Executive Perspective

One Pandemic Plus: Greater Voice for Students
By DANIEL A. DOMENECH/School Administrator, June 2020

I AM WRITING this in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with the hope that, as you read it, events will be taking a turn for the better.

As I’ve talked to the news media in recent weeks about what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on our school systems, the theme for this month’s issue of School Administrator is quite relevant: student voice and motivation.

AASA has produced many articles and web-based resources on personalized learning, and I co-authored a book on the subject in 2019. A major component of the practice is to allow students to have a role in determining what they want to learn and when. In schools that have implemented personalized learning, we already see students are more motivated to learn. Students who had found their schools and the learning process to be irrelevant now are engaged in meaningful learning. They are motivated to participate in activities they have chosen.

Uneven Impact

Closures of school buildings have called for districts to provide online learning. We know the capability to do that varies widely, and many also have provided learning packets to be sent home to the students. But the impact of prolonged school closures has made it clear that online learning can no longer be an innovation — it must be the practice for every student in America. The school calendar, seat time requirements and attendance regulations are just some of the current standards the pandemic will affect.

The prolonged school closures will result in significant inequities in the amount and quality of instruction that students receive, widening the achievement gap. Those with access to virtual learning experiences will be at a distinct advantage. Those students who are excited about being able to choose what they learn will have an edge over those who do not.

Teaching the same material to all students at the same time after students return to school will not close the gap. Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that students who have thrived on online learning will resent having to return to traditional instruction.

Superintendents who have delved into personalized learning will tell you that empowering the student voice does not always meet with overwhelming approval. Teachers whose practice has been to teach the same lesson plan for the entire class may object to allowing students to divert to unexpected areas. They may not have had the training to differentiate instruction. It’s a generalization, but this may be more common at the secondary level than at the elementary level.

However, the opposite is true for online instruction. A recent survey by the Consortium for School Networking shows that, when looking at the one-to-one capacity needed for online instruction, 66 percent of high schools and 69 percent of middle schools surveyed indicate they have that capacity. Only 43 percent of elementary schools say they have that capacity.

In the current environment, we may find more personalized learning going on in elementary classrooms but more online instruction at the secondary level. Student maturity may be a factor as older students may require less teacher support. However, the equity issue underlying virtual learning from the home will need to be resolved. Many students may have the laptop from school, but they do not have internet access at home. Provisions must be made to extend access to those families that cannot afford it.

Safe Feelings

Beyond personalized learning, student voice also is getting more attention as social-emotional learning gains greater importance in classrooms. Prior to the pandemic, what kept many superintendents up at night was the opioid epidemic, student suicides, school shootings and bullying incidents.

The recognition that emotional factors impede the ability of many students to learn, even to stay alive, has brought about a renewed focus on social-emotional learning. We need to hear from our students. We need to encourage them to share their worries and fears and what they need to feel safe and secure in our schools and their homes.

AASA manages a vibrant Social Emotional Learning Cohort that is engaged in meaningful dialogue on how the practice contributes to the development of the whole child. Working with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, we have developed a Superintendent’s SEL Toolkit (available on our website). We are thankful for the financial support for this initiative provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Motivated students raising their voices may be one welcome byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic.

DANIEL DOMENECH is AASA executive director and co-author of Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success. Twitter: @AASADan