What Should We Do Next Year?

Aug 07, 2020

The Center’s Executive Director Scott Marion was asked recently to offer a short response to the question,“How can parents and policymakers know whether schools are making up for lost learning and addressing individual needs?” as part of a series on what it will take to reopen schools amid the pandemic sponsored by The Center on Reinventing Public Education, in partnership with The 74. In this post, he expands on his original response to address the larger question about how our educational system should respond next year to the school disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and our country’s recent awakening to centuries of structural racism. He invites others to weigh in as well.

The COVID crisis and the belated recognition of our widespread, institutional racism have illuminated our massive structural inequities. I offer three ideas for how we might start addressing these injustices within our education systems to meet all students’ needs now and in the future. I am not blind to the seeming intractability of these challenges. In fact, my co-author on a recent post, Ajit Gopalakrishnan, remarked, “We are frantically trying to address centuries of inequalities in six months.” Nevertheless, we need to start somewhere. I try to make the case in what follows for getting serious about teacher quality, directly confronting our racist history, and focusing on ambitious teaching and assessment practices.

Double-down on Teaching Quality

First, schools cannot do this alone. State and district leaders should use discretionary resources, such as CARES Act funding, to address systemic inequities. For example, most policy and educational leaders acknowledge the uneven distribution of teaching quality. Some may dispute this assertion, but I invite skeptics to simply look at the number of applicants for open positions in wealthy compared to poor districts, which can be on the order of 50-to-1. While financial incentives have mixed results—I question whether we have been bold enough—what if districts used discretionary funds to offer substantial “signing bonuses,” and/or other incentives to attract high-quality teachers to hard-to-staff schools? Even a sizeable signing bonus might not be enough, but if it was coupled with retention bonuses for those who stay and perform well after three or five years, we might be able to make some headway. This should be coupled with improving the skills of the current teachers in these schools and districts.

Additionally, all schools will likely need more teachers next year than they would employ in a normal year to staff smaller classes and accelerate students’ opportunities to learn grade-level content and skills. Wealthy districts and schools will find ways to increase teaching staff—either teachers or paraeducators—while poor districts will suffer under budget shortfalls. Even if they could find additional educators, they could not afford to hire them. States, using federal funding, can direct resources to help less affluent school districts hire educators to improve students’ chances of learning grade-level content.

It’s Time to Tell the Truth

Did you know that essentially all African American World War II veterans were denied access to the GI Bill? This was a significant wealth-building opportunity for returning soldiers, but African American GIs who risked life and limb were shut out of this chance for higher education, home mortgages, and other opportunities to join the middle class. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre until recently, and I only knew about Rosewood because of the 1997 John Singleton film. These are just a few examples of the intentional “white-washing” of our curriculum. Yes, things like the Trail of Tears, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the March on Washington are sprinkled into the curriculum, but where are the examples of brutal racism on which this country’s economic system is based? It’s time to tell the truth.

To be fair, educators are expected to teach the state standards and their local district’s curriculum. Therefore, we need standards, curriculum, and texts that are inclusive and honest about our history. However, it takes a long time to alter state content standards, and we don’t have time to wait. Furthermore, current events offer perfect fodder for engaging students in meaningful and relevant learning. Educators do not have to wait for new standards and curriculum, nor do they need expensive professional development to begin this transformation. They need to read historic and contemporary African American authors (e.g., James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi) and find ways to make their curriculum more inclusive and honest. The New York Times 1619 Project and other resources are an accessible and powerful place to start.

Ambitious Teaching and Assessment

Moving into my area of expertise, transitioning to a more inclusive and honest curriculum requires ambitious teaching and assessment practices to support students in developing deep understandings of this rich and emotional subject matter. This transformation should not be limited to U.S. History but should include other content areas as well. For example, students need critical literacy skills now more than ever to make sense of the blizzard of information coming at them every day. Students cannot be expected to wrestle with complex and politically-charged ideas if such concepts are presented as facts to be memorized and spit back on multiple-choice tests. And we are well aware that our field of measurement has contributed to limiting and denying educational opportunities for many students of color, as my colleague, Susan Lyons, recently wrote. But now we need to engage students in culturally-sustainable and personalized learning and assessment activities to provide the learning opportunities they need. Doing so is not easy. At the 2019 NCME Classroom Assessment Conference, Lorrie Shepard and Deborah Ball led a fascinating presentation and discussion on assessment to support ambitious teaching that established a powerful vision of high-quality instruction and integrated formative assessment.

Let’s Not Waste a Crisis

I know my suggestions are aspirational, especially when it comes to the large-scale shift to ambitious teaching and assessment. We’ve been struggling to improve assessment literacy at scale for well over 50 years and I am under no illusion this will happen overnight. Recently, Mary Ann Snider and I pointed out that the shift to remote learning may provide the potential for deeper learning and assessment opportunities. While still incredibly challenging, directing resources to attract more high quality teachers to high poverty schools and encouraging educators and leaders to implement anti-racist curriculum and instruction seems relatively tangible. If we make headway on these two goals, it may support more widespread opportunities for ambitious teaching and assessment practices.