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Rethinking San Diego is a series exploring new approaches to some of San Diego’s biggest policies, plans and dilemmas.
It is difficult to fully comprehend how far behind in their learning some children have fallen during these last nine long months. And figuring out how to catch them up when students finally go back to school will be one of the greatest challenges public education has ever faced.
A large percentage – some experts say it could be at least 20 percent – of students will not have picked up the skills they need to move on. Especially in the early grades, the basic concepts of math and reading build on themselves. If you don’t learn how to sound out letters, it’s hard to read, much less comprehend.
One radical idea that has been floated: a wholesale redo on the school year to ensure no one gets left behind. Don’t think of it as holding children back, think of it more like a free fifth year of college, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.
“We can’t pretend kids are making the same kind of progress,” said Petrilli. “We can’t just cover it up with happy talk and say, ‘We’ll do tutoring next year to help accelerate their learning.’ I’m scared people will just try to throw some magic words around and think that will do the trick.”
Petrilli thinks it would make the most sense to provide an extra year for the youngest students, rather than, say, high schoolers, who might just need to retake a class. Having a redo comes with “a million logistical challenges,” he admits, but the point is to think big. Otherwise, the fallout will be enormous.
Students who aren’t proficient readers by third grade, for instance, are four times less likely to graduate from high school.
Douglas Harris, a prominent education researcher at Tulane University, doesn’t necessarily believe an across-the-board redo is the right idea. But it could make sense at certain schools, where nearly all of the students have experienced massive learning loss, to give entire classes an extra year, he said.
“The number who have fallen seriously behind? I would guess that is at least 20 percent. Then you have the vast middle who will also be behind and probably could be held back,” said Harris.
Harris advocates a middle approach. At most schools, he said, it will be important to make an individual determination about which students need an extra year and which students can go forward. But simply moving the vast majority ahead could be a disaster, he said.
“Some groups within a classroom are gonna be very far apart. And that group that’s behind, you’re not gonna teach them two years at once,” he said. “That doesn’t strike me as a recipe for success.”
At least one local legislator is working on a middle approach in Sacramento – but she’s also getting no shortage of pushback.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, wants to pass a bill that would give students the right to a redo year if they believe they need it.
“What are the students’ rights? That’s the way I’m looking at the bill,” she said. “Every kid in public school should have the right to be at the level they’re supposed to be at.”
As of right now, Gonzalez said school districts plan to promote most students – a move that would be devastating for many in the long term, she believes.
Her plan only has one hitch: “Nobody wants me to do this bill,” said Gonzalez.
Nevertheless, she plans to introduce a bill, even if it faces certain death, just to “get a conversation started,” she said.
Some local education leaders, like San Diego Unified board vice president Richard Barrera, are openly hostile to the idea.
“What I would say to Lorena or anyone in the state Legislature is, ‘Your job is to focus on getting schools the money they need, not to come up with strategies not grounded in the work educators already know how to do,’” said Barrera.
Teachers already know how to teach to students at different levels and accelerate the learning of those who are behind, Barrera said. The problem, he said, is that districts don’t have the money to create the right conditions.
Barrera wants to see an infusion of cash at both the state and federal levels that will allow the district to have much smaller class sizes. Between that and also hiring more counselors to help heal the social and emotional wounds of the pandemic, he said teachers can get students back on track.
Petrilli fiercely questioned the idea that school districts already know how to make up the difference between students at different proficiency levels.
“This is not a system that has shown itself to be particularly capable of helping kids catch up even in normal times,” he said.
Barrera later clarified in a text message that he has “no problem with parents choosing to have their kids repeat a grade,” but that it shouldn’t be seen as a major policy solution.
Some pushback also comes from a traditionally held belief in education circles that “holding back” a student is bad.
Some research does show a correlation between being held back and failing to graduate, said Harris, the Tulane researcher. But he said that research may well not apply to the current times.
“There’s often this stigma of being held back and that stigma should not be as significant now,” he said. “Everybody lost something this year.”
Barrera also disputed the notion that many students will necessarily be far off grade level at the end of the school year. It still remains to be seen, he said.
Most researchers seem to agree that is not the case, including Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.
“We’re gonna see the most vulnerable kids have been hurt the most. That’s definitely what we’ll see,” said Noguera. “But I’m seeing a lot of middle-class kids who are tuning out too and just can’t do it anymore.”
Coming up with a remedy is where things get complicated, said Noguera.
“I don’t think there’s an easy solution to it. Let’s say we write off this year. Then you have another class of kindergarteners coming in. How do you make space for new kids coming in if a lot of kids are sticking around,” he said.
The proposal becomes even more complicated if the idea is to give younger students a redo year, but not older ones.
It would likely create “bulges” in different grade levels, said Harris. Certain key transitional grades like kindergarten, fifth and eighth grade might be slammed with students. Meanwhile, sixth and ninth might have more empty classrooms.
Noguera likes Los Angeles Unified’s current plan to make summer school mandatory to some degree, he said. He thinks quality summer school for all students, or the most vulnerable, could be a good start toward remedying learning loss.
When students first return to school two things need to happen, said Noguera. First, their social and emotional needs will have to be attended to. A recent report suggested turning schools into “wellness centers” to help facilitate this. Next, schools will have to create assessments to try to understand where the losses in learning are most dire. After that the difficult academic work begins.
As a sweeping policy solution Noguera doesn’t think a redo year is necessarily the way forward, but, he said, “There are going to be a lot of kids who could benefit from another year, that’s for sure.”