Schoolhouse Rocked

The pandemic crumbled cornerstones of U.S. education. The question now is what will emerge from the rubble.

March 2021

Reading time min

Schoolhouse Rocked

Illustration of a house broken by a tablet.

Illustrations by DaVidRo

In education, as so much else, the coronavirus pandemic has been a long lesson in how quickly things can go from weird to just another Wednesday. A year ago, who would have fathomed endless school days on Zoom? Today, there’s little more mundane for millions of American kids.

But virtual classrooms still leave much to be desired, especially for someone like Tiffany Cheng, a chemistry and forensics high school teacher in Campbell, Calif. Students at Cheng’s school aren’t required to turn on their cameras during remote classes. And the vast majority—concerned with their peers’ gaze as much as their teacher’s—don’t.

So Cheng addresses herself to a screenful of black boxes with only a dimmed sense of who’s on the other side. When a student came to her virtual office hours in November, Cheng was so taken aback when the student turned on her camera at the end of the text exchange, she cried. Three months into the school year, Cheng was seeing her for the first time.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what you look like, and this is what you sound like,’” says Cheng, a mentor in Stanford’s Teacher Education Program. “‘And you’re asking me a question.’” 

 A screen of inscrutable black boxes isn’t a bad metaphor for the effect of COVID-19 on American education. As the pandemic bore down in March 2020, educators responded with often heroic efforts to haul the profession’s use of technology into the future. It’s no joke to say the results probably killed the venerable snow day for many cold-weather schools, says Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.

But what followed has been more like a snow year. Three-quarters of the nation’s 100 largest school districts offered only remote learning in the fall, according to the site Education Week. Half the 900-plus districts it surveyed began the academic year online only, and a quarter were hybrid (some instruction online, some in person), leaving just 24 percent of districts offering traditional, full-time, in-person schooling. The result: a coerced experiment in social distancing, distance learning and pedagogical improvisation, the ramifications of which may take years to be understood.

“We’re going to learn more as more data comes available and as we come out the other side of this traumatic experience,” says Thomas Dee, professor of education and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, adding that intellectual honesty requires an “agnostic posture” until then. “That being said, there’s very real reason to be concerned about the decrement to child development that this generation of youth is going to experience, and that, at least, could be long-lived.”

Normalcy beckons as vaccines roll out, but so does the call for deep reforms to a system whose long-standing ailments have been exposed by COVID-19 wounds that cut deeper in some communities than others. At the least, it’s possible that schools of the near future will involve fewer multiple-choice tests.

Salina Gray

“Before the pandemic, I was really low-tech. I was a fairly effective teacher in many ways. Where I was not effective, however, was in terms of the use of technology, or in terms of getting kids excited about technology, of conveying the benefits and the wonders of technology. And I had to learn a whole new way of providing instruction.

“I think there are some things about distance learning, some tools, that people are going to fall in love with. The features on Google Classroom, Zoom polling, Google Slides and Docs as interactive notebooks, and Flipgrids and Jamboards as ways students can communicate their understanding are just some of them. Once we return, whatever return looks like, we can’t go back to where we were. I think that this is potentially going to help educators really come into the future in a way that maybe many of us, people like me, were able to get away with not doing before. All of that is going to change, and it should.”

Salina Gray, PhD ’14, teaches seventh-grade science at a public middle school in Southern California. Read our “Back to ‘School’” Q&As.

Photo: Courtesy Salina Gray

History Lessons

There aren’t great historical corollaries for the past year in American education. The 1918 flu pandemic killed some 675,000 people in the United States but shut down schools for a shorter period. Other disasters, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were devastating but regionally contained, with the median time out of school at five weeks, according to a Rand Corporation report (though many students spent the remainder of the year displaced from their original schools). 

Michael Hines, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and a historian of American education, has written about a 1937 polio outbreak in Chicago that pushed educators to try their own version of remote instruction, broadcasting 15-minute lessons on local radio stations to home-bound children. Complete with celebrity announcers, the effort ginned up headlines as well as anxiety. A hotline received 1,000 calls on the first day from parents worried about poor reception, overhasty instructions and missed broadcasts.

