FOR A MOMENT, imagine you commute to work each day by train. A co-worker also commutes by train, but on a different line. Every day your co-worker arrives late, missing important meetings. You both live equidistant from the office and take the same mode of transport, yet you are always on time, while your co-worker is not. Now imagine you discover that your co-worker is late because of a train track in need of repair that requires the conductor to go slower at certain times. The system has failed your co-worker. And while this may upset you to learn of it, it doesn’t impact you directly. That is until the route you take develops the same problem. Now the system has failed you both.
This story illustrates what the COVID-19 pandemic exposed about our education systems. For too many—primarily poor, Black and brown students, students living with special needs, and English language learners – the system had broken down long ago. Now, that failure has impacted families who never before experienced the limitations of our schools and the systems that run them. The pandemic has shone a wide and bright light on what’s ailing public education and has expanded who is confronted with its failures. As mask mandates lift and vaccinations become the norm, we must take steps to fix what is broken and get us all back on track.
Unlike technology or medicine, say, change in education happens incrementally. Sure, there are many significant and effective programs and initiatives, but the reimagining of education is simply snail-pace. Look at a photo of a classroom from the turn of the last century, and you’ll quickly realize that many of today’s classrooms don’t look all that different from those in 1900. And while chalkboards have been replaced with marker boards and marker boards have been replaced with smartboards, we still have students at a desk, facing front and answering teacher questions. Think, too, about our segregated classrooms: walk through any major American city and, sadly, it won’t look all that different today than it did pre-Brown v. Board of Education.
The Ivy Street School, where I serve as executive director, recently partnered with Boston University and convened leading education experts to discuss the impact of learning loss over the last two academic school years. One theme emerged and it was resounding: no one wants to return to whatever normal was. Let’s not fix the train tracks when we can build new ones. We know that we can get all of us to our destination faster, smarter, safer. This is our time to actually reimagine what education can look like, feel like, and achieve.
First, to change, we must redefine what we want to achieve: What is the purpose of school? Let’s ask students what they require, as the Barr Foundation recently did with a survey of 1,000 high school students across Massachusetts. Answering these questions will help us create better ways of meeting student needs. Generally, students whose opportunities have long been impacted by broken systems were further disadvantaged throughout the last two school years at no fault of their own.
Schools that attempt to “make up” for lost time with remediation will limit the genuine passion that drives lifelong learning while equally doubling down on the minority isolation and segregation that so many kids experience in school. Covering old ground will only push students to disengage and tune out. It is that simple. As Lindsay Jones, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said: “Students were learning this past year, just not in a way that we are used to.”
With more than $100 billion dedicated to education in the American Rescue Act, $30 billion of which is focused on learning loss, we must be careful to use those funds wisely and equitably. A focus on acceleration, meeting kids where they are, and building from there, will pay big dividends in the years to come. A focus on remediation will only operationalize a deficit model that leads to deficit outcomes.
How we support students through this new process will also be important. In most people’s jobs, they are not provided a grade, but rather feedback to learn from and adapt to. Our systems of education would be wise to consider how we can leverage this proven method of helping a person grow and excel. The next several years will be a steep hill to climb for so many of us who feel like we are “making up for lost time,” and we will only progress by providing thoughtful support and guidance, rather than punitive systems that have overwhelmingly disadvantaged people of color and students with disabilities for decades.
To ensure that big and meaningful change happens, we must broaden our coalition and invite the families who now have a small taste of how systems are broken to take on this mission. With their agency and involvement, we can move faster and quicker together to make needed change for all students. To reimagine education and outcomes. To finally close the opportunity gap. To move away from the idea of “loss” and into a learning framework that looks at different experiences and the learning embedded within them as opportunities for even greater growth.
So, yes, we can reverse course on learning loss by building new systems that deliver educational equity for all students — a system where we are all invested in the shared outcomes– so we can all arrive at the station on time.
Brandon Cardet-Hernandez is executive director of the Ivy Street School in Brookline, which provides residential and educational treatment to adolescents with neurological difficulties, including autism spectrum disorder, students with behavioral health challenges, and students with brain injuries and other neurological challenges.