We are in the midst of one of the most challenging times in the history of American education. But one that also provides great opportunity for teachers to do right by our students by broadening the method and content of our teaching so it reflects the reality of today.
As we lean into 2021 with educators worried that a significant portion of instruction across the U.S. will still need to be online come this fall. Many are grappling with unequal access to broadband internet, let alone the myriad challenges of online learning. Parents and teachers have learned that remote instruction during covid is hard–really hard.
On top of learning from home last year, students had to deal with a global pandemic, natural disasters, a massive economic downturn, and a national racial reckoning. Unsurprisingly, students’ grades have suffered.
For example, teachers in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District gave out over 1,000 more Ds and Fs in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year, a difference of 70%. Sadly, most of the failing and near-failing grades were assigned to already struggling students. One sixth grade science and math teacher in San Jose, California we spoke with whose 60 students primarily non-white students are all online this year said that up to 25% of her students are “completely lost.”
According to a Brookings Institution comparison of testing data for 8,000 U.S. schools teaching students in grades 3-8, the math achievement of students in fall 2020 was about 5 to 10 percent lower compared to same-grade students in fall 2019.
Lower academic achievement is not the only cause for alarm about online learning. It’s also a symptom of a much larger problem that speaks to the vital social and emotional development role that schools play.
As faculty in higher education with over 50 years of combined teaching experience, we know that school is not just where we learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Ostensibly, what students learn in schools should help them become citizens of the world while learning how to effectively understand and empathetically engage with others in a complex world. A good education is so much more than a mechanism for knowledge transfer.
We are also parents and see these challenges unfold every day as parents of elementary, middle school, high school, and college students. Children in our families’ social circles are suffering from anxiety and depression, and low motivation. From preschool to college, students are missing friends, slacking on school assignments, and developing unhealthy coping skills. This generation will face myriad challenges as they grow up. They will emerge from this pandemic having to confront a long history of racial injustice that pervades our country, reckon with an environment in crisis, and will require the mathematical confidence to confront these and other important issues.
Each of these ‘wicked’ problems feels insurmountable, and the reaction on the part of many kids (and adults) is to hide or avoid. As a society we are conditioned to not confront these issues en masse until they are emergencies.
Administrators or educators and parents across the country avoided engaging with the critical tools for assessing risk and making decisions about reopening our economy or sending our kids back to school until the situation was out of control because they require understanding the interplay between population size, rates of infection and exponential growth.
For many people, these topics are “other people’s problems” and are not internalized because it does not affect them directly. Much of the population consider themselves to not be a “math person” which abdicates them, in their mind, from engaging with mathematical concepts. Similarly many find the fight for the environment or racial justice may be too overwhelming or abstract to confront.
Policy changes at the national state and local level are critical for taking action on racial injustice and environmental conservation, but each of us is also responsible for taking action with decisions we make every day. The integration of such a mindset into our daily pedagogy can bring these issues from the realm of insurmountable to actionable for all k-12 students.
There is increasing interest in incorporating anti-racist approaches in our teaching, but some are not sure how to go about doing it. At a very basic level, we begin by researching, understanding, and embedding histories and contributions from the diverse communities our students represent in our classrooms. This can be challenging as the majority of teachers come from white, middle-class backgrounds and have limited exposure to diverse critical perspectives.
This, coupled with strong critiques of ethnic studies as un-American further limit teachers’ skill-building to work with diverse learners resulting in deficit attitudes about working with BIPOC students. Deficit-laden language that label BIPOC students as “at-risk” or “low-performing” creates a compounding effect on how the field shapes BIPOC student identities. Instead, educators could engage more with the assets that BIPOC students and families bring to educational settings. Could the tie be with active learning or encouraging students to be “masters” of their own learning destiny.
Mathematics instructors should consider retooling their classes to emphasize self reflective practices, collaboration, and mathematical discourse. Allow students to demonstrate their knowledge not just by algorithmic computation, but via the creative synthesis of information and bridging the gap between math and students’ daily lives. While this retooling of instruction will not solve the current mathematical literacy crisis, it will equip future generations with the tools to make competent decisions.
All k-12 teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, can integrate environmentally-focused content into their daily curriculum. Whether it’s water pollution or plant identification in your own backyard, there’s a ready-to-go “green” lesson that can concurrently further English and Language Arts, math, and science achievement while concurrently fostering a sense of civic responsibility and engagement. By focusing on local and current issues, we create a better mechanism for content engagement.
In fact, recent research conducted at San Jose State shows that an environmental education program as short as six weeks implemented in a Title I elementary school can increase issue awareness, change attitudes, and promote positive feelings about the natural world in fourth graders.
Teachers all over the country who oversee the learning of more than 56 million k-12 students are pondering their lesson plans for next year. Today, we have the chance to do right by our students by broadening the method and content of our teaching so they feel equipped to confront difficult realities. Our next steps as educators serve as a model for future generations in addressing problems our generation and the ones before us created.