Schools, parents should use summer to prepare their K-12 students for fall in-person classes

May 27, 2021

ANN ARBOR—Now that many schools nationwide have announced plans to hold in-person sessions this fall, questions have been raised about what’s next for students who spent much of the last year learning virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pamela Davis-Kean, a University of Michigan professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research, studies the inequalities in educational opportunities and what that means for families, schools and children as the crisis is potentially increasing achievement gaps across the country.

Prior to the pandemic, students struggled in reading and science, but held steady with math proficiency when 4th and 8th graders were tested. What outcome do you expect a year from now when the analysis of the 2020-21 test scores becomes available?

Pamela Davis-Kean

Pamela Davis-Kean

We are already seeing issues in what is being projected by the NWEA (formerly known as Northwest Evaluation Association) which administers the MAP test across the country. They projected that reading achievement might hold steady but we were going to see a drop in math achievement. Unfortunately, their projections look to be pretty good because the data from the school year 2020-21 shows that most students are holding their own with reading achievement throughout the pandemic but that math scores are dropping in a very concerning way. They reason that parents were able to stimulate kids’ reading in the home environment, but that they could not necessarily keep up with math and that the remote schooling was not filling the gap.

Consistent with my research on the inequalities in parental educational attainment, parents with higher levels of education hold higher expectations for their children going to college and are providing resources and activities to keep them stimulated—reading to them, buying books, going to museums and libraries. Some parents don’t see this cognitive stimulation as the job of the parent and look to the schools to provide this, particularly with math. Other parents don’t have the time or resources to provide these activities or don’t feel confident in providing this, and that is why moving schooling to the home environment only increases the inequalities in education.

Schools help to reduce the inequalities related to socioeconomic differences by providing cognitive simulation, emotional support and training. For many families, providing what schools have been providing as a separate institution was not possible and remote schooling wasn’t filling the gap.

How concerned should parents be as students return to full-time in-person instruction in fall 2021? Is there something they should do this summer to help them transition back to a traditional school schedule?

At the end of the school year in 2020, parents, educators and researchers wondered how to deal with the “COVID slide” related to achievement and gains in learning due to schools shifting to virtual learning across the country. The education literature often discusses the “summer slump” or the reduction in achievement that occurs for most students over the summer months. Many students are able to overcome this slump within the first months of a new academic year but it is unclear how things will look with a longer than normal time out of schooling last year, and then virtual schooling during the academic year.

Schools and parents should be assessing where their children are academically and emotionally this summer and providing any academic and emotional support that they think might be needed to get them ready for the fall. Some kids just need time with their friends again and to get some additional training on subjects. There may be opportunities for summer camps to provide some needed emotional support and some tutoring to help with academics. Creating Individual Education Plans for each student may be necessary in order to monitor how children are progressing and “rebounding” from the pandemic.

One topic raised has been having kids repeat a grade, especially from Kindergarten to 3rd grade. Is this a good option for parents or should they assume their child will successfully adjust to the next grade? What would be the psychological impact on these kids held back?

Repeating a grade or being held back might be positive in giving children extra training on the same material, but has emotional consequences on children when others of their age advance to new grades. The idea of “grades” is a constructed concept that doesn’t really have a meaning in development. All children develop at different rates and what grade your child is in is basically the average of other kids of similar ages but that doesn’t really reflect learning.

Having grades grouped together would allow students to be advanced in some subjects and still working on skills in another without the level of grade being a metric. If a student needs a second year of something like reading, schools should be flexible enough to allow for that additional training without retaining children in grades. It is not the fault of a child for not learning materials, and yet they are the ones who have to deal with the emotional outcome of being told they have to be held back a grade. Again, using the summer to make sure that students are catching up on skills is an important period of time that can be useful for learning instead of being “nonschool” time.

What would help kids moving forward?

Homeschooling created stress for parents, teachers and kids. The media has begun to use the term the “lost generation.” No one is lost unless we choose to do nothing to prevent the generation from losing ground in education and eventually in jobs and other adult transitions. We must provide the resources that are necessary to help children learn and advance in their education.

Perhaps the easiest to create would be a local, state or national tutoring system that can hire retired teachers, teachers in training and retired university professors to provide summer, in-school and after-school tutoring. This tutoring would be based on the Individual Education Plans, and each student would be monitored individually and receive targeted mentoring that advanced their learning without the constraints of grade-level proficiencies.

For secondary school (high school) students, a new avenue may be available by using community college as a place to get additional skills and training for applying to four-year colleges or to get a two-year associate’s degree that can be used in many full-time occupations. This will help with students who may be struggling with skills missed during high school, like mathematics and hands-on science classes. The newly proposed policies for free community college may be coming at an ideal time for providing these resources or basically extending secondary education a year or two post-high school to obtain the skills that are sought for full-time occupations.

Education is intergenerational, and supporting this generation is important for the generations to follow. There is no reason to “lose” this generation if we do what we can to support the systems that support and educate them.

Davis-Kean’s presentation in the ISR Insights Series: Beyond the Pandemic: Challenges & Opportunities for Changes in Education
The Conversation: Few US students ever repeat a grade but that could change due to COVID-19

Jared Wadley, 734-834-7719, [email protected]

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