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Students are learning less amid the pandemic, but schools aren't just wringing their hands
Posted on October 25, 2020 • Category: Op-Ed
By Sybil Francis, opinion contributor

Arizona Central

Opinion: Learning loss is not new. Nor is it fair to blame parents and teachers, implying they aren't doing enough for our kids through this difficult time.

Student in Apache Junction School Cafeteria

A student focuses on class in a learning lab held in Apache Junction school cafeteria (Lily Altavena/The Arizona Republic)

The handwringing began as soon as Arizona children were dismissed from school last March to continue their learning from home.

The cause of worry for parents and educators? Learning loss created by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning loss, however, is not new. Nor is it fair to lay a guilt trip on parents and teachers, implying they aren’t doing enough for our kids through this difficult time.

In truth, multiple issues have long bedeviled education and impacted student learning. The coronavirus pandemic has served to highlight these challenges:


COVID makes it clear: one size doesn't fit all

The latter point is obvious to parents with more than one child going to class virtually. Some kids finish their schoolwork in 90 minutes, then bounce off the walls while their parents try to get their own work done. Others need the entire day or more to complete their assignments. Put 30 children with these various learning styles in a classroom, and you understand what teachers face every day.

But there is a bright side.

Kids are learning resilience, resourcefulness, and new ways of relating to each other and doing things in the face of this pandemic, as Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis shared in a conversation last month about the issue with policy makers and education leaders.

Teachers and principals are learning too. They’re adapting to distance learning and hybrid systems. While many implicitly understood that traditional, one-size-fits-all models of schooling weren’t meeting the needs of children before the pandemic, they recognize those methods definitely don’t work now.

Learning isn’t achieved by seat time or busy tasks, but by working toward a goal and moving on once it’s achieved. As leading educational researcher Dr. John Hattie noted in a recently published blog, it is not the time that is spent in class that should define the school day and learning, but rather how that time is spent and on what.

5 ways schools are getting creative

Arizona schools and districts are embracing innovative ideas, showing it is possible to meet the needs of every child and prepare them for success in college, career and life.

Central to their efforts is a focus on the well-being of children and teachers, recognizing that education does not occur in a vacuum. They ask: How do we engage kids? What is most important for every child to be able to know and do? How do we ensure they learn it?

Some examples:

1.  Personalize learning

Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest district, had already positioned itself to take on the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The Center for the Future of Arizona is partnering with Mesa Public Schools and several other school districts in Arizona that are committed to jettisoning traditional one-size-fits-all education and seat time constraints to implement personalized, competency-based education.

In Mesa, teachers are focused on maximizing engagement and helping students reach individual learning targets. Teachers are trying new strategies to personalize learning. Lessons are tailored to what students don’t yet know, rather than forcing them to sit through lessons they already understand.

2.  Focus on student well-being

The Alhambra Elementary School District uses social-emotional learning, which emphasizes that a student cannot learn until they feel safe, connected and trust their teacher and classmates.

Choice Learning Academy is providing a new type of learning environment focused on personalized and project-based learning to increase student engagement and ownership in learning.

When the school opened this year, they knew they had to start with student well-being, so the teachers designed the first project around social-emotional learning. Sixth graders began the year by answering open-ended questions about academics, their lives and the world beyond school.

They discussed why it’s important to build and foster relationships with classmates and teachers. They interviewed each other. And then, using what they learned, they painted a word or phrase to describe themselves on a rock that will be placed in a garden where they can collect their thoughts or cool down.

3.  Try microschools, learning pods

The nonprofit A for Arizona’s Expansion and Innovation Fund provided seed funding to schools as they create new models, including parent-driven innovations such as microschools in south Phoenix and learning pods in central Phoenix.

Microschools gather children from a handful of families for in-person learning that prioritizes student safety and parental involvement. Learning pods cater to the children of essential workers who agree to mutual quarantine rules. A small number of children meet at a child care center for in-person lessons.

4.  Improve remote instruction

A for Arizona is also underwriting remote instruction in five school systems, drawing on CARES funding provided by the Governor’s Office. Teachers provide live instruction or record lessons that students participate in on their own time. Video capabilities allow an excellent teacher to reach more students via technology than the limitations imposed by socially-distanced classrooms.

5.  Close the digital divide

The Phoenix Union High School District provided a laptop to every student who needs one. It is working with the City of Phoenix and business community to close the digital divide by providing universal Wi-Fi access. The district also provides daily access to tutoring and support for all students.

These districts, and others like them, are trailblazers. The pandemic, for all the disruption it has wreaked, has created the conditions to overcome inertia and reshape education.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, notes in her recent article, COVID-19 has forced us to reinvent education now and for the future. We must embrace the new normal that districts and charter schools across Arizona are already creating.

All of us, including policy makers, should support them. Only then can we stop wringing our hands and wave goodbye to learning loss.


Dr. Sybil Francis is president & CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona (CFA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings Arizonans together to build a bright future for our state.