Michael S. Martin, EdD
In this moment, as we come through the pandemic, there has been a great deal of discussion in the press about how students are falling behind. While Vermont students in most cases have lost instructional time, the popular idea that students are “falling behind” is problematic. I would like to take this opportunity to openly challenge this deficit-based narrative which is simplistic, unhelpful, and potentially harmful, to our students and schools.
A Discourse of Failure
We have been here before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was predicated on the need to close the achievement gap, as defined by standardized test results in Math and English Language Arts. The unlikely allies that helped pass this reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act used the language of failure to pursue diametrically opposed goals: some hoped for a greatly expanded federal role in education; others hoped that strict accountability measures would close many public schools and expand school choice. In the end, NCLB and its policy language of “failing schools”, “unsafe school choice option”, “subgroups”, and “supersubgroups” did not significantly improve results for students.
However, this discourse of failure did lead to a widespread misconception that students of color were somehow irredeemable, while steadfastly ignoring the opportunity gap posed by the glaring inequality of school funding across districts—and even within districts, oftentimes those with charter schools and magnet programs that select for certain types of students. Twenty years later, we know that the major increases in federal grants to pay for tutoring, extended school day, and extended school year strategies did not significantly change outcomes for “at-risk” students. It is clear now that this discourse of failure has helped students little, even as it has led to the systematic and widespread pathologization of students. An enduring legacy of NCLB is that many of our students are over-assessed, over-labeled, and too often separated from their peers for a range of interventions of varying efficacy. It is important to note that these practices disproportionately impact our students of color and serve to perpetuate systemic racism in our schools.
What follows is a list of core beliefs that I would like to offer here in opposition to the current discourse of failure around our students “falling behind”. I have also highlighted several opportunities that present themselves in this moment. It is my sincere hope that policymakers will take the present moment as an opportunity to rethink and redesign learning opportunities for all students, instead of advancing old strategies that have proven ineffective in the past.
As it relates to the current discourse about recovery for students “falling behind”, returning to core beliefs can help us critically examine underlying assumptions about educational “recovery”:
- Statewide testing gives us a narrow view of student success. Statewide testing is limited to a few disciplines in certain grades, and even then does not give a full picture of a student’s ability. For example, a statewide ELA assessment does not assess all of the skills that we associate with proficiency in literacy. More importantly, our statewide tests, screeners, and diagnostic tools are admittedly imperfect in the way that they are administered to students. Therefore, we need to carefully qualify the claims that we make from these results, instead of over-extrapolating. In short, to serve our students well, we must not reduce them to lexiles and quintiles. Our students are always more than the deficits that we have assigned to them.
- The idea of “behind” is a social construct. Our students are not physically behind anything or anyone. This is a mental model, like the “achievement gap”, which is predicated on a linear-sequential conception of learning that is better at picking winners and losers than serving all students. This paradigm of students being “ahead” or “behind” effectively places them in a race through the curriculum. This curriculum race is racialized, and it extends achievement ideology down to our lowest grades and youngest learners. It is important to note that this supposedly neutral competition by which we identify merit in school takes place in educational systems almost exclusively created and operated by white educators. Before we label and sort students on the basis of being “behind”, we need to critically examine the implicit bias of our curriculum and school practices.
- The “falling behind” narrative ignores what students have learned during the pandemic. For many students, hybrid learning has led to improved executive function, collaboration, and technology skills—out of necessity. Other students have benefited from having more time to learn from their parents, siblings, or grandparents during this period of disrupted school schedules and working from home. Despite the demands of online learning, some students have actually had more time than usual to learn outdoors, and others have taken on new responsibilities, whether at home or at new jobs. The idea that our students have not continued to learn important skills during this crisis—including through adversity—is not only inaccurate, it is harmful. We do a disservice to our students when we describe them as a generation that was somehow lost to the pandemic.
- Deficit-based thinking leads us to dwell on deficits and ignore potential. Researchers know confirmation bias as the phenomenon whereby we tend to find what we expect to find. If we apply a “recovery” mindset to the current situation, we are much more likely to find student deficits because that’s what we expect to find. This deficit-based approach will require educators to catalogue student needs, and then apply the same intervention and remediation strategies that have had so little impact in the past. Instead, we need to identify new opportunities to redesign school curriculum, schedules, and practices, rather than search for our students’ deficits, just to apply remedies that failed to work in the past. In short, we need to address the shortcomings of our school systems through redesign, instead of locating the blame with individual students, families, and “subgroups”.
Winston Churchill’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” may be a more useful idea for equity-oriented policymakers and educators in this moment. Amongst others, the following new opportunities have emerged from the current crisis.
- Transferable skills are the core of a rigorous and well-rounded education. During this crisis we have seen where transferable skills served students well in moments when teachers were unable to deliver traditional instructional techniques and familiar learning activities from the front of the classroom. Where students had already received direct instruction and feedback on their problem-solving, self-regulation, and collaboration skills, they were able to adapt more easily to new learning situations and routines. Transferable skills help students connect learning across disciplines and across years of school. Transferable skills also help students connect school to learning that takes place outside of school, and in so doing, increase relevance for students. Finally, transferable skills are often the “hidden skills” of the curriculum, namely, the skills we expect of students, but don’t explicitly teach and assess.
