Open Schools, Stop the Slide, and Disrupt Unequal Education

Miguel Cordona has been nominated to be President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education. This will be a very challenging term for Mr. Cordona as he takes the Department of Education’s reins during the COVID-10 pandemic. 10 months into the virus-era, schools have been shut, re-opened, and shut again. More than half of all K-12 students are learning from home and teachers are working hard as they learn how to teach online and protect themselves from the devastating effects of this deadly outbreak. Following in the steps of the current secretary, Betsy DeVos, Secretary-elect Cordona will have to open schools, stop the COVID slide, and disrupt unequal education.

Open Schools

President elect Joe Biden introduced Cordona with the goal of opening all the schools at the end of the first 100 days of his administration. But without federal help, for example weekly testing of teachers and students to know if they are COVID-free, state help in funding quality teaching and local help in making schools safe, Cordona will be battling an uphill fight that will be determined more by the nation’s responses rather than by educational policymaking.

Stop The Slide

The real problem for educators is the effect that the pandemic has had on student learning which has been referred to as an achievement “slide.” Much like the summer slide that students experience between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, the pandemic slide will have an effect on most student’s academic performance. However, the slide does not accurately represent the difference that students are experiencing in the loss of learning. For example, it can be estimated that perhaps as much as a third of the students in the country have survived the academic slide by reading and writing online successfully. The middle third may be experiencing what the term academic slide implies, for example, not learning as much as they used to during in-person classroom experiences. The real trouble, however, is happening for the bottom third of students nationwide, for example, as their issues of lack of access to quality teaching turn their academic slide into a freefall. It will be very hard to stop the slide and the freefall from wrecking a generation of disadvantaged students.

Disrupt Unequal Education

This is not the moment for a hot revolt, but rather a time to make plans to disrupt the built-in inequity of our educational systems. These systems were built to choose winners and flunk losers. It probably makes sense then for a federal continuation of support for testing to confirm the extent to which the slide has affected the nation’s K through 12 students. But it also makes sense to begin to think about how testing should be disrupted. And in particular how formative assessment, can begin to help students get back on track rather than simply taking their temperature as they fall off the cliff. For example, now might be a very good time to help schools both assess student learning more accurately, identify their deficits, and treat students for social emotional trauma from the pandemic. Children in schools are experiencing the same depth of suffering as the rest of us. And just to remind ourselves of the work that was already at hand before the pandemic, disadvantaged students across the country were suffering under traditional forms of teaching and learning and testing, so as the pandemic threatens to sink their learning gains, let’s dig in to disrupt the normal schooling process and re-invent a new process that honors their loss of learning, targets their reading needs, deepens our understanding of their social emotional learning, and let’s set a new agenda for the new year in order to be successful with every child.

Research How to Disrupt Education

Now would be a particularly good time to direct a major research effort at understanding how to disrupt unequal education. Rather than play the dualistic game of conservative or liberal approaches to learning, progressive or efficient, rich vs. poor, resourced and un-resourced—let’s instead play the game of inventing a process where every child learns to read by third grade, every child owns their learning and every child is ready to learn anything in the future. Teams of researchers could be funded to divert some of their attention to group efforts at resolving some long-standing problems in education. One research question could look like, “How can learning to read stop the COVID-19 slide?” Another research question might look like, “How can we more accurately, and in a more timely manner, give students meaningful assessment feedback that promotes their willingness to understand what they need to learn about in order to be successful?” Or even, one of my favorites because I am building a school around this, is, “How can creativity be integrated into every curriculum as “creative practice,” so that student thinking becomes original?”

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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