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OPINION

Pandemic learning loss can be a post-pandemic opportunity for education reforms

The field of education should seize on the sense of urgency that we need to do more and better for our students in this moment of crisis.

Students sit separated by plastic dividers during lunch at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan. on the first day of in-person learning on March 31.
Students sit separated by plastic dividers during lunch at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan. on the first day of in-person learning on March 31.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

As more and more students return to in-person schooling, educators and parents are focused on the paramount challenge of learning loss — the skills and knowledge students were unable to learn over this past, highly interrupted school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The challenge is to eliminate that deficit as quickly as possible. Top priority strategies include tutoring, summer school, acceleration academies, after-school instruction, extended school hours, and various online programs.

The problem is that much more than learning has been lost in the past year.

Students are estranged from school, having lost trust, hope, motivation, control over their lives, and connections to one another and their teachers. All the learning-loss strategies have value and can make a difference for students, but not if we put the cart — the technical solution to a real educational problem — before the horse. The most urgent business is reconnecting children with their teachers and peers, rebuilding fractured relationships, restoring trust, reigniting inspiration, and rekindling hope and motivation. Meeting these challenges will require a major strategic pivot for the education system and the prioritization of strategies like home visits that include personalized teacher-family and teacher-student meetings, intensified social and emotional supports, as well as after-school and summer enrichment programs focused on fun, relationships, and activity.

Before rushing into purely academic strategies that overemphasize the transfer of knowledge at the risk of cramming students and overwhelming them with high-speed drill-and-kill instruction, educators should take a more thoughtful, strategic approach by developing a success plan for each child — a plan that identifies the supports and opportunities both inside and outside of school, i.e., what each child needs to be successful — and a personal navigator who will help students and their families locate and get access to the services and learning opportunities they need to move ahead.

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Schools need a case management system of operation to replace their one-size-fits-all factory model, which treats students as if they all have identical needs and challenges. Instead, the new education system should be redesigned to meet each child where he or she is and give them what they need inside and outside of school. Such a paradigm shift, to a holistic, customized approach to students and their families would be one of the transformative changes that so many leaders have challenged the field to seize in the midst of this pandemic crisis.

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More than ever before, each child needs to be seen, understood, and responded to individually by our education system. We do it in health care. Why not in education? The experiences children have had during this pandemic are widely variable, ranging from those who have had two professional parents at home assisting them with every support possible to those whose parents have been afflicted by COVID, unemployment, and housing instability, resulting in their children falling off the education grid altogether. A “teach to the average” approach isn’t going to work for this range of students anymore. It wasn’t working very well in the first place. Instead, we must meet students where they are, as individuals, and give them what they need. Every child needs to hear and feel “I see you!”

This moment is especially propitious because the federal government is now stepping up by declaring war on childhood poverty. The new American Rescue Plan Act is already making transformational changes by providing families with some of the foundations for success. This means that children will be the beneficiaries, and those working to improve children’s well-being will be able to find services and resources to meet at least some of our disadvantaged students’ out-of-school needs.

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Educators have many formidable challenges ahead as students return to school. Teachers are exhausted from the rigors of juggling and adapting in the past year. We cannot load society’s entire burden of caring for children onto our educators. Entire communities can and have been getting involved. As we enter this next chapter, some leaders would like to reduce the challenge ahead to a simple remedy for learning loss. Learning loss mitigation is essential, but the real work of this next chapter is a promising opportunity for educators, who went into this profession to help children, to lead a transformational education redesign initiative.

The field of education should seize on the widespread perception and sense of urgency that we need to do more and better for students. Start with reconnecting, relationships, activity, and inspiration. Build toward individualization and success plans. One size doesn’t fit all. Let educators drive a major, personalizing, humanizing reform in education, one that truly and immediately focuses on advancing the well-being of our children.

Paul Reville is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he leads the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of education.

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