- Teachers have been learning new skills too. The hybrid and online learning necessitated by the pandemic accelerated teachers’ professional learning in the area of technology, and also brought about new approaches to collaboration, flipped classroom techniques, and asynchronous learning strategies. As in all moments of change, these innovations are spread unevenly across different classrooms and schools, however, the pandemic has brought about a sea change in many teachers’ instructional strategies, and has brought many educators back to the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in order to keep all students engaged.
- White educators’ reckoning with racism demands school redesign. In this moment, white educators have an obligation to check in with our students and families of color to ask them what we need to change to make our schools culturally relevant. This would be a break from the usual practice of presuming to know what students need, and then subjecting them to predetermined remedies. In this moment, we have a unique opportunity to pause and ask our students of color what they need from us so they can show up authentically in school. Put simply, we need to ask our students how school could be more engaging, instead of blaming them for disengaging. This would be a break from past inclusion strategies that aim to assimilate students into a white-centered curriculum, and then find fault with them when it doesn’t work.
- Schools must take into account our students’ autonomy and resilience. Our students have been living very different lives during the pandemic, and while their desire to return to school has been palpable, it would be foolish to think that they want to return to business as usual. Through adversity and new lived experiences, our students have learned autonomy, flexibility, and resilience. We must redesign the school day accordingly. It is unlikely that our students will be interested in sitting quietly and listening to lessons for hours on end each day. It is also unlikely that students will want to give back all of the autonomy they experienced through asynchronous learning. We need to redesign learning activities, and expand dimensions of learner voice and choice, so that our students experience agency and take ownership of their learning when they return to school full time.
- We need to redefine community in school. “We’re all in this together,” has been a mantra repeated throughout the current crisis, and our interconnectedness and need for community is more obvious than ever. This leads us to reevaluate how we foster community in school. Many schools are turning to restorative practice as a way to strengthen a community ethos and ensure that all voices are heard. Other schools are redesigning their teacher advisory programs or encouraging collaborative practice techniques in the classroom. Above all, schools must critically examine structures that promote academic competition between students, even as we ask students to collaborate and support each other in their learning. Finally, we need to recognize that our parent and family engagement practices serve some of our families much more than others. It is our responsibility to redesign our curriculum nights, parent-teacher conferences, school celebrations, and parent-teacher organizations so that there is representation from the entire school community.
Redesign, Not “Recovery”
To be clear, school leaders are grateful for the significant support coming to schools through ESSER funds and other means. Here in Vermont, we are also heartened to see that the Agency of Education’s (AOE) Education Recovery Memo #1 (Feb. 26, 2021) identifies the following three focus areas for district Education Recovery Plans:
- socioemotional functioning, mental health & well-being
- student engagement
- academic achievement & success
Educators know from the research and professional experience that academic achievement is only possible when the first two factors of this list have been addressed. I am glad to see the AOE take a whole-child approach in providing these guidelines. Also, I am not opposed to tutoring, extended school day, or extended school year programs, I simply believe they are not the whole answer.
I also recognize the urgency conveyed in “rescue” and “recovery” plans. However, even if unintended, the term “recovery” implies coming back from loss, as in recovering one’s health, which contributes to the current deficit-based narrative about schools and students. There is simply no way for us to get back the lost instructional time of the past year, or for us to “re-cover” our usual units or lessons, and so attempts to “catch kids up” are destined to fail. If we are serious about our students’ social emotional skills and wellbeing, we will need to focus instead on the social belonging and engagement that comes from successful in-person learning communities. This doesn’t mean building back what we had, but rather redefining what we mean by “fostering community” in school.
In this moment, we do not need more remediation for students, but rather high-quality, universally designed reteaching. Instead of trying to “cover” each topic that classes didn’t get to last year, we need to redesign curriculum to have clear, high-leverage concepts that allow students multiple ways to show proficiency. Instead of narrowing the curriculum in response to statewide test scores, we need to engage students with rich, rigorous, and well-rounded learning experiences. Instead of pathologizing students by sorting and labeling them according to perceived deficits, we should be positively engaging them in ways that convey our belief in human potential and hidden talents. Instead of presuming to know how to fix kids, we should ask our students and families to co-design school with educators for a new normal that is better than the old one.
When we think of the different meanings of “recover”—to regain what was lost, to cover instructional material again, or to return to normal—they all lead us towards remediation instead of redesign. Let’s not give our students more of what they like least about school; let’s ask our students to help us redesign school.
We have before us an incredible opportunity. Instead of thinking in terms of recovery, let’s take this opportunity to reexamine, rethink, and redesign school to better serve all learners.
“Antiracist” Grading Starts with You, Cornelius Minor (ASCD)
‘Ghosted’: Students Disappear From Vermont Classrooms During Pandemic, Peter Hirschfeld (VPR)
Our Kids Are Not Broken, Ron Berger (The Atlantic)
Summer School Is a Hot Idea Right Now. Could It Work? Dana Goldstein & Kate Taylor (NYT)
Michael Martin, EdD (Rowland Fellow 2009) works as a Senior Associate for the Rowland Foundation and currently serves as the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District.