Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Let’s Get Back to School, But Differently

By Arne Duncan — November 16, 2020 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

The presidential election is over, and it’s time to look ahead to a Biden-Harris administration. For education, two expected areas of focus will be student debt relief and expanded early learning. Both are critically important, along with reinvigorating the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights and the department’s historic role protecting the civil rights of students.

In addition to boosting K-12 funding targeting low-income children, I am also hopeful that the new administration takes the opportunity to rethink how states, districts, and schools hold themselves accountable for helping children learn. That’s especially important today.

On one level, the pandemic has revealed the best of America—with millions of front-line workers risking their own lives to protect, heal, and feed us. On another level, much of America chose to open bars and restaurants rather than schools—putting the economic life of adults ahead of the academic needs of children. The consequences of this leadership failure will be with us for years unless we take immediate steps to address it.

We’ve always recognized the inequities in our education system, but the pandemic has brought them into even sharper relief. Remote learning is a struggle for any student, let alone students in financially or emotionally unstable households. Needless to say, it’s impossible in homes without internet access or computers. Low-income parents are also more likely to have jobs that they can’t do from home and more likely to lose those jobs—if they haven’t lost them already.

Much of America chose to open bars and restaurants rather than schools—putting the economic life of adults ahead of the academic needs of children."

Given the above, how do we hold ourselves accountable—not just in the near term but even beyond? How do we track not just student achievement but student wellness? How do we make sure students have both the academic skills they need and the social and emotional capacity to thrive and succeed?

Let’s start by asking what we know and what we don’t know. We know there has been learning loss, but we don’t know how much. Last spring, the Trump administration waived annual testing for good reason. It was unclear how to get it done without increased risk of infection. But renewed calls to suspend state assessments next spring seem premature, if not wrong-headed. We should be able to administer tests safely online, and with that information in hand, we can start to direct new federal resources where they’re needed most.

Thankfully, we have a president-elect who understands the importance of increased federal funding during a crisis of great magnitude. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden worked with me in 2009 to distribute $100 billion in stimulus funds for education. Most of that money went straight to states and districts to help protect an estimated 325,000 teaching jobs. That again is an excellent use of taxpayer money.

To make in-person learning safer, districts could use federal relief funds to shrink class size and hire more teachers. We know that the youngest students have the hardest time with remote learning, and we also know from research that they make the most gains in smaller classes—especially if the reduction is really dramatic, say down from 20 or 25 to 15 students or less.

Some schools may not have the space to shrink class size, but many of the neediest schools, suffering declining attendance, will have the space. Let’s invest in smaller classes for the lower grades for at least a few years until students catch up. Districts could also put money into a massive tutoring program that is informed by assessment results.

In a world where remote learning is the new norm, closing the digital divide isn’t merely an aspiration, it’s a necessity. Making sure every single student is online with an appropriate device is critical. Chicago launched a program providing free internet to low-income parents as well as Chromebooks and computers. Every district should.

We also know that students rely on schools for much more than academics. Social and emotional supports are just as vital as classroom learning. With that in mind, let’s give schools the resources to check up on students, do home visits when it’s safe, and support parents who may be struggling with their children’s remote learning activities.

We should also be more creative in developing supplemental learning programs during afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Kids are starving for activities. They miss sports, arts, music, and after-school programs. Let’s expand these, whether in-person, remote, or a hybrid of the two.

Finally, let’s rethink school schedules to give as many students as possible the year-round connection with schools they need. The traditional school schedule made little sense before COVID and makes even less sense now. Between COVID slide in the spring, summer slide, and the current difficulties students and schools are facing, millions of children are falling behind. Every single day matters.

The outgoing administration isn’t big on truth and transparency, as its reaction to the election shows. But with Joe Biden headed to the White House, honest leadership is coming back, and we have an opportunity to go much deeper and broader in terms of what we are measuring and how we are serving children.

Our educational mission as a country remains what it has long been: extending opportunity to everyone through education. To do that, we must know where students are and take responsibility for ensuring they get what they need.

Related Tags:

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as Let’s Get Back to School—Differently

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment Opinion What Federally Mandated State Tests Are Good For (And What They Aren’t)
Spring 2021 testing is happening. That can be a good thing—if the goal is about more than school accountability.
Stuart Kahl
5 min read
Two people analyze test data
Visual Generation/iStock/Getty
Assessment Opinion The National Assessment Governing Board’s Troubling Gag Order
NAGB's recently released restrictions on how its board members can communicate set a troubling precedent.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Assessment Whitepaper
INVALSI Addresses Italy’s COVID-19 Learning Loss
Find out how INVALSI worked with TAO to develop a plan of action that can serve as a model for other education leaders grappling with the...
Content provided by TAO by Open Assessment Technologies
Assessment Biden Administration's Level of Tolerance for Cutting Standardized Tests Comes Into Focus
A distinction has grown between states having to make tests available, and districts deciding it's not practical to make students take them.
8 min read
Image of a test sheet.
sengchoy/iStock/Getty