Guest Post: Goldhaber On Learning From Covid

Dan Goldhaber and I are working to get a Covid disruption learning agenda off the ground. The pandemic has been awful in so many ways I don’t need to go into here. But responses to it have triggered a whole set of natural experiments. Our top priority should be recovery. At the same time, it’s important that education leaders don’t miss a chance to lay the groundwork to ask some pretty fundamental questions about what we do. We discuss that here. Contact me here or Dan here if you want to learn more about this.

By Dan Goldhaber and Andy Rotherham 

When Massachusetts announced another pause of the iconic MCAS high school test for the class of 2022, students were not the only people getting excited, education researchers did too. This is but one example of how the pandemic has disrupted the education system across the country. But while it has been painful and shocking, it has also created enormous opportunities for us to question the very foundations of our education system. 

It is clearly important to track the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on student learning  and examine how the recently approved $128 billion in extra federal funding for schools is used. But we must also seize the rare opportunity to ask more foundational questions, too.  

If the last year taught us anything, it’s how uncertain life can be. That common sense notion is worth keeping in mind as schools return to the seeming normalcy of in-person instruction. The return to school is leading to a flurry of confident predictions about what the future holds and what the impact of the last year is. Instead, prepare to be surprised. 

Surprises should not be surprising. Following World War II, most people projecting the evolution of economic growth around the world would have made a bet on South American countries given their climates and rich endowments of natural resources. We know how that turned out. Today, countries like Singapore and South Korea have output per capita that are multiple times that of Argentina and Mexico. Japan, of course, also bounced back from the war. There are varied explanations for what is now known as the “Natural Resource Curse,” but the core lesson is what seems obvious does not always turn out to be right. 

With the pandemic we’ve already seen a host of predictions fall apart upon contact with the real world. The economic bottom did not fall out of school finance because of pandemic shut downs. Pandemic burnout did not cause a mass exodus from the teacher labor market over the past year. Learning “pods” created by parents did not end up being the threat to educational equity many advocates were certain pods would be. It turns out Black families are actually more likely to prefer them

The COVID-19 crisis and recovery efforts provide us a fleeting opportunity to ask big and important questions about how we do education in this country. While almost all schools were virtual in the spring of 2020, there was a lot of variation in what happened to students as various policies were modified or waved. The fall and the 2020-21 school year brought great variation, too. Students were educated in-person, in a hybrid setting, or completely remotely and various requirements were kept or jettisoned. 

Policymakers could never run an experiment where we ask a random group of students to take a test like the MCAS to graduate from high school but not require it of a second random group. It’s unfair and unethical. Because of the pandemic, however, that’s the difference between the classes of 2019, 2020, and 2021. What happens to them, and students in states where similar requirements that were also suspended in five or 10 years? There are also differences in how students learned as COVID-19 ushered in a variety of instructional adaptations. Schools used different e-learning platforms, requirements of teachers, and established different expectations and policies for students.

The pandemic had broader impacts on the educational system. Teacher preparation, for instance, looked very different in many places over the past year, and all states waived at least some requirements for teacher employment eligibility. Many of these adaptations born out of necessity will no doubt be reversed when life returns to normal. Should they be? We should pause before assuming that a return to normalcy is the right path forward and seize the opportunity to learn.

We take a lot of things on faith in education or continue doing them because we’ve always done them. But what if popular policies have no real relevance for students? Right now the debate about many policies is driven by special interest politics. The pandemic created numerous rare opportunities to instead bring empiricism to these issues and ask big questions about educational practice and people’s lives. How would we think about the education system if, for instance, various high school graduation requirements actually don’t make an appreciable difference five or 10 years after students leave high school? Or what if changing teacher credentialing rules has no effect on student outcomes? You can’t run randomized experiments about these and other big questions but the pandemic created natural ones all over the place.

There is no doubt that learning from the natural experiments coming out of the pandemic will be challenging. The impacts of the pandemic are both deep and wide, so drawing conclusions about how a particular COVID-related intervention, such as remote learning, impacted students will require careful analysis and appropriate humility. We can learn from patterns of student outcomes across and within states and those patterns might challenge deeply held beliefs about “what works” for students if we have the courage to ask. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is, with any luck, the most disruptive change to schooling we will see in our lifetimes. Helping schools and families recover should be our top priority and even with recovery at hand we should not lose sight of how hard this experience was, and is, for many families and communities. 

At the same time, we owe it to future generations of students to make sure we do not lose invaluable opportunities to learn that could lead to improvements in how we conceptualize, organize, and operate America’s schools.

Dr. Dan Goldhaber is the Director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER, caldercenter.org) at the American Institutes for Research and the Director of the Center for Education Data & Research (CEDR, cedr.us) at the University of Washington.

Andrew Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners (bellwethereducation.org) and writes this blog. 

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