The Difficult Choices Educators Face Between Now and Fall

It’s not just about whether to open the schools. It’s about how to teach kids wherever they are.

Before a new school year starts, educators will need to decide which students get held back, assessed for special needs, or given special placements. This is an imperfect science in the best of times. These are not the best of times. Researchers have estimated that students will head to school next fall having gained only about 70 percent as much in reading—and half as much in math—as in a typical school year. 

It also goes without saying that student progress will be wildly uneven. Students in stable households with good internet and dedicated workspaces will generally fare better than their peers. And the nature of DIY education is that teachers have limited insight into how students are doing. Indeed, Educators for Excellence finds one-third of teachers reported daily online student attendance below 50 percent. Meanwhile, school systems scrapped spring testing and many adopted pass-fail grading (or said that grades couldn’t decline after closure), meaning that grades may be a poor proxy for learning.

Schools will have to decide what to do with those students who might not be academically prepared for the next grade. In truth, this is an evergreen challenge. In 2002, Florida adopted a policy to retain third-graders who were struggling to read, on the sensible theory that “social promotion” meant students would get lost when they couldn’t master essential content. Now, laws in 16 states require schools to retain students who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade (when it’s expected that students will transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”). In responses, critics have raised legitimate concerns about “mandatory retention,” arguing it has negative academic and social-emotional consequences for many students. The research on all this is decidedly mixed

In other words, these decisions are messy and uncertain. The challenge this fall won’t be new, it’ll just be newly complicated. For instance, the 7 million students who receive special education services have had an especially uneven few months. Just 18 states required all districts to include special education in their remote learning plans this spring. At the same time, the CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates has seen heartening developments, telling of the Pennsylvania mother “discovering her daughter’s gift for art” or the South Dakota parent “who spotted her girl’s strength in math, a skill for which she is now doing advanced coursework.” Parents have been able to see more even as teachers see less, creating new challenges for systems premised on educator expertise.  

School systems are still figuring out how they’ll approach the fall but there promises to be enormous variation. The Education Commission of States has reported that states including Arizona, Mississippi, New York, and Virginia have relaxed their standards for grade level promotion. North Carolina has passed legislation requiring schools to promote students unless plans were already “well underway” to retain a student on March 13. Cleveland has proposed doing away with traditional grade levels this fall and instead supersizing the “mastery” learning plan it has been piloting. This would combine students of multiple ages and grade levels into “grade bands” and then focusing on their mastery of discrete skills. 

One can make a case for or against any of this. The North Carolina approach means children’s lives and family planning won’t be upended any more than absolutely necessary, but raises grave concerns about students who will be unprepared for new material. The Cleveland model has a lot of educational appeal, but depends mightily on good management, assessments, coordination, and pedagogy—and could be a disaster if those aren’t in place. 

What Cleveland’s approach illustrates—and what all the talk of “personalized learning” reflects—is that advances in technology, assessment, and learning have made it possible to better meet students where they are. Forty years ago, visions of such learning were mostly a pipe dream. While dynamic educators like Ted Sizer and Debbie Meier (two of the leading advocates of John Dewey’s progressive education ideals) could sketch visions of what personalization might look like, a lack of tools made it practically impossible to think about doing it across whole school systems of students. Today, an evolving constellation of learning resources and diagnostic tools means it’s possible to do what’s called “mastery-based learning”; the trick is to do it well. Doing it well depends on negotiating at least three complications. 

First, the concept involves fundamental changes that can become politically fraught, such as a heavier dose of assessment. “Assessment” has become a charged word, following years of backlash against standardized testing. But, rather than more big tests, what mastery-based learning involves is a regular dose of short, quick assessments that gauge when a student has mastered an objective. While this shouldn’t be a hard sell on the merits, as it helps teachers figure out where students are and what they need, it risks getting caught up in larger, emotional debates. 

Second, the playbook for personalized learning is still more an aspiration than a reality. As this spring has made painfully clear, vanishingly few schools or school systems have the tools to gauge where a student is, precisely target instruction, assess mastery of skills or knowledge, and provide calibrated encouragement and supports. Moreover, Joel Rose, co-founder of the heralded, personalized math program “Teach to One” has noted that mastery-based learning in math or science (where there’s a clear progression of content) may not translate to the humanities.   

Third, mastery-based learning requires educators to make nuanced judgments about where students are and what they ought to be learning. But there’s plenty of distrust as to whether educators can be trusted to exercise such discretion. Part of this is that schools will have to consider how mastery-based learning interacts with gaps between the haves and have-nots in education. Absent traditional grade levels, there are concerns that there’d be fewer guardrails around what teachers do or about how systems are handling students getting left behind.

And the sobering truth is that doing mastery-based, personalized learning poorly can easily be worse than not doing them at all. Without adequate planning and precision, this stuff can turn into a fancy label for chaos. The challenge for schools will be to figure out how to place and support students in new ways, without adding confusion and dislocation to young lives that have already been upended enough.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brendan Bell is program manager at AEI.

Photograph of Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.