3 Questions: Making the 2021-22 school year work for students

What’s the best way to get K-12 students across the U.S. to bounce back from the pandemic? MIT’s Justin Reich has an idea: Ask them. Reich, an associate professor in MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, has co-authored a new report on the return to the classroom in the 2021-22 school year, based on interviews with over 250 educators and 4,000 students, in addition to 10 charrettes involving students, teachers, parents, and school administrators.

A core finding of the report is that the changes students and teachers would like to make to schools are less about Covid-related issues and more about uncomfortable learning environments, resource deficits, stifling curricula, and overly strict behavioral rules. The report, “Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID,” by Reich and Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has just been released; it also contains material readers can use to set up their own interview and research process in schools. Reich notes that the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 might make a return to normal schooling “a slower process than we had anticipated,” but hopes stakeholders everywhere will keep thinking about how schools can keep evolving. MIT News talked to Reich about the report.

Q: What was the genesis of this study and report?

A: At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, the default genre for advice to schools had been the checklist: Here are 175 things you might do to prepare for the coming school year. There’s a purpose to those things, but the obvious missing piece was: What are the two or three most important things school leaders ought to be thinking about? That led us to release our first report in July 2020: “Imagining September: Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19.” Our new report is a follow up to that initial work.

Looking ahead to the coming school year, a consensus narrative has emerged quickly among education policy circles, which is that the problem of the pandemic is that it’s leading to lower test scores, lower levels of math and reading learning as measured by test scores, and the solution to that is targeted tutoring, and extra school programs, and basically just higher dosages of particular schooling modes. That perspective is not entirely wrong, but it is not informed by what students and teachers and their families think. What are they going to say? That’s what we were trying to figure out.

Q: So what are people saying? This report does not have just one conclusion, of course, but what are some of the main findings?

A: First, as I like to say, everyone has been having a different pandemic. The things that worked well for some students worked terribly for others. We heard all kinds of things, from “I learned all kinds of great ways to use technology this year, I’m going to use it more in the future,” to “Everyone is all fed up with using technology, I’m going to use it much less, and get back to face-to-face, in-person kinds of things.” That’s one element.

A second thing is: When we would ask people to reflect on the pandemic and what they wanted to do differently, [sometimes the answers] would feel like they were out of left field. The very first kid in the very first middle school classroom we did this with said, “We should have a pool.” What does a pool have to do with a pandemic? But when you’re working with kids and teachers, they’re telling you what’s meaningful to them, and you have to take their ideas seriously. As terrible as the pandemic was, for a lot of students and teachers, it’s not the most urgent educational concern. The most urgent educational concern is the fact that we have for decades, for over 100 years maybe, allowed these deeply inequitable schools. And some schools have pools and some don’t, and it’s not fair. And some schools have good food, and some schools have lousy food. And some schools treat their students with dignity, and some schools nearly imprison and police their students all day. Those differences are wrong, and that’s what we need to fix. If you go to a poorly resourced school, for some young people the difficulties of the pandemic are not that different than the difficulties that existed before the pandemic.

So if you read three novels instead of four novels this past year, that’s not a good thing, but it’s not the crisis that people closest to classrooms are feeling urgently. There are good reasons to believe kids who missed important learning experiences should have tutoring and extended school days. But also, significantly, for young people, the dominant sense of loss they have is social loss, not learning loss. If you’re 13, or for anyone, missing out on a year of being with people can be devastating. If you want to understand kids this coming year, a dominant feeling is their need to re-establish social connections. And you can fight against that or ignore that, but it’s probably a lot easier to run with that and help meet those needs.

Q: On that note, one theme that is emphasized in this report is that those social and emotional needs are not, in fact, separate from the academic process. Shouldn’t we acknowledge more often that people learn, in school, as part of a community, and that social development can be related to classroom advancement?

A: One thing emerging from the pandemic is a recognition that the application of grace and humanity to our schooling has academic payoffs. One teacher said, “It was just so easy for my kids to leave [online classes], so what was I going to do to make them stay?” Many, many teachers told us there were things they learned this year [about engaging students] that they were going to apply to the future. The paradox of the pandemic is that in one sense teachers feel more agency than before. There are so many things in schools that seemed fixed and immovable that we now realize are changeable. But we have to preserve that sense of possibility.

The way to do that, as a first step, is through reflection, inviting people to think about the last year. They need to do that anyway, to celebrate the extraordinary resilience of young people and educators. So that’s what I’m hoping happens in the coming years, and why we published the report, with a whole series of tools, so more people can do this kind of reflection. There’s exactly one generation of young people who have gone to school in a pandemic, and if we want to do well by them, we need to listen to them.