The effort lasted just several weeks but was long enough to raise concerns that the households benefiting most from the “air lessons” were the ones who needed them the least—families, for example, who had the space and money to have an individual radio set up for each of their children. Students from less affluent homes and those who needed more help suffered, Hines wrote. The results tempered enthusiasm that broadcasting might one day “supplant the textbook—and even the teacher.”

As COVID-19 forced a new round of distance learning a year ago, Hines heard speculation about whether technology had evolved to the point of replacing traditional schools. He doesn’t hear much about that now. As before, he says, there’s an abiding sense that too much is missing, especially for those who most need it.

In education, as in other effects of the disease, COVID-19 has hit already vulnerable communities the hardest, “whether you’re talking students of color, students with special needs, English-language learners or the unhoused,” Hines says. “This pandemic looks different in different communities.” 

Troubling Progress Reports

The news about distance learning isn’t all bad. Results from standardized tests administered to nearly 4.4 million U.S. students this past fall showed children in grades three through eight holding steady in reading and experiencing only moderate decline in math. The numbers are better than some had feared after the shutdown in the spring and the forced migration to remote learning, but they come with a significant caveat: A disproportionate number of minority and high-poverty children, who are the most exposed to the pandemic’s economic and health upheavals, didn’t take standardized tests in the fall. 

Illustration of a woman in front of Zoom screens

And academics are just one measure of student well-being. Mental health was already an issue before the pandemic, says Pope, ’88, PhD ’99, the co-founder of a nonprofit called Challenge Success, which partners with schools to promote healthier environments. Survey data suggests that months of isolation, lockdowns and deaths have increased anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, she says. Comparing March–October 2019 with the same period in 2020, the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health jumped 24 percent for 5- to 11-year-olds and 31 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds, according to analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s why a story like Cheng’s worries Pope. Emotional connections matter not just because they facilitate learning, motivation and belonging, but because teachers, counselors and school nurses are often the eyes that see deeper problems. “My big concern right now is if we have enough clinicians and mental health-care providers to handle this load when we couldn’t even handle it before COVID,” says Pope.

Tuin asked a senior what she’d request if she had three wishes. Her answers: a football game, an assembly and graduation.

Jon Tuin, the principal of an Orange County high school who has worked with Challenge Success, sees the pandemic’s toll in failing grades and rising dropout rates.  His teaching staff has been making home visits to students who haven’t been logging in to classes. Often, the team has returned with stories of students who have to work or babysit, or who lack internet access or a quiet place to work in a crowded home.

His school has also been staging campus events to talk to the rising number of students getting Ds and Fs. To a surprising degree, Tuin says, many were students with few problems before the pandemic—kids who were in track and field, drama or other student organizations but who’ve struggled to make the transition to a more isolated life, devoid of extracurriculars. “They just said, ‘Man, I just have been in a funk,’” Tuin says. “‘I just haven’t been able to get connected.’”

On one occasion, Tuin asked a senior what she’d request if she had three wishes. Her answers: a football game, an assembly and graduation.

Molly Pont-Brown

“I hope we emerge from this with an increased understanding of how important social-emotional development is for kids. I hope that we have a reduced emphasis on testing, and that we’ve learned it’s not as critical as it’s been made to seem. I think there are a lot of opportunities to use technology in the future in really creative ways that we haven’t availed ourselves of in the past. For example, we’ve been able to take our students virtually to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and they go all around the museum on a scavenger hunt using virtual reality. They absolutely loved that. 

“I also just hope that overall we’ll return with an increased appreciation for our public schools and what they do for kids. And nationwide and especially here in Arizona, I hope that appreciation translates into actual financial support for what we’re trying to do.”

Molly Pont-Brown, ’94, teaches fourth grade at a public school in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Photo: Courtesy Molly Pont-Brown

Unmet Needs

Some kids in special education have actually fared OK, says Christopher Lemons, associate professor of special education. He’s heard accounts of kids in speech therapy achieving great results online and of some on the autism spectrum who’ve thrived in the new environment.

