New report examines ways to rethink education as schools reopen

As local educational agencies across the country face decisions about when and how to reopen schools for in-person learning, the Learning Policy Institute has released a new report that looks at methods to rethink schools in ways that align with evidence-based policies and practices. Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond contains a framework that focuses on “how policymakers as well as educators can support equitable, effective teaching and learning regardless of the medium through which that takes place, and provides state- and local-level examples and policy recommendations in 10 key areas.” In this blog post, we briefly summarize the first five areas.

Closing the digital divide

About 30 percent of the 50 million K–12 students in the United States lacked either high-speed internet or devices with the capacity they need for easy access to digital learning at home, according to a new report from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group. Of these, nearly two-thirds lacked both broadband access and a usable device. Furthermore, at least 300,000 teachers lacked high-speed internet adequate to teach online from home. Other studies show that these disparities disproportionately impact students of color, students from low-income families and students in rural communities.

 Given the huge hit to state and local economies due to the pandemic, federal recovery funds are essential. The report finds that less than 1 percent of what the federal government has already spent on recovery is needed to close the digital divide for students. Some states have expanded access to broadband service with progressive regulation and creative use of funding. The report cites a number of states that have made substantial gains in broadband access, including Minnesota, which placed most of its broadband program in statute and included clear goals for broadband expansion, a state Office of Broadband Development, and a fund to support broadband infrastructure, and launched the Minnesota K-12 Connect Forward Initiative in 2016.

Strengthen distance and hybrid/blended learning

Continuity of learning is especially important to keep students learning and on track with grade-level skills. While times may be unprecedented, LEAs are working in real time to address challenges and there are existing, successful models to look to. In California’s Lindsay Unified School District, not only did the district design and implement a free community WiFi program in 2015 and uses technology and blended learning to deliver learning approaches that are learner-centered, inquiry-based, personalized to learner interests, offered at a differentiated pace with multiple means to demonstrate knowledge, balanced between online and in-person settings, and engaged in formative feedback to inform instruction daily. The report also notes that Over the past five years, Lindsay USD students’ proficiency rates have increased from 26 percent to 47 percent on the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium assessment in English language arts, moving the district from the 33rd percentile to the 87th percentile among similar school districts in California.

Productive policies for using technology involve using interactive technologies with teachers and peers to enable learners to explore and create. States can encourage more effective uses of technology by creating standards and guidance and offering strong models for others to learn from. Equity must be at the center when creating standards. Strategies such as creating learning hubs that transform community spaces for student support are needed to ensure that students with the highest needs can engage productively in distance and blended learning.

Assess what students need

LEAs need to make sure there is enough time to evaluate where children are academically, both in person and virtually. Schools should prioritize assessments that show student growth and learning, provide access to diagnostic assessment tools and support assessments connected to curriculum and instructional resources.

Research shows that addressing learning loss by holding students back or putting them in remedial instruction actually undermines achievement. The report says that “while it is important to assess what students learned at home over the past several months, it is equally if not more important to shift away from deficit-oriented strategies and decontextualized modes of assessment toward authentic, formative assessments that are part of a coherent strategy to improve student learning.”

Ensure supports for social and emotional learning

SEL should be integrated throughout students’ days to mitigate the isolation and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. LEAs should implement a comprehensive system of support, infuse SEL into instruction in all classes, institute restorative practices and enact policies that support these practices. “Restorative justice practices support the overarching goal of strengthening school climate by developing a restorative mindset in adults that allows them to establish and sustain relationships and build a sense of community that is a precursor to community members’ understanding that violating community norms harms their community. Central to a restorative justice approach is the belief that all people have worth and that it is important to build, maintain, and repair relationships within a community,” according to the report.

Redesign schools for stronger relationships

Research shows that schools that emphasize SEL with particular attention to student–teacher relationships are better able to address trauma and strengthen academic achievement. “Schools that have been designed to support caring and continuity in teachers’ relationships with students — for example, by allowing teachers to loop with students for more than 1 year or to serve as advisors to a small group in secondary school — are more able to address trauma and strengthen achievement than is possible in traditional” schools, according to the report.

One example is Vista High School in San Diego County, where the freshman class was broken into six houses of 100 to 130 students who shared a set of four teachers to cover core subjects and one special education teacher. Each house was located in a dedicated area of the Vista High School campus so teachers and students could have space to build stronger positive relationships (including relationships between students, between students and teachers, and between teachers within the house structure).

An important thing to remember when creating these types of relationship-building structures is to design learning experiences that promote inclusion and reduce segregation. “As part of reopening and learning continuity plans, schools can promote equity and inclusion in learning experiences by creating cohorts that are socioeconomically, racially, and ethnically diverse,” according to the report.

Stay tuned for part 2 next week!