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Let’s Get Back to School, But Differently

By Arne Duncan — November 16, 2020 4 min read
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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.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as Let’s Get Back to School—Differently

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