When schools closed, my son, a 4th grader, knew exactly where his class had stopped in math the day before: Module 4, Topic C, Lesson 9. So on our first day of his unexpected homeschooling, it was clear where to go next: Lesson 10. And the next day: Lesson 11. And so on, till we get to Module 5.
His school uses one of the most popular math curricula in America, Eureka Math, which has lesson plans and worksheets available online. I’m an educator, so I know how to find them, and how to explain the math to my son; I have internet access and a printer, so I can print out the papers for him. We have money to pay a tutor for Zoom sessions. His march forward through 4th grade math isn’t going to be interrupted by coronavirus.
That won’t be true for many of his classmates at his economically diverse public school. Some of them don’t have printers at home or internet access that’s not on a phone. They don’t have parents who once taught math. While schools are closed, they may be assigned some form of distance learning, but many kids won’t be able to do it. When school resumes, if their teacher picks up with Module 6, Lesson 17, and just keeps moving forward, they will have missed key concepts. On the other hand, if they start back with Module 4, Topic C, Lesson 10, it will waste my son’s and other kids’ time.
Even those with the right technology will fall behind in some ways; for instance, students of all backgrounds have learning disabilities, and their parents aren’t trained in specialized instruction. In fact, every kid will learn differently than they would at school. They will spend more time at home on some subjects and less on others. They will master some material and complete some assignments, but not others. This era of home-schooling will create vast and highly variable disparities in learning.
Covid-19 is creating a cascade of problems right now in American education, and teachers, many of whom are homeschooling their own kids, are doing their best to share resources and stay in touch with their students. But when schools re-open, the problems won’t disappear. The disparities in what students will have learned — and not learned — will mean a new challenge for every school in the country: how to get these students back on the same page.
But that’s the wrong challenge to face.
Why were those students on the same page in the first place? Were they ever, actually, on the same page? The differences in their learning existed before coronavirus, after all. Some learned Module 3 well, and some didn’t. Some could move faster. Some needed more practice. But they marched forward, as a class, because that’s the way American education works. It’s not the particular math curriculum, but the whole idea.
Education scholars know it as “the factory model”: children are the raw material; they proceed through the assembly line of schooling like so many widgets to be shaped, stamped, certified, and sent out into the world. Except, of course, that children are individuals, not widgets, and the factory model doesn’t work. Some kids leave school having mastered the curriculum, and some kids leave having mastered very little; many drop out; and huge numbers feel bored, stressed, or both. The factory has never worked well; after coronavirus, it will be nearly impossible.
Schools need to prepare, now, for a different long-term future. They should be planning how to assess students when school re-opens, and how to differentiate instruction based both on their homeschooling experiences and their current needs. What can that look like? Here are a few steps:
Students should receive individualized schedules based on need, in which they rotate among small-group instruction and carefully assigned use of online programs. Schools should pour more resources into those furthest behind, while recognizing that every student’s learning profile is — and post-coronavirus, will be more — jagged, full of unexpected strengths and limitations. Even those who are “advanced” need guidance and support. Ongoing, even constant assessment (not annual tests) can show where students are across a range of skills, rather than defining them on a single overall level.
Teachers need a suite of tools and strategies, both online and in-person, to reach all students. They need training in how to use assessment data, and they need flexibility in their daily schedules to best target their work. Schools and districts should carve out time right now for teams of teachers, with less responsibility for current distance learning, to figure out these long-term plans.
Community across diverse students will need to be re-built. Differentiation doesn’t mean isolation, and classrooms are crucial practice for democracy — but not at the cost of the subject-area learning those diverse students actually need.
This is a lot to ask of teachers. But the alternative is to ignore both the inevitable disparities the crisis will create, and the opportunity to rethink that the crisis gives us. Teachers now have an alternative to the factory model: we are all getting accustomed to online tools that make personalization more plausible. Technology can close the gap between one teacher’s capabilities and twenty-five kids’ needs.
Once school resumes, whether in May or September, it makes no sense to start either where students would have been as of that date, or where they left off in March. We need to restart, post-quarantine, with a model of education that treats students as individuals with important differences, not as undifferentiated, moldable widgets. And then we need to move forward, not like a factory line, but like a community whose children are each unique, and whose education means more than the lesson they’re all supposedly on.
Simon Rodberg is a former teacher and principal in Washington, DC. His book What If I’m Wrong? and Other Key Questions for Decisive School Leadership will be published later this year.