But for young kids who are nonverbal, struggle making eye contact or need physical therapy, Zoom can be an especially poor substitute for face-to-face meetings. There are children for whom a screen just isn’t something they want, or are able, to focus on, Lemons says.

He recounts recently working online with a boy, around 7, who kept getting up to walk around the computer, expecting to find the person talking to him. Effective in-person sessions, he says, often require physical proximity: sharing the corner of a table with a hand on the chairback or a foot by a chair leg to stop the student from scooting away; being able to quickly interact with the book or toy the child is engaged with; having a place to take a break and play. If a teacher is stuck on the other side of an internet connection, he says, it often falls on an already exhausted parent to stand in as a proxy.

Kids are resilient, Lemons says, but students in special ed who aren’t receiving consistent services are sliding backwards. Federal law already requires schools to offer summer programs for those who’ll regress without them. But the mandate is chronically underfunded, and many districts restrict access accordingly, he says. “One of the things that would be really important for Congress to do as they’re working on additional COVID response packages is to earmark money for students with disabilities to receive intensive interventions over the course of the summer,” he says. “These are students whose needs need to be prioritized.”

Summer programs will invariably be considered for other students if educators diagnose major problems with lost learning and engagement, Thomas Dee says. Still, it’s hardly a panacea. The literature on the benefits of traditional summer school, often comprising long days focused on one or two subjects, isn’t that encouraging: “Pretty modest and short-term test score gains,” he says.

The ones that do work well? Dee points to the San Francisco Unified School District’s approach—a program called Aim High that incorporates a wider breadth of academic subjects, as well as a course called Issues and Choices that targets social-emotional topics like advocating against bullying, encouraging a growth mindset, and challenging stereotypes. In pre-COVID times, the mix seemed effective at re-engaging students, resulting in dramatic drops in chronic absenteeism. That could be key to reconnecting with kids after normal school returns, Dee says. “A summer program with this kind of broad design is uniquely attractive, not just in promoting learning narrowly defined but in supporting student engagement,” he says.

Deep Problems

By definition, everyone is affected by a pandemic. But for Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emerita of education and president of the California State Board of Education, this pandemic has been a stress test exposing older, deeper and much more specific ills that hit poor people and communities of color—from structural racism to regressive school funding to the digital divide. “When the pandemic [began], about 30 percent of young people and families lacked computers that were up to the task, or high-speed internet, or both,” Darling-Hammond says. “Those were, of course, disproportionately families of color and families in low-income communities.”

She illustrates that last point with a widely circulated photo of two small girls, sitting on a sidewalk outside a Taco Bell in Salinas, Calif., so they could use its Wi-Fi for school. Long before anyone knew what COVID-19 was, the lack of internet access was holding back families like theirs economically and educationally. The pandemic just put the problem in our faces and exacerbated it.

‘Everything about education has been disrupted. This is a moment for reinventing school as we restart it.’

It’s a point echoed by Sean Reardon, a GSE professor who studies inequity in schools. The pandemic’s effect on schoolkids is bad, he says, but its influence pales compared with that of a lifetime of poverty or racism. “The pandemic is not on the order of magnitude of 18 years of living in a high-poverty neighborhood, struggling for resources without a safety net or social network or economic resources that make it possible to succeed.”

Yet the tumult of COVID-19 also brings opportunity for wider change, says Darling-Hammond. America’s mass education system formed a century ago, under the heavy influence of assembly-line efficiency, corporate esteem for bureaucratic regulations and 1920s notions of preparing people for “their place in life,” she says. A hundred years later, the pandemic’s upheaval is a timely invitation to pursue new directions.

“Everything about education has been disrupted,” she said at a virtual GSE conference on race and inequality in the fall, shortly before she took the helm of President Biden’s education transition team. “This is a moment for reinventing school as we restart it.”

In August, the Learning Policy Institute, the education think tank that Darling-Hammond heads, issued a report with 10 policy suggestions for doing just that. Some recommendations require major institutional planning. For example, the report extols community schools, like those comprising the Oakland Unified School District, where schools are paired with community partners who provide on-site health services, counseling, team sports and more. Such schools already knew which families needed the most help and could keep them connected to services, the report explains.

