Some California students are “going completely uneducated right now,” and districts must address the learning loss and achievement gaps, the president of the State Board of Education said Tuesday.

During a webinar hosted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the education board, said that there is a great disparity in what districts have done to educate students since schools closed in March due to the coronavirus. Some have had difficulty reaching students who have disappeared for a variety of reasons, she said, including going back to their home countries. Other students were just “sitting it out,” because they lacked computer devices or internet access.

“Some cities are putting hot spots in homeless shelters and other places, but it’s been a real challenge,” she said. “Some places are doing a lot less than others.”

In addition to Darling-Hammond, the panel also included Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

As the California Department of Education develops guidance for reopening schools to be released “soon,” Darling-Hammond said she and other officials working on it realize they need to create parameters for distance learning. But they are also discussing the need for more flexibility, such as not necessarily mandating a certain number of minutes of “seat time” in school and revising the way attendance is calculated. These changes, however, would require amendments to the state education code before they could be implemented.

‘We have to figure out quality standards’

“We have to figure out quality standards,” she said. “That is in process, and we’ll be working on that with districts over the coming weeks.”

The three panelists discussed a variety of learning options that could be considered by districts. These included prioritizing in-person instruction for the most vulnerable students and “mastery-based” instruction that allows students to work at their own pace and move on when they understand the material. They all agreed that it will be essential to also provide students with needed social and emotional support. In addition, Darling-Hammond elaborated on details expected to be included in the upcoming guidance, such as suggested ways to assess students’ learning and academic progress.

Like many districts, Johnson-Trammell said Oakland Unified is planning for online learning and a blend of online and in-person instruction. But she said she is hungry for information about what other districts are doing and which learning models work best. The district has formed action teams focused on learning, wellness, technology, finance, operations and community. They expect to create a plan by early July that will take into consideration science, safety, staff supports and student learning, she said.

Based on informal feedback so far, she said the district is considering prioritizing in-person instruction for its most vulnerable students. This is likely to include younger children, those who are medically fragile or have moderate to severe disabilities, and those who are two or more grade levels behind academically. They will need more personal contact, she said, in order to “get the nuts and bolts.”

Hanushek, of the Hoover Institute, said schools should consider taking this opportunity to tackle achievement gaps that have existed for 50 years between students in higher-income and lower-income families.

“We could potentially use this crisis to really strike at the inequities that exist in California and elsewhere in the country,” he said, suggesting that schools switch to a mastery-based model of instruction instead of teaching everyone at the same pace. This would allow schools to focus more attention on individual students “and where they’re at and what they’re learning and how they progress,” he said.

It’s critical to assess students, he said, especially since standardized testing was suspended this spring due to the coronavirus.

Hanushek said testing helps shine a light on the disadvantages some students face and shows they are not getting the education they deserve.

“We have to be able to measure where we’re at and try to use that to leverage improvement,” he said.

Johnson-Trammell said thinking about how much learning some students may be losing during the school closures keeps her up at night.

“Summer slide doesn’t even begin to describe” what’s happening, she said. She wants guidance about how to diagnose students to address their learning needs, as well as their social and emotional needs.

One idea she suggested is that teachers who are strong in building connections with students could shift to focusing entirely on supporting their social and emotional needs. Teachers who are strongest in communicating curriculum could possibly teach more subjects. She said her district wants to know how other districts are thinking about reconfiguring staffing.

Darling-Hammond said the state guidance will likely include information about how to use the Smarter Balanced Interim Assessments to gauge where students are. She said one problem with the end-of-year tests has been that they assess students within a grade level, but don’t show gains students have made if they are below or above grade level.

‘We are all learning every day’

“We are all learning every day,” she said. “We need to say to kids: ‘We need to figure out where you are and accelerate your progress,’ rather than, ‘We’re going to label you as smart or dumb, above or below (grade level), and put you in a class and teach to the average,’ which is going to miss what they need and give them a sense of stigma at the same time.”

To help give students a sense of continuity and better assess them, Darling-Hammond said “some districts are looking at sending kids back to teachers they had last year.”

She also said that some districts are considering a “competency based” model of instruction rather than “grade-level-specific” curriculum, which she compared to swimming lessons, where students progress sequentially as their skills develop. “It’s an opportunity,” she said. “And some places will be able to take advantage of it if we get the resources.”

Hanushek agreed with both Johnson-Trammell and Darling-Hammond regarding possible ways to restructure instruction.

“My fear is in the chaos of just trying to make sure kids know how to get into the building that we won’t think about that early enough,” he said, referring to all the work districts are also doing to figure out how to provide physical distancing and other safety precautions.

Johnson-Trammell said her district is planning to deliver high-quality instruction, along with ongoing food distribution. They’re also focusing on safety issues, including face masks, physical distancing and possibly taking students’ temperatures each day. All this with the understanding that no one knows whether there will be a surge of coronavirus cases that could close schools again.

“We’re planning for conditions that will continue to shift,” she said, adding that districts need to adapt and be nimble. “We have to get a bit more comfortable with the unknown.”

Story originally published by EdSource.