So it’s understandable if educators are a bit preoccupied at the moment. But it’s not too early to plan for next year, because major decisions loom that could impact students’ trajectories for the rest of their academic careers. Most critical — and sensitive — is whether kids should be “socially promoted” to the next grade come fall. The answer for millions of elementary pupils who were already a year or two behind when the crisis struck should be no.
That is especially true since the 2020-2021 school year is likely to be rocky as well. Even if some states and communities are prepared to return to a semblance of normalcy in September, localized outbreaks are likely to shutter schools again for weeks or months at a time.
All of this time away from school is going to be particularly devastating for poor and working-class youngsters, many of whom are already below grade level. Their parents are often working the sorts of jobs that don’t have the option of being done virtually, and their homes are more likely to lack high-speed Internet and ample devices.
Perhaps middle and high school students can overcome these challenges, given their ability to work and read independently. But most low-income, low-performing elementary students will struggle mightily, almost surely falling even further behind. Thousands of Title I schools nationwide, serving upward of 10 million students, are full of kids fitting this description.
So when schools reopen in the fall, these students should remain in their current grade and, ideally, return to the familiarity of their current teacher. (Other types of schools — including affluent schools, middle schools and high schools — may also want to consider a similar approach.) The first order of business will be to attend to the social, emotional and mental health needs of their children and to reestablish supportive and comforting routines.
Then teachers should develop individualized plans to fill in the gaps in kids’ knowledge and skills and accelerate their progress to grade level. The use of high-quality diagnostic tests will be critical in assessing how much ground has been lost in reading and math. Students who are assessed as ready for the next grade level can move onward.
The next step would be for teachers to develop plans for each pupil to make progress, aimed at getting them to grade level by June. The plans should involve as much small-group instruction as possible, with kids clustered according to their current reading or math levels, plus some online learning opportunities in case schools are closed again. Those who are furthest behind could get regular one-on-one tutoring from specialists. This would be different from just “repeating the grade,” which, research shows, rarely helps students catch up.
To be sure, holding back most students would present challenges. For one, schools would have two kindergarten cohorts, so principals would have to quickly staff up to find qualified teachers for the extra classrooms and extra funding to pay for them. (In future years, some of the “first-year” kindergarteners would move ahead, but others might benefit from additional time, especially if the school is again hit by long closures.)
Principals would also need to find extra space for additional classrooms, though thanks to declining enrollment (caused by the ongoing baby bust), that shouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle.
None of this is ideal. It would have been far better if U.S. schools had embraced “personalized learning” long before the crisis hit — whereby kids move at their own pace, rather than in lockstep with their peers. But if there’s any silver lining, it’s that school closures create an unprecedented opportunity to give struggling students the gift of extra time. That will reap rewards in the years ahead.