State sets ‘meaningful and productive’ K-12 learning goal
Baker dismisses notion of writing off this year
SHUTTERED K-12 SCHOOLS across Massachusetts are being urged by state officials to create a curriculum that would engage students stuck at home because of the coronavirus in “meaningful and productive learning” for about three hours a day.
At a State House press briefing, Gov. Charlie Baker brushed aside the notion that maybe the state should just throw in the towel for the remainder of a school year severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think we should just write off the rest of the school year for kids for whom it’s really important,” Baker said somewhat testily. “We should be committed to the idea that, if it’s safe, we want kids to be able to finish the year. I don’t want to toss away the second half of a student’s possibility to learn what they need to learn to succeed in the next grade. How does that help anybody?”
The state’s guidance for what school districts should do over the next five weeks, which was posted online Thursday, is fairly straightforward. It urges school districts to focus on reinforcing skills already taught this year, take advantage of remote learning tools ranging from group chats to telephone calls to emails, require students to connect with teachers multiple times a week, and grade students on a credit/no credit basis.
The guidance issued by the state is less about revolutionizing teaching than it is about the enormously complicated logistics of teaching students remotely. It does, however, leave the door open to new creative approaches if school districts want to pursue them.
“Remote learning is not synonymous with online learning,” the guidance says. “Remote learning can take place in a multitude of ways, including by helping students engage with resources in their everyday lives and in the natural world around them. Remote learning also provides unique opportunities to further engage students in the arts or interdisciplinary work. Finally, we must be conscious of the effects of increased screen time and seek balance between learning through technology and remote learning that happens offline to support students’ curiosity and understanding. “
The guidance also recommends that students set aside time each day for physical activity and enrichment activities such as dance, media arts, music, theater, and visual arts.
One option for school districts is to tap online and TV offerings for students from WGBH, the public television station in Boston. The station’s online distance learning center offers “assignable, self-paced, and self-contained activities to help you provide your students with high-quality, standards-aligned material to keep them engaged and learning.”
There is material for all grades, as well as educational TV programs each day from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday’s schedule of TV shows features two episodes of “NOVA” on Saturn and superstorms and three episodes of “American Experience” – two dealing with World War I and one with the Grand Coulee Dam. All three episodes of “American Experience” came with related materials and the opportunity to hold Google Classroom discussions.
The state’s guidance urges districts to be cautious in giving no credit to students for their work and not expect too much from students cut off from their regular classrooms.
“To me, it looks like the best guidance that could be given in this unprecedented situation,” said Paul Toner, a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association who is now senior national director of policy and partnerships for Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to incorporate the voices of teachers in education policy.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” said Toner. “You want to keep all children learning, and some families are in a good position to do that and some are not.”
The state guidance acknowledges that divide and explicitly urges districts for the most part not to continue advancing through curriculum material as if schools were still in session.
“We strongly recommend that districts and schools focus on reinforcing skills already taught this school year and applying and deepening these skills,” the guidelines say. “We recognize that in some cases, teachers and students may wish to continue with new material, particularly at the high school level. In these cases, districts should consider equity of access and support for all students.”
The state said those equity issues include everything from access to technology to language barriers.“We strongly urge districts and schools to consider whether the students have had equitable access to learning opportunities during this closure, keeping in mind the variety of technology, health, disability, and language challenges that could occur,” the guidance says. “The individual student experience will vary depending on student age, individual and family needs, access and capacity for remote learning (including access to technology and internet), and the ongoing health of students, families, and staff.”
Toner said there is also a wide range among teachers in familiarity with overseeing remote learning. Some teachers have a lot of training in the methods, he said, while others “are novices.”