In Mississippi and across the nation, schools closed because of coronavirus are struggling to find ways to educate children remotely. But even as Mississippi’s education leaders adapt to new platforms, experts say, they must begin to plan ahead. Once campuses fully reopen, schools will need clear strategies to catch up students who have been unable to keep up their studies at home, the experts advise.
Thousands of students already harmed by the state’s achievement gaps and underfunding will be hit hard.
“This virus is exacerbating the inequalities we knew were there before. The kids who have the least are getting the least now,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They will, in fact, be behind the kids who are learning still. If the state is serious about equity, it will try to some things to address that.”
Noguera joins an early chorus of researchers and academics suggesting summer school should be offered, if possible, to help students catch up. Douglas Harris of the Brookings Institution has suggested making stimulus money available to offer summer school for students who fall behind during closures, either virtually, if schools must remained closed, or on-site to make up for missed instruction. The former might still edge out students already impacted by the nation’s digital divide or who are without adult supervision.
There’s an additional reason for urgency around the well-known strategy this year. Research has shown losing academic ground during the summer months or “summer learning loss” tends to impact low-income students more. Without intervention, the gaps could widen even further this summer given how much class time children have already missed.
Find time in the day
Beyond summer school, principals and superintendents will also confront the question of the best way to help students catch up when school resumes — probably with the beginning of the 2020-21 year in August. Alanna Bjorklund-Young, director of research at the John Hopkins Institute for Education Policy said one strategy schools might consider is keeping students with their previous teacher for part of the next school year. Children’s current teachers, Bjorklund-Young theorized, may be better positioned to review material and content kids missed or struggled with during this time.
Another research-based approach is the use of one-on-one or small group tutoring. While this approach can grow costly, the solution doesn’t require upending the entire school day. Depending on the program, Bjorklund explained intensive tutoring could occur before, during or after school.
Ideally, Noguera said, kids would also have access to after school programming providing enrichment activities like art or robotics to balance out ramped-up instruction.
Ramp up rigor
Although it might be tempting to avoid rigorous assignments for students who need extra help, cautioned David Steiner, Bjorklund-Young’s colleague and the executive director of the institute, that’s the wrong approach. Educators who back away from tougher lessons because they don’t want to overwhelm students could do more harm than good. Steiner said the evidence is beginning to mount that struggling students do better when they have the same level of access to challenging, grade-level materials as their peers.
“It doesn’t mean you ignore the child,” Bjorklund-Young added. In English language arts, for example, a child who has trouble sounding out or “decoding” words, she explained, will still need intervention.
But struggling students should still be challenged to think critically about the same books their peers are reading, and to share what they learned from a story. An elementary school teacher can rephrase discussion questions to make them more digestible or pair a struggling student with a classmate who has a firmer grip on reading skills.
Steiner said the challenge educators will face in the fall is to pull up students who are in rough academic shape, rather than “teaching down.”
“The tool to do that is not just professional development; it’s curriculum,” he said.
Too many teachers, Steiner argued, have to spend time hunting down materials for their own curriculum. That can lead to shaky quality and frustration. And those hours spent searching online can rob teachers of the time they need to think through presenting challenging material in a way that reaches struggling students.
The bottom line
All these interventions, of course, are dependent on funding. Amid fears that rising unemployment could trigger a recession, school leaders in Mississippi could face tough budget choices ahead, especially in communities that lack the tax base to fill in state funding shortfalls.
If Mississippi is going to build on the academic progress it’s made in recent years, the state will have to make a commitment that any layoffs do not disproportionately impact the highest needs schools that already struggle to hire support staff like interventionists, social workers and literacy coaches whose roles will become only more critical in the months to come, said Ary Amerikaner, a vice president at the nonprofit Education Trust.
“Students in those schools will already be facing the instructional and social and emotional impacts of the coronavirus and it is important that supports remain as consistent as possible,” Amerikaner said in a statement.
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Friday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!