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August 13, 2020

This School Year, We Need to Teach Smarter

When school resumes, students deserve to spend most of their time going deep with content, not going back or covering more.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculum
How do kids learn, and what does that mean for how we respond to the greatest education crisis in a generation? In my conversations with education leaders from Louisiana to California, I've heard countless stories of teachers acting with courage and resilience to support their students. But many are also concerned about what comes next. They ask, "How will we make sure all students learn deeply and safely next year? How can we use this moment to eradicate racial disparities once and for all?"
Safety and reopening are taking precedence in the conversations closest to home, but we should give equal attention to the quality of learning we will provide. Look at the past few years of national data: U.S. education was already failing too many students of color and students who are living in poverty. The COVID-19 crisis is magnifying the cracks in the system and disproportionately harming these same communities. When school resumes, students deserve to spend most of their time engaged in knowledge-rich, grade-level learning, even if instruction takes different forms. But that will mean going deep with content, not going back or covering more. Here's why.

Focus on Higher-Order Thinking

Complex, adaptive skills enable students to access economic mobility and live choice-filled lives. As our economy shifts, demand for technological, social and emotional, and critical thinking skills is rising. Put simply, a student's ability to eventually earn a livable wage, do work that feels meaningful, and adapt to a changing world are intricately connected to what they learn today. Instruction should prepare all young people—especially people of color who have been systematically locked out of the tertiary sector and higher-earning careers—to excel in that future economic reality.
If schools overemphasize basic skills to the detriment of higher-order thinking skills such as creativity, information processing, interpretation, and modeling, then racial gaps in opportunity are likely to widen. In math, students still need opportunities to make sense of problems, debate thinking with others, and choose appropriate strategies from many options. Literacy instruction should enable students to draw meaning from diverse texts by using evidence and to build knowledge and vocabulary at the same time. Not only do these learning experiences encourage deeper learning, but they are also the precise skills that students will need in order to be prepared for the 21st-century workforce.
Every student deserves lessons that provide deep learning and that build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Think about the difference of asking students, "Why does it rain?" rather than lecturing about the phases of the water cycle. When teachers provide challenging opportunities for students to make meaning, they shape who will have the best chance to make future discoveries. State standards vary to some extent, but standards-based work over the past decade has created consensus about the specific skills and knowledge that students need to build in each grade. Let us put most of our focus on higher-order standards even if our instructional practices need to accommodate multiple formats of teaching.

Reprioritize Instructional Content

The most obvious instructional solutions—remediation and coverage—will create more harm if we are not careful. Every year, students forget some of what they learned the previous year while out of school. Forecasts from NWEA are predicting a 30 percent loss of prior-year learning in reading and a 50 percent loss in math this fall. Educators may be tempted to address this issue with remediation, but I believe that would be a mistake.
Traditional remediation efforts often give students too much work below their grade level, which leads to students falling further behind. Another common approach is to thinly cover a lot of new content, but math standards in particular are written so that students can build core skills within the context of problem solving. Overly broad coverage was one of the key problems that newer state standards were designed to address.
Instead, reprioritize instructional content. All standards are not created equally; students can still learn new, challenging content when teachers understand how the foundational concepts build. High-quality curricular materials and curriculum-based professional learning can help teaching teams prioritize content by allowing them to work from common resources and freeing them to think more flexibly about scaffolds and differentiation. (EdReports, a curriculum review service, is one powerful tool for evaluating and selecting high-quality materials.)
Instructional teams should take time now to look at the standards, think of the available options for diagnosing what students need, and start to prioritize for next year. They should focus on the following questions and then think about how they'll need to align their professional learning in order to be successful:
  • What must students learn?
  • How prepared are students to learn this content?
  • How can we ensure students learn this content while considering current and potential constraints?
  • How will we as teachers and leaders need to prepare?
For students who are furthest below grade level with significant unfinished learning, teachers will certainly need to scaffold learning in ways that are specific to the content areas. In math, this scaffolding will require just-in-time assessments that align to upcoming units of study and allow teachers to target key foundational standards. In English, teachers can choose text sets that support students to build background knowledge to scaffold up to grade-level texts.  Still, equity demands that teaching be anchored primarily on the expectations of the current grade level, rather than reteaching the prior year.

Keep an Eye on Students

Going deep will give teachers freedom to prioritize relationships. Especially as educators feel pressure to fit more content into the academic year, we cannot forget that school is about more than teaching math or reading. It's about teaching whole, complex kids. Social and emotional needs matter. Families are navigating temporary solutions like limited virtual instruction and self-paced learning packets. Students and educators will be facing trauma from months of isolation, collective and personal loss, and change. When teachers have the support of strong instructional plans, they can devote more time and energy to deepening connections with students and healing.
I'm encouraged by the way education organizations like Council of Chief State School Officers, Council of the Great City Schools, and Student Achievement Partners are leaning in to create strong guidance around the instructional unknowns. These specific recommendations are particularly crucial for reaching students who are furthest below grade level without ceding their opportunities to grasp new content. I also hope that means we can devote more focus to building on previous equity work with whole child practices.
There is a long road ahead, and this will not be easy. With learning, some remediation will be necessary, but it must be deliberate and limited. We must anchor to what we believe is most important in education to guide us toward a strong plan. The alternative—leaving teachers and schools to stumble in the dark—is not acceptable.
Education has the power to be a stabilizing and equalizing force in a time when students and teachers will need time and resources to heal. Let us find a stable footing by building on what we already know works. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

Chong-Hao Fu is a lifelong educator and the chief executive officer at Leading Educators, a national nonprofit organization that partners with school systems to build and sustain the conditions, teaching, and leadership for equitable opportunity.

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