Amidst COVID pandemic, an education system reboot is needed

By Alejandro Gibes de Gac

Amidst enormous uncertainty, the debate about whether to reopen schools — and how — is contentious. The only certainty is that in any scenario, kids will spend less time in the classroom next year than ever before.

Knowing that in-classroom instruction will be diminished, teachers must somehow address a broader set of issues: not only the educational fallout of school closures, but also the social-emotional fallout of a pandemic that disproportionately inflicts pain on vulnerable populations. The best way to meet children’s needs is to take a whole-learner approach to education that honors parents as the single biggest influence in their kids’ lives.

Picture a child’s time as an orange. Their classroom experience — typically 25% of students’ waking hours — is a wedge from which the education sector has been fixated on squeezing more juice even when the wedge is dry. As a result, decades later, we have little to show for ed reform efforts. Fourth-grade literacy rates in the U.S. haven’t budged in 25 years — and the achievement gap is widening — despite billions invested in classroom intervention.

By eliminating the wedge of children’s time typically spent at school, school closures have forced the education sector to face the rest of the orange. This is serendipitous, as the only way to prevent COVID-19 from deepening inequality for an entire generation is to capture educational value from the time kids spend at home — to use the rest of the orange rather than draining the same part, to keep the analogy going. There’s no going around parents, anymore. We must work with them and through them, otherwise the achievement gap will widen with every passing day.

Families have a monopoly on time with their kids; they also have the lion’s share of expertise about their children. Whereas teachers change yearly, parents accumulate a wealth of knowledge about their children as learners. It is well-understood in the education sector that every child learns differently; however, it can be difficult and time-consuming for teachers to ascertain which approach works best for one student vs. another. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle when someone else — in this case, the parent — has most of the pieces. There is no smaller classroom than a family’s living room, and there is no better way to personalize instruction than through a parent. After all, what could be more personal than a parent and child sharing a book at bedtime?

If parents are the experts on their kids, teachers are the experts on instruction. They know what their students need to make progress; however, the classroom setting makes it difficult to individually support every child. These complementary skill sets are the basis for a fruitful partnership between teachers and families toward a goal they have in common: helping children become successful learners.

Springboard Collaborative has open-sourced a method through which teachers and parents team up to help children reach learning goals in 5-10 weeks. We call it a Family-Educator Learning Accelerator (or FELAs), and it works virtually or in person. Teachers and parents build a relationship, set a goal, and make a game plan together. Then they convene regularly to support each other. Buy-in has never been a challenge in these efforts; family workshops average 91% attendance across 14 urban school districts. Students average a four-month reading gain in each 5-10-week cycle, closing the gap to grade-level performance by more than half. Small wins lead to big wins, and better habits for teachers and families both.

As schools struggle to meet an ever-broader range of student needs amidst ever-changing circumstances, the system has reached a breaking point. In order to educate the whole learner, we must wholly reinvent school. Let’s not build the digital clone of a system that wasn’t working in the first place. If we equip parents and teachers to work together, we can fundamentally change the education system for the better and for good. ••

Alejandro Gibes de Gac is the CEO and Founder of Center City-based Springboard Collaborative.