Normally, at this point in the summer, educators would be starting to think about the coming year, updating curricula, and purchasing supplies. But the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted these usual routines. Many educators don't even know whether they will have jobs, whether they will be teaching in person, or how they will juggle their own educational and parenting roles. Policymakers face piles of bills and requests. It's difficult to decide what to do because the educational enterprise is so dependent on a public-health crisis that is changing every day.
In situations like this, it helps to have a road map and a compass to figure out where to go next. Research can help play that role. And, unlike in many instances, there is a consensus among education researchers. From economists to sociologists, from qualitive to quantitative researchers, from liberal to conservative, we all agree-based on research—about what schools and policymakers should do to educate our nation's students in the coming school year.
We invited a group of researchers with diverse perspectives and expertise to come together to discuss what the evidence tells us we should do to educate our students next year. While we write this as co-leaders of the project, the entire lead group was fundamental to this process: Matthew Chingos (Urban Institute), Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University and the Learning Policy Institute), Patricia Gándara (University of California Los Angeles), Dan Goldhaber (University of Washington and CALDER at AIR), Christine Greenhow (Michigan State University), Betheny Gross (Center for Reinventing Public Education), Elizabeth Kozleski (Stanford University), Wayne Lewis (Belmont University), Julie Marsh (University of Southern California), Pedro Noguera (University of Southern California), Anthony Rolle (University of Rhode Island), Mary Walsh (Boston College), Kevin Welner (University of Colorado Boulder), and Martin West (Harvard University). In the end, we produced an open letter with eight pages of suggestions, each linked to research evidence. In the five days since we invited others to sign on, nearly 450 researchers have added their names.
We have seven overarching recommendations for educators and policymakers:
1. Provide substantial additional resources to prevent looming school budget cuts. Since states cannot borrow funds for operating purposes, this must be a role for the federal government. Congress is debating this now, and there is no time to lose. Money matters, and while some states have found ways to plug holes in the short term, this will be insufficient as the fiscal crisis drags on. Getting money to schools now will be a good investment in schools' short- and long-term capacity to educate our nation's students. This recommendation comes first because all the others depend on it.
2. Implement universal internet and computer access. A lack of internet access affected how schools responded and how students experienced remote learning this past spring and is no doubt why many students had no interaction at all with their schools once the crisis started. The need for universal high-speed internet access is not, however, just an issue for this coming year. Schools and students will be making greater use of online resources for years to come. All students must be able to access these resources.
3. Target resources to those most in need. There is clear evidence that the pandemic-related school building closures are widening opportunity gaps by race, income, and class. To address this problem, educators must first understand the specific needs of their students and then use flexibility in funding where it is available to meet students' individual needs. In addition, some groups of students will need more than others; we must target resources to low-income students, students of color, English-language learners, homeless students, and those with disabilities. If choices must be made about which students to bring back in person, we recommend those who are most vulnerable to academic, social, and psychological problems (including younger children who seem less likely to spread the virus) be brought back first.
4. Provide the most personalized and engaging instruction possible under the circumstances, even when it is necessary to be online. We make no recommendation about whether schools should open to in-person instruction-that is a matter for public-health experts. But it is clear already that remote learning will occur for many students throughout the country. The best evidence suggests that virtual schools generate much less learning than in-person schools. However, when online learning is well-designed, it can be a very helpful resource, at least for students who have other instructional supports. We therefore recommend frequent, direct, and meaningful interaction that combines synchronous and asynchronous instruction.
5. Address the learning losses created by the crisis by expanding instructional time in ways that challenge, support, and engage students. The amount of time students spend learning affects how much they learn-and that time decreased dramatically once school buildings closed. We can make up some of this lost learning time, and the associated learning loss, by lengthening the school year, offering summer school, and providing tutoring.
6. Offer tailored, integrated support to each child to address social-emotional needs, physical health, and family well-being. Schools-especially in a crisis-do more than provide academic instruction. Student-support staff such as school counselors, social workers, nurses, and family-outreach workers will be critical to schools' efforts to care for children, especially for those students who have been most impacted by the pandemic.
7. Make decisions about teachers that support pedagogical quality and equity. Teachers are the most important school resources. While Congress should provide funding to ensure that teachers can remain employed, we have to be ready if those funds fall short. Districts should make every effort to retain certified teachers in special education and English-language learning. Bilingual teachers are especially important with at-home learning because many parents don't speak English, and yet those parents are responsible for their children's education.
None of these ideas is new. These are best practices, even under normal conditions, and they take on increasing urgency today. The pandemic has drastically altered the modes through which we must educate our children and deepened the inequities that have long plagued K-12 education in the United States. These recommendations are intended to help educators and policymakers focus their energies on the steps we can take to make sure we provide our students with the best education—for all that education means—in the midst of the chaos swirling around them.
Of course, education research can never be the only guide to educational practice. But it can provide a useful map and a valuable compass to direct how we educate students in the coming year.
Douglas N. Harris is a professor, the chair of the department of economics, and the Schlieder Foundation Chair in Public Education at Tulane University. He is the founding director of ERA-New Orleans and the REACH center and the author of the forthcoming book Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education.