The Pandemic Broke a Fundamental Principle of Teaching

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We’ve all been focusing on getting kids back into the classroom, but what happens once they get there? As the Delta variant threatens to wreak more havoc, kids are returning to school, at least for now—and teachers are finding themselves in a race to undo the damage of the past 18 months. Many of us, for the first time in our careers, will have no idea what our students know on the opening day of school.

More than 340,000 American children who should have been in public kindergartens last year didn’t show up to a single day of virtual or in-person school. Absentee rates were higher in kindergarten than in other grades, and in lower-income families than in higher-income ones, but in many cities and states, an alarming number of students across ages and income brackets never enrolled in the schools that were expecting them. And that’s just the students who missed the entire year. Millions more lost days, weeks, or months because of the pandemic; many who did attend didn’t learn very much.

Although the pandemic has exacerbated already stark inequities in the achievement gap, it’s impossible to know what the ripple effects of falling behind pre-pandemic standards will be when it comes to long-term success for students, financially or otherwise. According to a McKinsey report, “unless steps are taken to address unfinished learning, today’s students may earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime owing to the impact of the pandemic on their schooling.”

We teachers typically enter a school year ready to teach a set curriculum that fits between what was taught the previous year and what will be taught the next. The expression we use for this is “scope and sequence.” Scope refers to what material is covered, and in what breadth and depth. Sequence is the order in which the material is taught. Third grade follows second and precedes fourth, and teachers all have a basic sense of where kids are when they begin the year and where they need to be when they end it.

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But the pandemic has scrambled this system in unpredictable and irregular ways. Margaret Meyer, a longtime fifth-grade-English teacher at Grace Church School in New York City, always starts the semester with an abridged version of Beowulf— but now, she said, “I’m trying to prepare a million different options for whatever greets me on day one.” At schools around the country, we teachers will start planning to teach algebra II, only to find that some of our students don’t yet know the basics of pre-algebra. Lesson plans we’ve relied on for years or decades will no longer work for our students.

“It’s terrifying. On top of having to teach students who haven’t been in a classroom in almost 18 months, some of our teachers haven’t been in a classroom to teach in person in that long,” a New Rochelle public-school principal, who asked to speak anonymously because he didn’t have authorization from his district to talk with the press, told us. “Nobody really knows what to expect. It’s impossible to plan.”

The solution is complex. For starters, educators must assess—far more comprehensively than we have before—which skills our students have retained. We’ll need to believe assessments that show that some students are not yet ready to tackle the material that their age or grade level suggests they should. Then we’ll most likely be faced with a stark choice: to try to get through the material we’ve taught in the past or to focus instead on the underlying basics. We will want to achieve the impossible: catching up students who may be two years behind grade-level standards while simultaneously teaching and motivating those who are where they should be.

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But we can’t “catch up,” and trying is counterproductive. We don’t have a playbook for this, and we don’t have enough time in the 185-day school year to cram in all of the material that was taught pre-pandemic. This moment calls for a sort of radical flexibility in reevaluating what needs to be taught and how best to teach it.

Because the sequence has been disrupted, teachers must both shift back in time to ensure that kids haven’t missed out on important material and cut back on scope. Much of what we teach kids is arbitrary, so we need to be more discerning about what we’re teaching. For example, a student might benefit from understanding animal physiology by the end of a high-school biology unit—but not at the expense of core topics like evolution or genetics.

These choices are more complicated in some subjects than in others: Third-grade teachers can’t introduce multiplication to kids who don’t yet understand addition. But in general, we’ve found that students benefit more from learning and practicing processes, models, approaches, and skills than from spending time on specific facts and details that they are likely to forget.

And no matter the subject we teach, teachers must collaborate as never before. Teachers rely on fundamentals taught by educators of lower grades—think of a seventh-grade-English teacher accustomed to focusing on literary analysis, who might not be equipped with the skills of his fourth-grade-teacher colleagues to provide instruction in comprehension and inference skills. Administrators should provide time for teachers to offer mini professional-development lessons for their peers.

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Andy Hagon, the head of junior school at St. Bernard’s in Manhattan, emphasizes this need for all parties to work together. “Teachers will have to adapt again to the unique needs of kids who may have fallen behind,” he told us. “I hope that the adults involved can dig deep and find even more patience and collaborate on possible curriculum changes; the kids deserve nothing but our best efforts.”

Hagon stressed that parents would be a crucial part of this readjustment process. Sometimes it can be difficult for teachers to know whether students are struggling with course material, study skills, or social problems, so a quick note from a parent—or better yet, parental encouragement for kids to self-advocate and approach teachers on their own—can be invaluable.

At any given point, some students in class are confused while others are bored. But out of this crisis might come an opportunity to pay more attention to the wide range of starting points that have always been present in our classrooms. Schools can now assess and recalibrate which skills are taught at what grade levels, expanding differentiation and collaboration wherever possible. Administrators can provide opportunities for teachers of younger grades to help teachers of older grades instill or reinforce the basics. We cannot make up for lost time, but educators’ commitment to each student demands that we be deliberate in making the best possible use of the time we have now.

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