Other recommendations may be taking root naturally in the transformed educational landscape. Moratoriums on standardized testing—and decisions by hundreds of colleges to suspend use of the ACT and SAT for admissions—have created space and flexibility for teachers to tailor lessons to the interests, cultures and needs of students, said lead writers, including Darling-Hammond.

Such “authentic learning” often ties lessons to real-world applications. At Oakland High School in the spring of 2020, 61 students took on the challenge of improving the commute to schools for teachers and students. The project continued even as the pandemic shut down so much else—because the students cared about the results, organizers said. The project’s client? The City of Oakland Department of Transportation.

School administrator openness to such projects has jumped since the pandemic, Darling-Hammond says. “It’s allowed people to think about what we want to be focusing on that connects kids to the world beyond.”

Rethinking the Solution

Wholesale changes in education are always challenged by the atomized structure of our school system, says Dan Schwartz, dean of the GSE and professor of educational technology. People tend to think of K-12 education as a massive cargo ship, which can be moved, however slowly, with an order. In reality, he says, it’s more like a sea full of sailboats, each with its own captain, a fractured command that was on full display over the past year as individual districts struggled with how to implement learning within their communities.

The sweet spot for lasting change, he says, may be those things that prove easy, effective and popular. The past year has already forced changes in the classroom that may—some say should—outlast the pandemic. Thach Do, MA ’16, a high school math teacher at the same school as Tiffany Cheng, is reluctant to crow about upsides to a difficult era. But the move online, he says, has provided a valuable push toward “ed tech” platforms that have given him new ability to share and track classwork. Like Cheng, he feels disheartened speaking into the void of turned-off cameras, but says with new apps he has gained clarity on students’ daily progress. “I know exactly who is lost and who is ready to go on their own,” he says.

But the solutions offered by technology aren’t always the best answers. How do you stop students from Googling their way through tests, or taking answers from Dad, when there’s only a small camera—if it’s on—to keep them honest? It’s one of the most common concerns of teachers who attend Challenge Success’s workshops, Pope says.

In response, some schools have grown hawkish, adopting proctoring software that flags suspicious eye and body movements. But such programs aren’t cheap, and they have incited backlash from critics who see intrusiveness, mistrust and potential for fallibility. 

Illustration of builders fixing a schoolhouse

For Pope, the controversy is mostly beside the point. The critical weakness of testing isn’t that, when done virtually, it’s easy to cheat. It’s that traditional true/false, multiple-choice, right-wrong, memorization-heavy tests are poor measures of growth, comprehension and mastery, and promote shallow learning and grade fixation. They’re also unreflective of how we operate in the real world.

“Nobody at work says, ‘You are going to take a test tomorrow and it’s going to be timed and you don’t know what’s on it and you can’t use any of the resources around you, including your computer and your colleagues,’” she says. “That’s what we ask students to do every day.”

‘We are giving them a solution that will work right now through remote learning, but we absolutely want them to continue this solution when everybody is back.’

She counsels schools to drop the software and adopt more creative methods of assessment, which might include asking students to show their work, observing them make presentations, or utilizing the kind of real-world projects Darling-Hammond talks about—all of which offer a deeper gauge of understanding.

It’s an approach many education researchers have long championed to limited buy-in from time-strapped teachers. But the pandemic has brought about new interest. Pope jokes that it’s Challenge Success’s “dirty little secret”: “We are giving them a solution that will work right now through remote learning, but we absolutely want them to continue this solution when everybody is back.” 

Cheng, for one, has become more of a believer in an open-book mindset during the pandemic. It’s the way scientists work, she says, using all the tools and research at their disposal, then having to verify and apply what’s been learned.

Rather than asking her students to give the qualities of a certain element, she says, she might give them a made-up scenario. A new element has just been discovered, she’ll say, with a list of attributes she provides. “I will say, ‘Here’s the periodic table. All the same rules apply,’” she says. “‘Tell me about this element.’”

