This is either an epic disaster or an epic opportunity.
April, 2020. Most public and private elementary and secondary schools across America are announcing their closure for the rest of the academic year. Parents are wringing their hands over the loss of recoverable instruction and worrying because their kids lost what amounts to almost an entire semester of learning. Some schools were ramping up for standardized testing, usually held in the spring, and now their universal measures of progress are gone.
So now, America, we have a broad slate wiped clean. This is either an epic disaster or an epic opportunity. For decades, we’ve lamented the state of education, crying that it needs a massive overhaul. Magazine covers decried, “Johnny Can’t Read” parents fretted over “The New Math” and charter schools have flourished in the public-private school debate.
American Education: now is our time.
Betsy DeVos is sheltering in place on one of her two or three dozen yachts, so all it will take is for one very innovative and brave public school district with a daring — and this is important — not corrupt (hard to find, but not impossible) team to pull this off.
Pull the rug out from under our current educational model.
We currently think of our schools as a linear model — first grade, second grade, third grade. But we ask our teachers to provide “individualized instruction,” and we ask for tutoring, gifted programs, and more. We insist on “no child left behind,” but we also insist that teachers not instruct to the “lowest common denominator.”
When I was in second grade, I was easily reading at a fifth grade level. But my math skills were abysmal. We were learning to tell time. When the teacher said, “The big hand is on 1, and the little hand is on 4,” she meant it was 4:05. You see, to her, the “big hand” was short and fat. To me, the “big hand” was tall and lean. To me, a tiny, fragile little girl, anything “big” was very tall, towering over me. I could not understand her concept of “big.” So learning to tell time was a frustrating enterprise. I also did not understand the idea of “quarter.” So a quarter past 4 was twenty-five minutes after 4 o’clock.
My point here is that I could easily have leveled up to a 5th grade reading class and I would have thrived, I would have learned literature and grammar concepts that would keep me joyous and buoyant, that would perhaps have helped me to understand the math concepts of “big” and “little” as they related to clocks, even. But instead, I began to shrink in that classroom and others. I began to see my ability to pronounce words and read aloud flawlessly as a curse, not a blessing. It was painful.
I even came up with a phrase in my own head. “The good people.” I decided I was not one. I was not one of “the good people.” Why? Because I was not clever at math. That is the singular reason.
I diverge into this story because I am absolutely certain that if our schools remake themselves now, right now, as a result of COVID-19, into new houses of learning, where we acknowledge that we have lost a vital learning year, and embrace an idea that we can meet learners where they are, we will emerge with a whole new population of “good people.”
As educators, can we not use this time, from April, 2020 to September 2020 to build a better education?
Let’s greet our students at our building entrances in the fall with this:
Susan is a Level 1 Math (First grade) teacher. For her contractual 6-periods a day, she teaches Level 1 Math
Jack is a Level 2 Math teacher, Barb is Level 3 Math teacher, Mark is a Level 4 Math teacher, Samantha is a Level 5 Math teacher, and so on.
Diane is a Level 1 Reading/Language teacher, Marcy is a Level 2 Reading/Language teacher…
There’s a LOT of self-pacing
You follow me, right? We do this all the way through our education system. So our students, rather than Having Susan as their First grade teacher trying to figure out Math, Reading, History, and all the other things that Susan has to juggle — well, Susan has a classroom full of Level 1 Math students for 6 periods a day. She can practice her Individualized Instruction, her Differentiated practice. Because some of her students need a lot of attention (Think — some sweet kid doesn’t understand big and little hands, but some kid whizzes through it like a PRO). Some kid might be 6, and another kid might be 8. Some kid might learn level 1 in a semester, and another kid might learn it in 3 semesters. There’s a LOT of self-pacing, and yes, Susan’s job will look different than it did before.
We are not teaching the way we did a year ago, or ten years ago. We are learning to practice No Child Left Behind, and we are not teaching to the lowest common denominator. We are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to teach our students that everyone learns differently, and we can use our Summers to try to play catch-up a bit. We are not measuring by Grades like First Grade, Second Grade. You might speed through Math, or you might speed through History, but you will NOT speed through them all because you are not Doogie Howser. Unless you are, and then well, congratulations because you are weird and wonderful. But chances are you will be in Level 5 English while you are in Level 2 Math. Welcome to the human brain.
Will this be terrifying and difficult?
Yes. You know what else was terrifying and difficult? Coronavirus.
Will we survive both? Yes.
Will some people still have Coronavirus in Fall 2020? Yes. This trauma is the worst thing we have collectively experienced. Ever. We will still be recovering. As a nation, we can choose to recover well, or we can screw it up for another whole generation, and keep screwing it up.
Is the educational model I just dashed out in two pages perfect? No. It is not. But is it a whole lot better than what we are leaning into now? Absolutely.
How do I know?
Our colleges and universities successfully produce graduates under this model and have been producing them under this model for centuries. Many British, Scandinavian, and even some US Private schools have been using this model for years.
We definitely must reframe. Or fail. We need to stop telling our kids that there is only one track, one path to a diploma. We’ve already discovered that many opt out on the way there, and now we find ourselves with a crisis and we are totally unprepared for any other path.
Whether some truly daring small community (is my hometown of Port Allegany ready to be this brave?) or an amazing city (Baltimore? Pittsburgh?) will take this on, whoever does will prove themselves to be at the cutting edge of education, and they’ll be the ones who prove that 2020 isn’t about lost proms and commencement ceremonies. It’s about reclaiming what was lost and forging a new path to real, productive futures for the graduates of 2032.