When it comes to making up for education losses caused by COVID-19, leaders need to be smart about solutions and ensure that recovery dollars are spent where and how they will do the most good. Figuring out how to get every K-12 student back on track means looking behind the numbers and meeting students where they are today.
As program director of education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a nonpartisan charitable foundation, Kent McGuire understands the importance of targeted support in achieving student success. As the former president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, dean of the College of Education at Temple University, and assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, McGuire has spent his career fighting for public education, and he sees this unprecedented moment as the time to step up with long lasting positive change.
As he recently told me on the Route K-12 podcast, which focuses on restoring education across the country, if there’s one bright spot for the pandemic, it’s that educators and administrators are more motivated than ever before to do things differently and better.
McGuire believes we should listen carefully to student concerns as part of the process of rebuilding their education. He points to the results of the student survey conducted by Youth Truth, a national non-profit organization, which shows that students have experienced a lot of stress and anxiety in recent years. McGuire says helping students feel safer and less anxious is an important part of moving forward after the disruption of the pandemic.
So does helping students recover academically. To do that, teachers need information about what students learn throughout the year, not just at the end. “These assessments throughout the year, as they are often described, give us a better real-time view of who is learning what and where we may have some specific challenges that we need to get our heads together to solve,” he says. For the bigger, comparative picture, McGuire believes the state’s year-end assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) remain an essential metric, especially for tracking progress over time.
Of course, it will be challenging to address missed learning opportunities when the students are not in school, and McGuire is particularly concerned about student retention. Many districts report that they are working hard to get all their students back. And this, in turn, can ultimately affect success rates.
While new data reviewed by the Brookings Institution shows that high school graduation rates went up a notch during the covid pandemic, the reason is not to crow about. “The slight increase and overall stability in the pass rate is likely because states have lowered their standards. Essentially every state lowered standards in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic,” Brookings found.
Despite the statistical “improvement” in the aftermath of the pandemic, many states are really struggling to keep kids in school. Indeed, Education Week reported last summer that its review of the most recent data found that “at least 31 states saw declining graduation rates for the class of 2021 overall, more than twice as many as in the previous year.” McGuire sees that students now have conflicting interests: “Especially for high school students… $18 an hour at Amazon suddenly looks pretty good if the alternative isn’t very interesting,” he says.
While he would like to see better data on what can motivate and engage students, McGuire believes part of this complex equation is the recognition that not all learning happens in school and that it’s time to find ways to give students credit for extrascholar activities. activities. Another component is recognizing the value of encouraging cultural competence in educators to ensure that the return experience is a positive one. “I’d like to see education be less politicized… if there was ever a time when we needed to be open to a little more imagination and audacity, we’re here now.”
One solution to keep kids engaged is the partnership between the Hewlett Foundation and Baltimore City Public Schools. With Hewlett’s support, schools can foster student engagement in the design and delivery of virtual and blended learning opportunities. As McGuire explained to me, this initiative has enabled the system’s most skilled teachers to reach even more students by preserving and enhancing some of the hybrid learning designs adopted during the pandemic.
Despite the challenges ahead, McGuire remains optimistic. “Actually, what I’ve been most encouraged by is that there’s a genuine spirit, a genuine sense in the ecosystem of wanting to do things in new and different ways than before COVID,” he says.