The pandemic created a difficult conflict: Parents wanted teachers in school; teachers were fearful for their safety. In some communities, this was worked out through extensive dialogue and flexible solutions that enabled some teachers to come to work while the most at risk stayed home. In other communities, teachers were demonized, unions dug in, and the situation spiraled downward. Coming up with ways to build trust and find solutions that are good for both students and adults is one of the meta-lessons of the pandemic.
Fourth, there is the question of how to catch students up on what they missed during the pandemic. This is a serious problem — 56 percent of teachers in one survey reported covering half as much material as they would in a normal year, or less. But, at the same time, we don’t want a repeat of No Child Left Behind, where disadvantaged students got endless drills in reading and math while more advantaged students were given a richer curriculum.
The right choice here is to get very specific on what needs to be made up and what does not; teams of teachers and administrators could work together to decide what is essential to keep and what can be pared. We should take a page from the Japanese tidying expert and Marie Kondo the curriculum, discarding the many topics that have accumulated like old souvenirs, while retaining essential knowledge and topics that spark joy. Such an approach would responsibly prepare students for the future, without exacerbating many of the conditions that turn students off from school.
The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago. We have been on a treadmill of short-term fixes, pretending that if we just get the right test, the right incentives, put the right pressure on teachers and students, they will achieve what is good for them, like it or not. But we are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized.
The same is true for teachers — they need to feel physically safe, they need support, they need their work to be recognized and honored, and they need working conditions that make it possible for them to succeed. All of this is doubly true in high-poverty communities, where in the name of urgency, we have moved the furthest from taking a human approach to both students and teachers.
Districts could embrace this shift by moving away from top-down edicts and instead inviting teachers, students and community members to codesign the structures that affect them. We need to talk about what we are trying to accomplish — not just about what knowledge we want our young people to possess, but what sorts of skills, capacities and qualities we want them to develop. And then, and only then, about what sorts of teaching, learning and policy structures would support the cultivation of those qualities.
States could help by following leading international jurisdictions like British Columbia in honing standards to focus on the truly essential, enabling opportunities for local adaptations and greater depth on fewer topics. Given the radical inequalities in learning opportunities this year, states should declare a moratorium on testing this spring. The federal government finally approved $54 billion for schools in stimulus funding, but districts serving high-poverty students, especially, need more. We should increase support for much needed counseling services and encourage states to equalize funding across their districts.