It's been 11 months since schools first shut down across the country and around the world.
And most students in the U.S. are still experiencing disruptions to their learning — going into the classroom only a few days a week or not at all.
To respond to this disruption, education leaders are calling for a reinvention of public education on the order of the Marshall Plan, the massive U.S. initiative to rebuild Western Europe after the devastations of World War II.
It won't be cheap, they say. The White House has put forward a plan that includes $130 billion in aid for K-12 schools. One estimate puts the full cost of recovery even higher: $12,000 per student over five years, about a 20% increase in spending for large districts.
But those in the education world say it would be more expensive not to fix this.
"The data on the amount of unfinished instruction that students will have from school closures is just so significant, particularly for our most vulnerable students," argues Allison Socol of the Education Trust, which advocates for academic achievement and equity. "We're really talking about this as a five- or 10-year plan."
Education experts, parents and students are thinking about what is going to be necessary to recover — and at the same time the things that are not worth returning to. Here are four key ideas.
1. "Acceleration academies" — aka summer school
For students who have missed significant learning over the past year, there is one opportunity for them to make up some of that lost time.
"We're talking about summer school," says Keri Rodrigues, the co-founder of the National Parents Union, one of the groups invited to meet with Biden's transition team to talk about priorities for children. One of their top asks is extra learning time for students who have fallen behind.
"We're talking about ending this idea that the school year ends in June this year. It should not," she told NPR. "If June is when every K-12 educator gets vaccinated, guess what, July 1st is the first day of school."
Some small, pilot programs that supported student learning this past summer found success, such as the National Summer School Initiative, (which used certified teachers), Springboard Collaborative, (which enlists parents as coaches) and the Oakland REACH (which had staff and volunteers). The White House proposal specifically mentions that K-12 schools would be able to use aid for "summer school or other support for students that will help make up lost learning time this year."
Robert Slavin has investigated many of the potential solutions that are on the table to help students recover learning. He's the director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.
"We've looked at all different kinds of things," he says, "summer school, after school, extended day. ... And what's striking is that tutoring gets far bigger impacts than any of those other kinds of interventions."
But not just any tutoring. Models that have been validated by research include careful training and support for tutors, plus software or other materials; a total of at least 60 sessions, three to five days a week; and groups of no more than four students to a tutor. Most of the evidence backs this kind of tutoring to help readers in elementary school, with some in math as well.
Most of these programs can be run successfully with trained teaching assistants who aren't necessarily certified teachers. Slavin likes the idea of creating a federal jobs program for tutors who are recent graduates, potentially an extension of AmeriCorps.
3. Safer and more equitable schools; "Never going to go back to normal"
Making sure every child can read and do math is not the only purpose of school.
After a year that saw a surge in child hunger, a mass racial uprising and an attempted insurrection, parent and student groups said they want schools to become more safe, supportive and just.
This encompasses many things: support for mental health and needed accommodations, strong relationships with caring adults. Biden's rescue package currently includes funds for hiring more school counselors and for expanding the "community schools" model where schools are set up to connect families with housing help and other social services.
And, students are asking for different content in the classroom. An organization called Student Voice has been holding virtual listening sessions with high school students. Maya Green, 19, has conducted some of the sessions. She said, "A lot of students spoke for the desire for a decolonisation of school curricula: speaking to the real and often violent history of America, encouraging empathy in learning and really just celebrating the diverse experiences and diverse identities of students."
Jenna Yuan, 18 and also with Student Voice, noted that students are living through a tumultuous period in history. "Regardless of whether they return to the school building or they continue to be online," Yuan says, "their school experience is never going to go back to normal, nor was normal something that worked for all students even before the pandemic. "
Rodrigues says that, based on her organization's polling, parents feel the same way: "Every single month since April," by a 2 to 1 ratio, she says, parents have sent a consistent message: "They're not interested in putting their kids back in the same status quo."
4. Invest in a Moon Shot
"Tutoring and summer learning are not magic pixie dust," cautions Socol, at EdTrust. She says if these endeavors are to work, they need a big commitment. "There is evidence that they work, but ... they're going to need to be at the federal level or state level, with [significant] investments and quality safeguards."
Speaking of pixie dust, Mark Schneider at the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences thinks the U.S. needs a lot more investment in research and evaluation of what really works in education. Artificial intelligence-based tutoring software and other high-tech ed-tech applications, he says, have disappointing and inconsistent results. "On average, the effect size is zero." And with all this new federal investment, "What I'm worried about is if we spend five billion dollars on massive tutoring, we're not setting up an evaluation system--so that we actually start learning which tutoring programs work for, say, black kids in Philadelphia, for Hispanic kids in Brownsville."
He proposes a federal Advanced Research Projects Agency for education — like DARPA, in the Defense Department, which invests in cutting-edge research for national security. In fact, his office has a grant out right now of up to $3 million for "transformative research in the education sciences."