If you’re concerned your school-age child may be falling behind as we prepare to start another semester in lockdown, you are not alone.
There is a simple truth when it comes to education in the time of coronavirus:
“Everyone feels like they’re falling behind because most everyone is behind,” said Cassandra Johnston, executive director of University Tutors for Seattle Schools, a nonprofit that places paid graduate and undergraduate tutors in Seattle elementary, middle and high schools.
Under normal circumstances, if your kid has fallen behind, it’s likely your child’s teacher would have caught on to this already and a safety net would have been deployed. But in our suddenly socially distanced educational life, daily interaction is reduced and close connection between child and teacher has all but disappeared.
Instead of sitting at attention in a well-lit classroom, a child might now choose to hide behind a black screen on Zoom while hiding under the covers. Or clandestinely play video games. Or Snapchat with friends instead. Or all of those things simultaneously instead of listening to a lecture.
Or maybe the pandemic exposed a deeper disconnect in a child’s educational foundation, and some kids are now falling through those cracks.
“So I think our first question is to ask why and then try to provide the resources that they need,” said Johnston, who’s also a past president of the Seattle Council PTSA. “Maybe they just need someone to help them for a little while and then they’ll be fine. Maybe they need someone to sit with them all the time. Maybe they need a meal and safety and other things that schools aren’t capable of providing, but hopefully can connect families to those things that would allow the learning to happen next.”
If you think your child’s problems are slipping by with little notice, the first step is to contact teachers and talk about your concerns. Beyond that, there are ways to measure and boost their skills proficiency on your own. The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Seattle Public Schools and many public and private organizations list age-appropriate standards and resources online if you’re curious about the nuts and bolts of educational curricula.
Fair warning: It is dense reading. Far more complicated than the “Read Dr. Seuss book” entry parents might be expecting.
For instance, OSPI’s language arts learning standards say your first grader should be able to “describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details … identify who is telling the story at various points in a text … compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.”
A few of the many math requirements for your sixth grader: “Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities. … Find the volume of a right rectangular prism with fractional edge lengths by packing it with unit cubes of the appropriate unit fraction edge lengths, and show that the volume is the same as would be found by multiplying the edge lengths of the prism.”
And after taking civics coursework, a graduating senior should be able to, among other skills, “analyze citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national and/or international level … Evaluate the effectiveness of our system of checks and balances in limiting the power of government at the national, state, and local levels.”
These are just a few bullet points randomly pulled from hundreds of pages of standards students are supposed to reach by graduation. Now try to imagine conveying the complicated coursework teachers would need to relay online for a student to be able to reach those standards.
“I think it’s important to recognize perhaps a new appreciation for teaching and what teachers do,” University of Washington professor Deborah McCutchen said. “I just want to get that on the table.”
Though it may seem like it, McCutchen says you don’t need an education Ph.D. to help your kids. The UW Learning Sciences & Human Development professor says you really just need to be engaged in a way that’s more than superficial to figure out if your child is keeping up.
“You may be a bit rusty at solving simultaneous equations or some other higher-level math,” McCutchen said. “But you can ask your student why that’s the right answer or how they got there. Ask them how to explain their thinking. And if they can’t do that, or they say something like, ‘That’s just the way the teacher told me to do it,’ then you have reason to worry.
“The example I gave was in math, but you could do the same thing talking about a book you just read or talking about a TV show, the motivations of the characters. ‘Why do you think he did that? Why did that character react that way?’ ”
She said much is made of benchmarks — the mile markers children pass as they progress through school — and they can be useful tools. But there are limitations to them as well, especially when you factor in cultural differences.
“If the benchmark is designed for certain kinds of kids to recognize what is being asked and it’s not quite as transparent for other kids what is being asked, then it’s a benchmark for some kids, but not for others,” McCutchen said. “It’s not that those kids can’t reach a benchmark, but the benchmark isn’t as meaningful. It isn’t as reflective of what they in fact know.”
McCutchen and her colleagues also think parents underestimate the learning resources they already provide at home. The simple act of persuading your kids to be regular readers is a huge step. And pushing them out of fiction and into the nonfiction world can help solidify other educational principles.
“There are things that they are interested in and libraries have lots of remote resources, and they’re increasing their remote accessibility for people,” she said.
She also pointed to a video her colleague Philip Bell, a professor at UW’s Institute for Science and Math Education, produced that helps parents support their children’s science and math interests. Chemistry doesn’t have to be as complicated as you might think.
“He has a long line of inquiry about how to support home-based science learning and to recognize that some of the things kids and families already do is science, like building things together, some of the chemistry involved in baking and creative projects like perfume making,” she said.
While there’s still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year, McCutchen thinks there’s also reason to believe things will be better for our kids. Teachers have had a few months to catch their breath and learn how to navigate in this new world.
“We all went to remote instruction in spring with very little time to prepare,” McCutchen said. “I think families and parents can and should expect better remote instruction this fall. Not just work packet sent home or screens with a Zoom lecture on it. Again, I think families can and should expect better remote instruction.”