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Analysis: Can we get students a do-over school year?

Corina Sapien | June 15, 2021

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Can we get a do-over?

The general consensus among parents, educators, and students is that distance learning has not worked and students continue falling behind while this pandemic continues to disrupt every aspect of our lives. A recent Stanford study confirms earlier studies: students across the U.S. have lost from one third to a full year of learning in reading; and in math the projections are even worse with between three-quarters and more than a whole year of learning loss. Students most negatively affected are those who were already behind, namely, children living in poverty, children of color, and English learner students.

During shelter-in-place, schools gave distance learning the proverbial “college try,” even taking heroic measures, but there is no denying that most children haven’t fared well. For years to come, schools will employ any number of remedial programs designed to overcome the pandemic’s educational damage and ever-widening achievement gap; worst of all, research suggests that most if not all of these will be woefully inadequate.

So: why not consider a solution that might actually give kids back what they lost? By the end of this school year, children will be a year older in age, but that doesn’t mean they have to be a grade older in school. How about we give kids a “do-over?” Give every student in public schools an extra year of education to make up for the one they lost due to this pandemic.

How could this work?

Students would enter this fall in the grade they were in previously

Kindergarteners would remain kindergarteners, and eighth-graders would remain eight-graders. What we call these grades is not as important as giving students their due time to reach the standards set for them.

Some may argue that this would force some students to repeat lessons and cover material already learned.But this will happen anyway as schools return to in-person instruction and teachers must address the needs of a widened range of academic levels due to the inequities and inconsistencies of distance learning. An extra year will make this easier—not harder. Undoubtedly, schools should employ appropriate and effective research-based instructional strategies to mitigate learning loss and address the whole spectrum of social and academic needs of all of their students, but states should consider that the best way to truly replace a year of lost in-person class time, is with a year of in-person class time. 

It is important to pause here to make a distinction between this policy and the harmful practice of retention, which has also been proposed by some states. Research confirms the damaging consequences of retention. This is not retention. This is adding a year for all students, not associated with grades, credits, or achievement, and will not carry the stigma and negative self-esteem effects that are associated with retention because all students would be gifted the extra year. Those parents who wish to skip their child to the next grade should be addressed in the same way that parents/ guardians who want their kids to “skip” a grade are normally handled: on a case by case basis, but with few exceptions to the rule. The success of this proposal hinges on universal participation by all students, otherwise it becomes just another bound-to-fail remedial program that amounts to retention if only “certain” students participate.

Kindergarteners would get the chance to start their school career off right

The reality is that 2020 was arguably the worst year for any child to launch an educational career. Kindergarten is when children acclimate to schools’ academic and social environments. Without a full year of in-person kindergarten, students will enter first grade at a huge disadvantage. Research suggests that students not reading on grade level by third grade, will likely drop out before high school graduation. Entering first grade unprepared for reading instruction will be especially detrimental to our most vulnerable populations, who will likely struggle for the rest of their educational careers. Another year in kindergarten could be the key to building strong academic foundations, building and self-esteem while closing opportunity and achievement gaps before they widen.

For those slated to enter kindergarten this fall, we can move enrollment eligibility to age 6 thereby delaying their enrollment for one year. This would require at least a temporary, if not permanent, change in the starting age for elementary school students. There is a wealth of research that shows that this will not harm students, but could instead improve outcomes. Or we can add a year to the public school career of every entering student through the expansion of the transitional kindergarten program or by expanding state- funded preschool programs which have a known positive effect on students who attend them. If there is a strong need/desire to reinstate the kindergarten enrollment cutoff to age 5, a plan could be developed to phase it back in by incremental shifts in the cutoff age for enrollment.

Even if we indeed end up doubling the size of the incoming kindergarten class, there may not be a large number of extra students. With so many school districts, in California for example, facing declining enrollment, there may already be enough space for the bubble of students in kindergarten. If more space is needed, portable classrooms could be brought in. This could require additional funding for teachers and facilities, but this is not an insurmountable problem.

Teachers could hit the ground running and get right to the business of teaching

Teachers can minimize time they normally spend opening the school year assessing students’ needs and acclimating them to their rules and routines. Instead of trying to teach to the standards of two grade levels (or “meet students where they are”) in one year, which is likely if students move onto the next grade level, teachers can focus on the standards of their grade level and teach them at a pace that is healthy and reasonable . Moreover, by keeping students for another year, teachers can reap the benefits of and build on the relationships they already have with students and families.

Graduating seniors could ameliorate the deep losses many experienced this year

Those who received diplomas would keep them, but we can also give them the opportunity to return to retake classes they would like to, take others virtually, or add community college courses to their high school transcript. This could reopen doors for struggling students shut out of graduation this year — without the stigma of failure. Additionally, we can offer the “senior year experience.” We already know that many students fell into depression after missing out on activities like prom, graduation, and extracurricular activities such as sports, band, student government, etc. A chance to re-do their senior year could significantly reduce the despair and depression brought on by loss, isolation, and boredom during distance learning.

Incoming seniors also merit consideration. Entering their last year of schooling, they are ready for senior privileges and activities. Because high school is different from the lower grades and course offerings are not as linear, students can remain on course toward graduation. They can be offered a 5th year or graduate within four years as planned. Credit requirements would not change, and credits previously earned would be honored, but students could nevertheless get four full years of the high school experience. A fifth year of high school, not unprecedented, is especially warranted now so that students can leave school better prepared for whatever lies in their futures.

This year has been so hard. Why re-enter school this fall with the same frenzy with which we entered into distance learning? Let‘s give our kids and teachers the gift of time. Let’s slow down and give everyone a chance to catch their breath, and then in a year, we can speed up again. The question is, what are we losing by adding another year? And what do we stand to gain?

 Corina Sapien works for SEAL – Sobrato Early Academic Language in Milipitas, California. Before that, she worked in California public schools for 30 years, including as principal of a Title I school. 

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