Our Nation’s Education System Created the Greatest Generation. Can We Create the Smartest Generation as Well?
By Dr. Kenneth W. Eastwood
In modern history, during times of national crises our state and national governments deployed educational support and funding systems designed to eliminate racial and economic inequity within our society. Also, to increase the numbers of academically proficient and talented students who would enter the workforce and become a source for designing and working on the interventions and innovations that could lift America up.
Today we are faced with another historic crisis, a global pandemic that threatens our nation’s future. Once again, we need to leverage our education system to successfully emerge from these murky waters.
America’s education system in times of crises – consistently intended to be the great equalizer – has sometimes struggled to meet the need for real and deep implementation of equal opportunity for all its students. Although there has been some improvement over the last three decades in the percentage of students of color and/or poverty graduating with high school diplomas, these students are still significantly less likely than their white and/or wealthier counterparts to graduate from college.
According to the most recent round of National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, most students never reached the fiftieth percentile for proficiency in all test categories. According to the 2019 NAEP, only 41 percent of American fourth-grade students met or exceeded proficiency levels in math; the number dropped to 34 percent for eighth graders and to only 25 percent for 12th graders. These low proficiency rates were also seen in Reading and Science as well.
A 2019 report from New Classrooms entitled The Iceberg Problem identified this regression of educational proficiency as a product of accumulated learning gaps that occur when students move ahead in grade levels or content areas without demonstrating proficiency. The report found that our education system’s “instructional focus on grade-level instruction keeps students from addressing unfinished learning from prior school years, causing skill gaps to grow and hindering college and career readiness.” The report concluded that today’s education system incentivizes moving students through grade levels, regardless of whether appropriate support and attention are in place to address missing prerequisite skills.
What will this mean for students heading back to school later and in different learning environments this fall? School systems are likely to advance them to the next grade or subject level, despite having missed one-third (or more) of the necessary instruction and with little or no summer school remediation.
Most schools have opened their 2020-2021 school year with little or no modified direct instruction. Additionally, teachers must find the time to develop effective instructional practices through virtual or hybrid structures. This continuation of instructional loss will guarantee a long-term disaster. The chasm between what kids are ready to do and where schools place them will be unlike anything this country has ever experienced.
The practice of social promotion – moving kids along with their same-age cohorts, whether ready or not – has long been discredited. However, most of America’s 14,000 school systems will do just that over the next month. This will amount to a wholesale advance of vast numbers of under-schooled kids who may or may not be ready. With the end of the pandemic still not in sight and a near-sighted focus on restoring school as we know it, our factory model for schooling is about to lock-step millions of students over the cliff of educational achievement. These students – particularly those from low-income families – will carry adult-imposed deficits throughout their remaining years of public education and into their personal, economic, social, and political lives.
The current situation will almost certainly compound long-standing educational issues that include a real and historic loss of teaching and learning. The persistence of low achievement and opportunity gaps within our communities is evidence that our education system has failed to create systems that are truly effective at leveling the playing field for all students. Further, research conducted by the Northwest Education Research Association (NWEA) indicates that students from low-income families will be most affected by these learning gaps – even further compounding the regression of achievement and increase in opportunity gaps for these groups.
This brings us to a very serious question: If students are not “really” proficient in the prerequisite knowledge and/or skills necessary to move to the next level or course, how in the world will the next-level teacher teach – and students absorb – one-and-a-half to two years of coursework in nine (or fewer) months?
Could this Deficit Become an Opportunity?
Why not take advantage of this opportunity to create the Smartest Generation, as the GI Bill created the Greatest Generation? Naysayers are sure to make excuses about costs, resources, and logistics. Many believed that President Kennedy’s vision of landing an American on the moon was delusional, but it nonetheless happened. We should view today’s educational issue as a similar opportunity to prove the critics wrong.
As John F. Kennedy did in defense of his moonshot vision, someone needs to stand before Congress and challenge America. To paraphrase Kennedy’s words in the context of today’s educational crisis: It is time for this nation to take a leading role in creating equity in education. This will be the key to our future on Earth. No single project or goal will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-term. Our citizens must all work together to ensure that every child is well-educated and academically competent to challenge, explore, and create.
American education needs strategic renewal that does the following:
- Shifts the current system from course and grade-level promotion of students regardless of instructional gaps to a model that promotes based on proficiency and/or mastery of essential skills and knowledge in current coursework and requires this for success in the new level or subject. This will require us to adjust our expectations around the typical timeline for K-12 students, allowing for additional summer work or additional semester(s) for upcoming graduating classes to make up for the instructional losses caused by COVID-19.
- Redesigns the school calendar from 10 to 12 months, with summer sessions that offer personalized, targeted intervention for students deemed non-proficient versus a general redelivery of the entire course. Summer sessions should also provide learning opportunities for students who wish to move independently to additional or higher mastery following success in gaining proficiency. Upcoming summer sessions will need to be heavily leveraged to remediate learning gaps caused by a shortened school year.
- Develops a proactive rather than reactive system for assessing and adapting to proficiency levels through the administration of ongoing formative assessments during the year. Assessment data and ongoing feedback should be used to understand and diagnose negative learning inflection points and identify early difficulties or warning signs associated with specific course standards. The frequent and rapid use of these assessments should help us initially understand the scale of learning loss we experience and what proficiencies we can use as a baseline for each student: a post-COVID-19 “starting line” that is identified for every child’s unique needs. Most importantly, we need to know exactly where a student is relative to their proficiency in the grade level standards that they came from as well as the grade to which they will soon advance. Student success depends on the use of vital tools and assessments to understand academic progress and proficiency of standards. Such information is empowering and necessary and useful for all involved in a student’s academic progress.
- Supports teachers – our most valuable asset in ensuring student achievement – in maximizing and leveraging instructional technology to its greatest relative strength. This would be achieved by assisting in the instructional process according to proficiency-related data and targeted instructional/remedial resources along multiple learning pathways based on course standards. This would require ongoing training to better leverage these resources. It will ultimately ensure growth (positive learning curves) and increased proficiency, as well as improved “virtual readiness,” so we are better equipped to deal with a situation like the one we face today.
- Assures that every student has free access to all programs and opportunities (extra-curricular and otherwise), a significant requirement for enticing successful student engagement. For example, students should not be prohibited from taking advantage of programs such as band or strings due to an inability to afford an instrument rental. Personal experience has shown that a district-held inventory of various instruments to lend at no charge to low-income students significantly increases their interest and involvement in such programs. Free access to all educational programs is just that. Programs that are free to all, regardless of ability to pay.
An existential crisis requires an extraordinary response. Our nation’s greatness is defined by the problems we solve together, and we have a responsibility to both past and future generations to unite around this moment. We must seize it to rethink, redesign, and reinvest in a more equitable and effective educational system that will allow all students to be literate, knowledgeable, and successful.
Public education should not be a matter in which some can, but one in which all will. We have the resources and talents to make long-needed changes in education. More importantly, it is vital that we rally around this crisis. Isn’t it time to finally get it right and create our American Educational Moonshot?
About the Author
As a former Superintendent for both Oswego City School District and Middletown City School District, Dr. Eastwood was nationally recognized for the turnaround of low-income and/or high minority school districts. He has spoken at numerous national and worldwide conferences and has participated in five educational White House Summits on educational issues.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.