Pain, stress and public education’s return to normal

If I had to choose one word to summarize the problems facing public education since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be homeostasis.

When living organism face change or stress, they seek to return, as quickly as possible, to their previous baseline.

At every stage of the crisis that began in spring of 2020, school systems assumed that a return to normal was just around the corner. And at every stage, the return to normal proved elusive. When schools reopened, quarantines and other precautions continued to disrupt learning. As the emergency orders slowly lifted, teachers were demoralized. Students were misbehaving, disengaging or not showing up at all.

Everyone seemed to be muddling through the day, struggling to manage the basics of teaching and learning.

The latest State of the American Student report, published this morning by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, lays out the results of three and half years of muddling in sobering detail*. On average, students nationally aren’t regaining lost progress from the pandemic; they are losing ground. The students who need the most help may be those with the least time to get it: those nearing high school graduation. And the dismal averages mask a wide variation in individual experience. Many schools and students are doing far worse, and in some cases far better, than the national data suggest.

Our public education system was never designed to handle this. Right now, it bears the hallmarks of an organism with a high allostatic load. The mechanisms that typically restore stability under stress have been kicking in for so long that they’re starting to create unpleasant side effects and make the situation worse.

A new book by the health and science writer Brad Stulberg describes a process of order, disruption, and reordering that allow organisms to adapt to change. The last part, reordering, is key. Attempting to restore the old order in times of change and stress can be futile, even counterproductive.

Here are some examples of where this dynamic, and the need to reorder, are showing up in public education now:

Testing and measurement

Old order: States used standardized tests to measure student achievement and assigned consequences to schools based on how their students performed.

Pandemic disorder: State testing systems and consequences for schools were suspended for at least two years, and longer in some places. Parents were in a data vacuum, and grade inflation made report cards, always an imperfect source of information, less reliable than ever. The gap between parents’ perceptions and the reality of lost academic progress has made it harder to help students catch up.

Reorder: Rebuilding the top-down approach to school accountability won’t solve families’ information needs, since they were often the last to find out how students performed on year-end standardized tests. Education accountability needs to shift from top-down to bottom-up. It’s time to prioritize placing actionable information about how students are doing in the hands of families and educators so they can make informed decisions.

Graduation and readiness

Old order: Schools would prioritize efforts to ensure all students graduated on time. This sometimes led them to pursue dubious methods, like online credit recovery or manipulation of graduation rates.

Disorder: Schools face a rash of students with failing course grades, missing credits, and academic learning gaps that prevent them from doing grade-level work. Many have resorted, in even greater numbers than before, to the counterproductive Band-Aid of online credit recovery. This allows students to make up the credits they need for graduation and often gets hyped as “innovative,” “mastery-based” or “technology-driven.” But research shows it leads to little actual student learning and no improvement in later-in-life outcomes.

Reorder: It’s time to blur the lines between secondary and postsecondary education. At a time when the two major political parties are deeply divided over education, the collection of essays accompanying CRPE’s report offers a glimmer of hope. Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and Virginia’s Republican education secretary, Aimee Guidera, both argue that a high school diploma is no longer enough, and their states will increasingly push to ensure all students graduate with meaningful college or industry credentials.

Meanwhile, some high schools have created efforts to continue supporting their alumni after they graduate, surrounding them with mentors and other support. One high-profile effort, KIPP Forward, was launched by a national charter school network to help low-income students succeed in post-secondary education.

In other words, college and career training are reaching into high schools, and high schools are reaching beyond graduation to support their young alumni.

But these efforts likely won’t be enough to meet the needs of students now approaching graduation with major gaps in their learning. They will need more innovative efforts to ensure they get the support they need in the years after they leave high school. And it’s time to rethink more basic assumptions behind the current structure of high school, like credit hours.

Treating students (and teachers) like human beings

Old order: Schools were profoundly regimented places, with strict rules and bell schedules governing who needs to be where, doing what, and when. Everything from snack time to bathroom breaks was restricted for students and teachers alike.

Disorder: Students spent the spring of 2020, and, in many cases, much of the following school year learning at home, free to do what they wanted when they wanted. Discipline problems, absenteeism and disengagement now reign.

Reorder: Many factors are driving the growing popularity of homeschooling, microschools and other learning environments that look more like home than school.

But one under-discussed factor I personally observed while studying pandemic learning pods is the desire for learning environments that allow students and teachers to function like human beings.

Need to run around outside for a second? No problem.

Need a snack? Go ahead and grab one.

All families should have access to learning environments like this. Existing schools should look for ways to create more humane conditions for teachers and students, especially at a time when remote work and flexible hours are becoming the norm other in workplaces.

The question facing our public education system is whether it can reorder itself to adapt to its current reality, rather than continue struggling to restore the old one.

*I used to work at CRPE and worked on early stages of this project, but credit for the final product belongs to my former colleagues and their contributors.

In the News

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *