As outrageous as Petrilli’s suggestion seemed, I saw it as a plea for creative thinking. In my experience, the most desperate school situations often produce the most useful reforms. Great teachers I have spent my life studying usually make their biggest strides when everything seems hopeless. That’s about where we are now.
The issue for me is time. The pandemic has robbed us of at least three months of learning. There may be even more losses. Some students and their families have made good use of online classes, but I sense that for most, not much progress has been made.
Petrilli suggested retrieving time by having all struggling students repeat the grade. That was bold but impractical. Teachers I know have done this in less obtrusive ways: extra classes before or after school, lunchtime classes while kids munch their sandwiches, Saturday classes with pizza and games, special summer classes at the school or a nearby community college.
I have seen devoted educators create more time for learning by disabling the loudspeaker in their classroom, refusing to let their students attend assemblies irrelevant to their lessons, or using timers to make sure they don’t wander off track.
Looking for more minutes in the day gets tricky, because teacher unions may rightly demand more pay for more time. In this crisis, some extra money could be found. The point is to give teachers room to innovate. They know what is important. Less compelling parts of their official lesson plans can be discarded, at least in the short term, so their students can catch up.
Teachers who have significantly raised achievement often have a passion for reading. Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama persuaded their principal at an impoverished public school in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley to extend their time so the last 90 minutes of every day were nothing but reading. Nearly all of their fourth- and fifth-graders were at least two grades behind.
The teacher would read a short story out loud. Then the class would do it, each child taking a turn. The teacher asked the students what they thought was happening. They read a bit, discussed the main idea, read more and then talked about what they had read. Sometimes each child would read with a partner, harnessing the conviviality of their age group by taking turns.
The students gained confidence. They moved to more difficult books, making slow but steady progress. They went from being barely able to read on a second-grade level to nearly all passing the state exams for fourth- and fifth-graders.
Gama and Torkelson eventually created the IDEA charter network, which now has 53,000 students in 96 schools, but that’s not the point. Most teachers aren’t empire builders. Give them more time and they can make great progress on a small scale, particularly if they know what they want to do with the extra hour or so.
Mike Feinberg and his friend Dave Levin did the same thing with the chants, music, games and teamwork they added to the Houston public school class they created before they built the KIPP charter network. Feinberg told me teachers using distance learning right now “are making careful notes about what is working well and what is lost time.” Such insights can be useful when the children are back in the classroom.
I am surprised at how infrequently time is mentioned in our national education debates. Critics are right to point out that most charter schools do no better than regular public schools. But I rarely hear those critics look at charters that raise achievement significantly with expanded school days and say that regular schools should do the same.
My grandsons will eventually return to their public school classrooms in California. There is much talk about how they might catch up. Sadly, the state government and state school board have not taken an obvious step: adding to the guaranteed daily instruction through eighth grade, now a measly five hours.
All over the country, teachers are finding interesting ways to be more effective with time. Jenny Barker, spokeswoman for the Mastery Transcript Consortium, told me of a system in the Northern Cass district of North Dakota where “learners can easily find out where they are in their learning, what it means to be proficient, and what they need to do next.” Aaron Brenner, an expert at Seton Education Partners who has improved schools all over the country, said teachers should think about the students they failed to connect with during the lockdown and “reinvest more than ever in building relationships across the school.”
Few people would object to Petrilli’s expressed desire for teachers to “reestablish supportive and comforting routines” when students return and “develop individualized plans to fill in the gaps” left by the shutdown. One possible good effect of these bad days would be to accelerate movement in that direction.