you to invest your energies in this subject? 

          What else are you interested in?  

For example, perhaps focusing on one subject at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day.  The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can transfer to the home.  What if we compressed the semester of American history or American Literature into the month of May? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging?  For openers, try asking the students.

However, students shouldn’t get to make all the decisions about what they’re studying.  After all, a central purpose of the early years of school is the transmission of knowledge, and so the basics are also part of the deal.  Children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness).  Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from ‘short’ to ‘long.’ While that may seem like heavy lifting for parents who haven’t trained to teach, they can relax.  Free resources like the Khan Academy, ReadWorks, and Zearn are available to help children and parents with basic skills. Resources are plentiful: PBS is making all of Ken Burns’ documentaries available for screening, and former first lady Michelle Obama is on line, reading stories to young children, to cite just two examples.

Young people must be deeply involved in setting the learning goals and in figuring out how results will be measured.  It makes no sense to wait for bubble test results.  Teachers, parents, and students should assess progress frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be “Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”

Plan teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when the student/your child doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.  Parents can teach their children valuable skills through family activities like cooking, playing board games, and planting a spring garden.  Above all, parents should recognize that they are learners too, because that makes it perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out together.”   And leave plenty of time for play……

“Plenty of time for play” cannot be stressed enough. Unfortunately, it’s not part of an otherwise admirable report from the Learning Policy Institute about the importance of reimagining and redesigning public education during and after Covid.

Erika Christakis covers this territory in an engaging and provocative essay in The Atlantic.  “School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either” is her catchy title.  Please take the time to consider her arguments.

COVID-19 vaccines will be given to health care workers and other front-line workers in the very near future.  In most states, it’s all but certain that teachers will be among the first to get vaccinated, meaning that most schools will reopen.  But, please please please, do not try to ‘get back to normal.’ 

My suggestions: 

    1. Make the institution more (small d) democratic. 

2. Give students more agency over their own learning. 

3. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months.  

4. Social and emotional learning may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation. 

5. Lots of free play. 

6. And maybe this is (finally) the time to move away from age segregation and group children instead according to the interests and their level of accomplishment.  

7. Finally, NO hand-wringing about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.

What do you think we should do for all our children?

4 thoughts on “Going Back to School? Now What?

  1. Another good essay.
    “What if we compressed the semester of American history or American Literature into the month of May? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging? For openers, try asking the students.”


  2. Another good essay.
    “What if we compressed the semester of American history or American Literature into the month of May? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging? For openers, try asking the students.”


  3. “These are the times that try men’s souls…” said Thomas Paine, a phrase that sparked our Revolution centuries ago.

    These are the similar trying times that our K12 education system faces during this war of the Pandemic. We need a new set of educational vaccines that free up the continued learning of our children, and new ways for our teachers to meet the needs of learners who differ.

    Some students need less help in gaining an education. Others need more….much more. Reading abilities have to be secured for ALL learners. They cannot learn without it. The same is true for the other basic skills. Hands-on and heads-on teaching and learning is critical. Those who know more can help those who don’t.

    Use our new technologies wisely and well. They can help a needed revolution for all K12 learners and teachers.


  4. Getting back to “normal” means re-inventing and re-investing in a schooling model based on fixed parameters of time, curriculum, resources, etc regardless of the needs of our students. We have an opportunity to build a new box to think inside of, an “education” box that is based on defining outcomes, building opportunities for each child to reach them, advancing students upon demonstration of learning, and thinking more PreK-16. I fear that the schooling box will drive out the education box. We need to ‘redesign” what we and stop doing the things that freeze the schooling box in place, like testing to judge and sort when we should be assessing to improve practice and learning strategies.

    Upsetting the system begins at the practice levels, teaching and learning, and then aligning the rest of the system (policy, rules and regulations, etc) to support teaching and learning. Right now the system is upside down and needs to be turned over with teachers in the lead working collaboratively with administrators, boards, policy leaders and other partners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s