Adding By Subtraction

The constraints of distance learning are also pressuring teachers to limit content. Even the tech-savviest teachers strain to cover the amount of material online they once did in the classroom. Students may struggle to log into online classrooms; Chromebooks can choke on the data demands of certain sites, the slow tap-tap of typing can’t come close to the speed of talking, and then there’s the stress of life in a pandemic.

In response, many teachers have unilaterally narrowed their lessons down to the essentials. Pope calls it “Marie Kondo-ing” the curriculum, in honor of the famed queen of decluttering. “You can’t teach it all,” she says. “You never could, but you really can’t now because you can’t overload kids with content when they’ve got so much else going on.”

California has gone farther, enacting legislation to authorize slimmed-down English and math curricula for online classes. Enter Jo Boaler, a Stanford education professor who was tapped to lead the creation of the new guidance in math. Boaler—who has a fervent following among many K–12 math teachers—has long maintained that we overstuff math classes with rote drills, timed tests and an excess of superficial material at the expense of more meaningful, creative and interconnected approaches.

She’s not short of candidate curricula to cut. In a world of ubiquitous computing power, she doesn’t see great point in the amount of time typically spent on teaching synthetic division, factoring or even division of fractions. Nobody in the real world does them by hand, she says; they cause enormous amounts of stress; and they’re generally not taught in a way that connects them to bigger ideas. They also take time away from more insightful learning.

“Probably the biggest need teachers have in terms of better teaching is less of it, so they can actually go in depth on ideas and give kids a rich experience,” she says.

She’s not only interested in subtracting from the curriculum. She wants to see data science taught to kids from kindergarten up. In the midst of a pandemic rife with misinformation, she says, the need has never been clearer. 

Bonding Time

Pope may have to do some persuading to get teachers to try alternative ways to grade pupils, but, she says, there’s no question from educators when she speaks about the importance of building relationships with students. 

It’s something most teachers have an innate sense of. And if they don’t, the discrepancies revealed by the pandemic and a summer of Black Lives Matter protests have drawn a line under how much weight some students carry with them. “If teachers thought they were really only responsible for academics, they now absolutely understand they’ve got to do things to foster connection in order to facilitate learning,” Pope says.

 The irony is that this awareness has peaked when distance learning has made it so much harder to act. It was one thing in the spring when teachers moved online with students they already knew, who knew them and who knew one another. It was another in a new school year when everyone was a stranger to one another. That, Cheng says, is when the cameras went dark.

Challenge Success helps teachers cross the void, often by finding simple ways to translate to the digital environment the kind of icebreakers and community activities the teachers already used in their classrooms. 

One idea Pope stresses is the sacredness of shared screen time. Something like a lecture can be recorded for individual watching later, she says. Shared class time should be reserved for working together, forming groups to work on activities, breaking students off into smaller chatrooms, or holding group discussions. “If you’re going to have everyone on the screen, use that time to build connections,” she says.  

For Cheng, it’s still a challenge to re-create the rapport she naturally had in the classroom, where she would read signals as small as how a student was holding a pen for clues to comprehension and mood. She used to be so surrounded by students that she had to schedule lunchtime gym breaks just to make sure she got away. Now she never sees them.

But she’s honed ways to build bonds, acknowledging every student by name each class even if they don’t respond, and engaging in small talk via chat. She writes down their answers for follow-up conversations. “The more I repeat back to them what I know about them, the more they are able to open up and just chat with me,” Cheng says.

As an introvert, Do doesn’t miss the banter of real-life classes as much as Cheng does. But he doesn’t question its importance. The data showing how many kids went off the grid in the spring makes it clear how easily they can float away.

And so he spends the first 10 minutes of class engaging his students with games, humor and memes. “I have never done this much community-building in my class before,” he says. 

One time, he learned it was a student’s birthday and asked everyone to grab a pencil and paper, draw their best birthday cake and hold it up to the camera. “That was a really adorable moment,” he says. It was also one of the few times his students turned on their cameras all semester.

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

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