The new question-of-the-week is:
Two years into the pandemic, what are practical strategies schools can implement now to help students achieve academic success?
Many of our students have learned soooooo much during the pandemic that is not necessarily reflected in standardized-test scores, including about responsibility (when they had to get jobs to help support their families or take care of younger siblings or older relatives); technology (when sizable numbers got their own laptops and internet access for the first time); and racial injustice (witnessing George Floyd’s murder and other shootings and deaths, anti-Asian attacks, and more). Seeing these kinds of student gains has been one of the reasons I have been so critical of the “learning loss” deficit narrative.
Nevertheless, many of our students are facing academic challenges caused by the pandemic, though not necessarily primarily attributable to so-called “ineffective” distance learning (since extensive research has found that out-of-school factors are what has had the most impact on student academic achievement).
There are practical and immediate steps that can be taken to help students. However, I do not believe that the strategies now being bandied about are likely to work in most places now, including “high-dosage” tutoring, summer programs, reduced class sizes, and extended learning time.
Districts that want to do in-person tutoring are having a very hard time finding people to hire—like just about every other employer. And it doesn’t appear to be getting any easier. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea—research has found that, done well, it can certainly be effective. But a good idea is just wishful thinking if you can’t find the people to do it.
Summer school can work, but, generally, the students who might need it most don’t show up. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue to be the case, and, even if it weren’t, if you thought exhausted educators didn’t want to teach last summer, wait until “help wanted” postings go unfilled this time around.
Though some noneducators claim smaller class sizes don’t benefit students, there appears to be ample evidence that they do. However, though data on the Great Resignation’s impact on teaching is still not clear, I think it’s a safe bet that a lot of educators will be leaving the profession. And data is clear that fewer people are enrolling in teacher-credentialing programs. Skilled districts are developing “grow-your-own” and teacher-residency programs, but the pandemic has shown that many districts don’t fit that description. So, I’m not sure where the additional teachers to support class-size reduction would be coming from—at least, in the short term.
And substantial research has found that extending the school day or school year hasn’t generally worked before. The big problem is that when that kind of extension happens, it usually means that schools just do more of the same thing that didn’t work very well in the first place.
I’m all for continuing to push some of these strategies for the longer term, primarily tutoring and class-size reduction. But those are not going to help educators, students, or their families now.
So, if those ideas aren’t feasible—at least in the short term—what should we do?
For what it’s worth, I would make two recommendations:
One, do intensive professional development on accelerated learning. I’m talking about the kind of teaching that ELL/ESL educators and other experienced teachers have been doing for years and that I’ve written about previously at The kind of teaching kids need right now and that Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher have written about here at Five Strategies for Implementing Accelerated Learning. You can find other resources at The Best Resources About Accelerated Learning.
Two, schools can start classes and programs to develop and support peer tutors and peer mentors. At our school, for example, we have had one or two peer tutors in our English-language-learner classes to provide academic assistance. This year, however, we added as many as nine or 10 in each class.
The tutors, many of whom are either more advanced English-language learners or participants in our school’s International Baccalaureate program, receive credit as an elective class. They provide the kind of personalized instruction and support that isn’t possible for a teacher to give because of class numbers. Peer tutors perform numerous invaluable roles, including working with ELLs in small groups on practicing academic conversations; being the audience and a source of supportive and critical feedback with whom students can practice presentations prior to giving them to a larger group; and doing first reviews of student writing.
Many, though not all, tutors speak the home languages of our ELL students and are able to use that ability strategically to facilitate learning. Some students who might be reluctant to ask a teacher for help because of school culture in their home countries (or because of feelings of embarrassment), seem to be more comfortable talking with their peers. Just this past week in my class, we did an oral-language activity where students learned the word “sufficient”:
Do you get sufficient support in this class to be successful?
Yes, I do get sufficient support in this class to be successful. For example, _____________.
No, I do not get sufficient support in this class to be successful. I would like ____________________.
Almost everyone wrote and said they did get sufficient support and attributed that to the work of the peer tutors.
Though the pandemic has made comparison data difficult to identify, it seems pretty clear to us teachers that students have progressed more quickly than in past years as a result of that kind of support.
In addition, students from several of our classes have been able to act as mentors—providing social and emotional support—to younger students. Each Thursday, students are released from some 11th grade classes to take a 9th grader for a 10-minute walk. In addition to a general checking-in, 9th graders are asked to share the two best things that happened to them during the previous week and one “not-so-great” thing. Mentors also have a different “focus” question each time: “How would your teachers/parents/friends describe you and how do you feel about that?” “How are you feeling about the grades in your classes and is there anything you can do differently?” Mentors then complete a short written report for the 9th grade teacher.
Mentors report that they are energized by providing the support and can identify with many of the challenges their mentees share. Many mentees say they appreciate having someone close to their age who supports them and they can learn from. And teachers comment that they have gained important information about their students that they can act on—including by providing more flexibility to students who they learn are experiencing personal challenges, modifying lessons based on what students have told mentors, and following up by connecting students to local school counseling staff.
Peer tutoring/mentoring is not a one-way street. Studies from other areas, and our own analyses in previous years, have demonstrated that peer tutors/mentors tend to increase their own academic achievement, also.
I’m not saying either of these two recommendations is a panacea.
However, they are certainly more immediately realistic than most of the other ideas that are being discussed and can be implemented pretty quickly.
During my 19-year community-organizing career prior to becoming a teacher 20 years ago, we regularly spoke about the importance of living in the “world as it is” and not in the “world as we would like it to be.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also work to create the world that we want in the future. But it does mean we focus our immediate energy toward making people’s lives better now.
Our students and their families are currently living in the “world as it is.”
I think our districts should, too.
Note: A much shorter version of this post previously appeared on my resource-sharing blog.
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