We shouldn’t let deficit thinking undermine our approach to school this fall.
Spring semester certainly didn’t go as anyone would’ve wanted. In a span of a few days, schools and districts were forced to lurch from in-person operations to what we call emergency remote teaching. Emergency remote teaching isn’t online instruction or homeschooling in the usual sense. In a matter of days, and with almost no direct training, education shifted online, and educators did their best to help students finish the academic year.
Given the context, how should we judge these teaching efforts in the midst of crisis? The Apollo 13 mission failed to land on the moon, yet it serves as a story of resilience and ingenuity in the face of disaster. The flight is considered a “successful failure.” We should ask what a successful failure looks like in teaching during a global health emergency and what we learned in the attempt.
A lack of planning made the switch to emergency remote teaching a challenging one. Researchers and practitioners, however, have been working on issues of remote/online teaching, some for a very long time – and as we settle into remote learning, we should learn from their expertise. Iowa State University found a way to teach a high school forensic science class online. They emphasized content-rich experiential learning by designing at-home lab activities and simulations that engaged students with compelling content. In another example, researchers at Brown University showed that a text-messaging program can promote literacy skills at home in the summer for some students. Their work combines with other studies to show that even relatively simple techniques designed to help parents promote academic growth in the home can be effective. Field researchers have been hosting remote field trips for years, authors have been more available than ever for virtual book chats, and many historical artifacts can be accessed in some digital form (even Supreme Court recordings).These resources have been in development, teachers just need the time and support to find ways to implement them with their students online.
We can and should discuss the quantitative data we have available in education but indulging a reflexive impulse to immediately discuss gaps in test results fuels deficit thinking that does little to move education in a positive direction. Crafting projections of learning gaps exacerbated by building closures isn’t effective – one recent brief published by NWEA shares estimates of student growth at 50% or 70% of past years. Without the testing data that most states chose to forego this year, all these reports are just that: estimates. The existence of a ‘summer slide’ suffers from measurement problems researchers are still working to fully understand (and the debate continues, for and against the idea). Regardless of how the statistics resolve, why are we resorting to arguments centered on standardized testing data in the first place?
Moreover, high-stakes testing has been shown again, and again, and again, and again to be a mechanism that sustains educational inequity. The use of large-scale tests to determine who has access to opportunity, from gifted services to college admissions, provides the framework for hoarding and withholding privilege. The connection between race and testing culture runs an alarming parallel with the racial patterns in COVID-19 impact. An amfAR study showed that 22% of US counties with primarily Black residents account for 58% of COVID-19 deaths in the US. We must refuse to allow a health crisis with an outsized effect on Black and Brown Americans to push us to reinforce another system hurting Black and Brown students.
In a recent article, school counselor Danielle Buttacavoli said, “We’ve been getting stronger at using these platforms, and I think the same goes for the students.” The reality is that many schools in the US will probably face reopening in August still impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must see the wisdom and opportunity of Danielle’s observation. The notion of a “digital native” is a myth, and we must understand and embrace that students need practice and support for learning via online methods. We’ve already learned from this spring’s emergency remote teaching that access to the tools, and the skills to use them well, is a major obstacle to student success.
Seize this moment to discard deficit models of learning as measured by high-stakes tests. Ask ourselves what we want it to look like when we return to school in August. Formatively assess students to determine what they know and what they need to learn next. Support students, and teachers, in navigating issues of trauma or problems with access to learning opportunities. What if that became the “new normal” for every August?
Ralph is an internationally published researcher and educator who studies
the efficacy of innovative instructional approaches. He has written on the
evaluation of learning spaces, the implementation of active learning
instructional methods, and policy issues related to teaching practice. He is
currently a Researcher at Gould Evans Education Design.
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