As school districts across the nation prepare to bring more students back to classrooms, we must grapple with the fact that the pandemic is causing educational disruption and disadvantaging children, particularly those already marginalized by society because of race, class, and special needs. Much of the conversation focuses on the predicted learning losses and the emotional toll experienced by students of all ages, especially children in communities of color during this pandemic, as detailed in a December report by management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
While we compute the extent of these effects, I worry about our failure to question the logic of expecting ordinary outcomes in an extraordinarily disrupted year. We anticipate schools returning to normal, even though we have compelling evidence of how our prepandemic schooling practices have contributed to an equity gap. As we work to reopen schools, we should be reimagining schooling, starting with how we think about time.
Research has demonstrated that, in addition to high-quality teachers, time is an essential ingredient in learning. Perhaps not surprisingly, research has shown that students learn more when they spend more time engaged in academic learning.
As many of us have experienced, time itself has shifted during the pandemic; a day feels like a week, while a week feels like a year. With little to distinguish the days of the week, the concept of “Zoomdays” has entered our vocabulary. Why, then, do we expect that students can or should learn the same things in the same amount of time they might have in an ordinary year, given all the challenges families and children are currently facing?
It’s telling that we don’t expect this of adults. For example, we don’t expect that faculty members can be as productive during the pandemic as they might have been previously; for this reason, universities across the country have granted assistant professors additional time to prepare for the high-stakes tenure review, with many granting a one-year extension. Many universities also granted doctoral students additional time to finish their degrees, in recognition of the disruptions caused by the pandemic.
So why can’t we as a country consider doing the same for our children? With federal support, states could begin by giving all students more time to master the content for this year. They could provide automatic extensions for this generation of students, as higher education has done for assistant professors, by extending funding for additional months in the summer or even an additional semester for those who need it. This would release the pressure on the entire system—parents, teachers, and students alike—and allow us to focus on the well-being of children as they struggle with the restrictions of a global pandemic. Having more time to learn to read, to solve algebraic equations, or to delve into the challenges of democratic government might create the possibility that students will emerge from this experience better educated and less stressed.
Why, then, do we expect that students can or should learn the same things in the same amount of time they might have in an ordinary year?
But let’s also use time wisely. Research demonstrates it’s the quality of learning time that most supports learning. The good news is that there is research that can help identify the strongest approaches for supporting students, including high-intensity tutoring by trained tutors, high-quality project-based or empowerment academies, and others. Policymakers at the state and federal levels should be working right now to help districts around the country create research-based summer and school year programs, especially in districts with a high percentages of the most underserved students. The programs would provide additional academic support and work to both extend and reimagine academic learning time for students.
I recognize that additional time and support cost money. With districts and states already strapped for cash, such support would likely need to come from the federal government as part of its response to the pandemic’s impact on education. The funds could be used to create extended days and summer academies, but it could also be used for both young adults and older people who have lost jobs to support them to become trained tutors in their communities. Such funding could be tied to evidence that reflects districts’ adherence to guidelines for most-effective use of learning time. If we learned nothing else from the Race to the Top program, we learned that states will move quickly with the promise of securing federal funds.
To provide more time for learning, schools should also reconsider how they group children when they return to schools. Right now, grouping is defined rigidly by age even though research on child development shows that children’s developmental trajectories vary tremendously within an age cohort. Students come to kindergarten with radically differing skills and knowledge, and yet they are all given the same amount of time to learn the curriculum.
Long ago, my former colleague John Goodlad argued that we should be creating multiage, cross-grade classrooms that enable much more flexible grouping across the primary years. These flexible groupings acknowledge that students vary in their developmental readiness—both academic and social-emotional—and allow students to work at different levels, leading to better academic outcomes.
Creating more elastic notions of time for learning respects the fact that children do not develop in lock-step fashion. Multiage classrooms also provide the possibility for continuity in a time of disruption, as teachers might instruct the same children for several years and can build on their knowledge of the children and their families from year to year. Designing multiage classrooms would take investments in teachers’ professional learning and the design of new curricula. But as we reimagine an education that better serves children who were already not well served by schools, this investment is surely worth the effort.
Time and teachers are the most precious resources we have for educating our children well. Let’s use the pandemic to rethink how we expand and enrich learning time for children, especially those most impacted by COVID-19-related disruption.
A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as To Improve Learning Outcomes, Give Students More Time