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Analysis: Every state & district needs to create a learning recovery task force — now. Here are some reasons why

Elliot Haspel and Maggie Thornton | January 20, 2021

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The damage wrought to American education by the COVID-19 pandemic beggars description, and so we are reduced to metaphor: Schools have been hit by an earthquake, a hurricane, a war. There is a need for disaster relief for children who have lost precious time in school and are traumatized by the effects of COVID-19 on their families and society as a whole.

To enter adulthood with the skills they need, students will need extra time to recover the time lost to closures and quarantining. Educators, parents and policymakers need to start thinking about temporarily lengthening school days, weeks and years, perhaps even adding grade levels. Every district and state should initiate a learning recovery task force or the equivalent, representing a wide variety of stakeholders and centering on culturally responsive pedagogy and policies. And districts must begin planning now for how they will boldly address the learning disparities that COVID has wrought. It cannot wait until the summer of 2021.

School districts are like aircraft carriers: They turn slowly. A relatively simple idea like extending the school year from 180 to 200 days is a massive undertaking, bureaucratically speaking. Teacher contracts must be renegotiated, facility leases dealt with, insurance policies updated. The degree of difficulty is even higher because districts are going to already be occupied reckoning with potential budget cuts, teacher retirements and other operational challenges.

Because of the way the American education system is designed, falling behind in skills is not a mere stumble, but a ticket to a de facto loser’s bracket. Schools operate like a stepladder, with each grade assuming students have mastered skills taught the previous year. For instance, students who struggle to read coming into fourth grade don’t normally get individualized instructional plans and extra time to catch up; they are simply put in front of progressively more difficult text. Worse, other subjects start to demand reading proficiency as well: Suddenly, math is all about word problems; mathematical ability requires literacy. In short, reading problems very quickly start a vicious cycle of failure, too often spiraling toward an end game of dropout or, at best, escape with a high school diploma and little else. This may not be a developmentally appropriate system, but it is the one we have.

Recovery efforts, then, will require all-hands-on-deck engagement, including and beyond the expansion of learning time. Retired teachers should be encouraged to come back into service without hurting their retirement packages. Mental health supports will need to be made widely available, as will tutoring opportunities. AmeriCorps could create a corps specifically to supplement the work done by teachers; the nonprofit organization Neighborhood Villages has shown what this can look like by piloting a new AmeriCorps partnership, the Boston Children’s Relief Initiative, for bolstering early childhood education and afterschool program staff. Getting our nation’s children the learning recovery they need can and should be a bipartisan, communitywide rallying cry in the years to come.

Within this work, however, we need to rely on the vast body of evidence that shows academically mixed classrooms, as opposed to rigid tracks and ability groups, best serve students. There will be a strong desire to separate students based on perceived needs, but research suggests doing so is often counterproductive. We should temper this desire and instead give educators the resources and tools to address students’ individual needs.

It is also essential to keep in mind that education before the pandemic was not working for many, particularly students of color. Merely expanding schooling and investing more funds in that expansion will not solve these problems. The effort must be grounded in culturally responsive teaching that recognizes the gifts children already bring to school and celebrates those gifts as they learn new skills. Deficit mindsets — focusing solely on learning gaps — will only ensure an even longer and harder path.

Recovery will be expensive, as all disaster relief is, but our children are worth it and the benefits will ripple out throughout our society and economy. We encourage the incoming Biden-Harris administration to begin planning now for an education-focused stimulus to fund expanded school time. We also encourage states to prioritize school funding in their upcoming budgets.

School funding formulas, already in need of an overhaul, must at the bare minimum offer a “hold-harmless” option to use fall 2019 figures to determine 2021-22 baseline budgets. States can show a commitment to equity by creating a temporary recovery enhancement in their funding formulas, with extra weight for districts serving high numbers of students from lower-income backgrounds or English learners. Moreover, the Biden-Harris administration can make good on its promises to “build back better” by ensuring that robust federal funds are flowing in an ongoing fashion. The need is not a one-off; much as FEMA does not simply drop cash and leave, postpandemic learning recovery will likely take at least through the middle of this decade.

Education stakeholders need to lift up their eyes and look to the horizon. Although immediate needs grab for our attention, the time is now to employ the imagination required to begin planning now how best to support the recovery of children most hurt by the pandemic.

Elliot Haspel works in education policy and is the author of “Crawling Behind: America’ Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.” He is a former fourth grade teacher.

Maggie Thornton is a Ph.D. candidate studying the intersection of school inequality and leadership at the University of Virginia. She is a former high school English teacher.

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