When it comes to recovering the education losses caused by COVID-19, leaders need to be smart about solutions and ensure the recovery dollars are spent where and how they will do the most good. Figuring out how we can get every K-12 student back on track means looking behind the numbers and meeting students where they are today.
As the program director of education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a non-partisan charitable foundation, Kent McGuire understands the importance of targeted support in delivering student success. As former president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, dean of the College of Education at Temple University, and an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, McGuire has spent his career as a warrior for public education, and he sees this unprecedented moment as the time to step up with long-lasting positive change.
As he told me recently on the Route K-12 podcast, which focuses on education recovery across the country, if there is just one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that educators and administrators are motivated like never before to do things differently and better.
McGuire believes that we need to listen intently to the concerns of students as part of the process of rebuilding their educations. He points to the student survey results of Youth Truth, a national nonprofit, which show that students have faced significant stress and anxiety in recent years. McGuire says that helping students feel safer and less anxious is an important part of moving on from the pandemic’s disruption.
So is helping students rebound academically. To do that, educators will need information about what students are learning during the year, not just at the end. “These through-year assessments, as they are often described, give us a better real time sense of who’s learning what and where we might have some particular challenges that we need to put our heads together to solve,” he says. For the bigger, comparative picture, McGuire believes that state end-of-year assessments, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), continue to be an essential measure, especially for tracking progress over time.
Of course, addressing missed learning opportunities will be a challenge if the students are not in school, and McGuire is especially concerned about student retention. Many districts report that they are working hard to get all their students back. And this in turn, may eventually impact graduation rates.
While emerging data assessed by the Brookings Institution show that high school graduation rates inched upward during the covid pandemic, the reason is nothing to crow about. “The slight increase and general stability of the graduation rate is likely because states reduced their standards. Essentially every state reduced standards in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic,” Brookings found.
Despite the statistical “improvement” in the wake of the pandemic, many states actually are struggling mightily to keep children in school. Indeed, Education Week reported this past summer that its review of the most recent data showed that “at least 31 states saw declining graduation rates for the class of 2021 overall, more than twice as many as in the previous year.” McGuire sees that students now have competing interests: “Particularly for secondary school kids…$18 an hour at Amazon suddenly, you know, looks pretty good if the alternative isn’t very interesting,” he says.
While he would like to see better data on what can motivate and engage students, McGuire believes part of this complex equation is recognizing that not all learning happens in school and that it is time to address ways to give students credit for out-of-school activities. Another part is acknowledging the value in encouraging cultural competency in educators to ensure that the return experience is positive. “I would love for education to be less politicized…if there was ever a moment where we need to be open to a little more imagination and boldness, we’re in it.”
One answer to keeping kids engaged has been the Hewlett Foundation partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools. Hewlett’s support is enabling schools to foster student engagement in designing and delivering virtual and blended learning opportunities. As McGuire explained to me, this initiative has allowed the system’s most skillful teachers to reach even more students by keeping and improving some of the hybrid learning designs adopted during the pandemic.
Despite the challenges ahead, McGuire remains optimistic. “The thing that I am actually most encouraged by is that there is a genuine spirit, a genuine sentiment in the ecosystem for wanting to do things in new and different ways than prior to COVID,” he says.