More Joy — Less Catch-up — Experts Counsel Local Schools


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Invest in joy — that’s the message experts in education want local school districts to embrace as they debate how to use millions of dollars in additional federal funding over the next three years. 

Sandra Chafouleas, a professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education and co-director of the UConn Collaboratory on School and Child Health (CSCH), said that all schools need to make learning joyful and emphasize relationships, flexibility and a focus on the whole child. 

Most importantly, Chafouleas said, schools needed to invest in building teacher-student relationships. She said that just one teacher could make an enormous difference in the path of a child.

Chafouleas suggested putting some of the funding into professional development to help teachers better support their students. 

“I would invest … in building the capacity of my entire workforce to be able to cultivate and promote positive relationships that help children learn,” she said. 

Mira Debs, the executive director of Yale University’s Education Studies Program, added that making sure teachers could support their students also meant taking care of the teachers themselves. 

“They have just been through hell this year,” she said. “We’ve asked them to risk their lives. We’ve asked them to basically teach — double the amount of preparations, because in many cases, they’re teaching in person and online at the same time.”

But taking care of teachers doesn’t just mean returning to the pre-pandemic mode of instruction. Debs pointed to a 2018 report from the Center for Public Education, which said that teachers in the United States spend an average of 26.8 hours teaching, in comparison to 19.3 hours for teachers in Finland. 

She suggested putting aside one afternoon a week in which students could learn asynchronously using some of the technology that has been adopted during the pandemic. This, she said, would give teachers the opportunity to prepare lessons and collaborate with one another. 

Peter Madonia, coordinator of the doctorate in education program at Southern Connecticut State University, said that districts should be thinking not just about relationships in the school, but with the wider community, including the parents.

Madonia said that districts need to open a line of communication with families and find out about their greatest concerns. Some families, for example, have suffered enormous  economic losses in the last 13 months. 

“I don’t think we’ve really fully comprehended the impact of the pandemic,” he said. “We can talk about how our lives have changed, but I don’t think we’ve really had enough time to take a step back, breathe deeply and think about – how is my life different today than what it was a year ago.” 

He also suggested strengthening connections with local social service agencies. Chafouleas said that schools should take advantage of youth service bureaus and mental health services in the community. 

“We need to bolster and strengthen what we’re doing, but we also need to be able to work within, within what we’ve got available around us. In new, maybe, new and better ways,” she said. 

Reseting, finding a balance

Federal guidelines require the schools to use a portion of the funding toward academic recovery. Many schools are using those funds to hire more teachers and build intensive summer and afterschool tutoring programs. 

Chafouleas and Madonia, however, warned against relying too heavily on summer programs designed to catch students up academically. 

Chafouleas said that piling more academic instruction on top of already exhausted students may be one of the worst things the districts can do. 

“Everyone needs to take a reset this summer,” she said. 

She also doubts how far the programs will be able to go in catching students up from what they missed last year.

“Summer school isn’t necessarily going to create these huge gains that they’re expecting,” she said, citing a recent article in the Hechinger Report. “What we really should be doing is using summer school as an opportunity to build connection, find enjoyment and learning.”

Madonia said that these interventions could work as a “stop-gap” measure, but that they shouldn’t be relied upon as a replacement for a year of lost in-person learning. 

“I think it’s just one effort that needs to come from among many to try and bridge the gap that’s been experienced in learning,” he said.

Debs and Chafouleas also said that districts need to be careful with the investments they make in technology. 

“There are ways that it can be done really well. But at the same time too … we don’t know what is the optimal balance for kids,” said Debs. 

Debs said she was concerned that wealthier districts with more resources would end up having more in-person instruction, while districts with fewer resources would resort to plunking their children in front of devices. 

However, she added that some programs could have very positive results. For example, she said, her son was using a program called Lexia to learn phonics.

“Animated penguins sliding down snow slides and stuff like that,” she said. “It was amusing and he was working his way up there to various different levels.” 

And Chafouleas said that students needed to learn how to properly interact with technology, including the ethics around social media and how to deal with security and hardware. 

“I do think [technology] is here to stay in different formats over time – and who knows what will happen in the future?” she said. “So now we have a great opportunity to be better prepared.” 

A less traditional model

Debs said she was concerned about the idea of investing pandemic funds in teachers, given that the money would only last two years. But, she agreed about the need for more mental health and social-emotional support for students, as well as non-academic activities. 

“A school nurse in every single school, a librarian and media specialist, an art teacher, a music teacher, all of the things that make school joyful for students — that should be standard,” she said.

She also said that spending more time outside can help kids develop stamina and learn about science and the environment. She said she could imagine outdoor classrooms lasting beyond the pandemic, and mentioned forest schools, where students learn by exploring the outdoors. 

Debs also said that she would like to see more recess breaks during the school day, and highlighted the value of unstructured play.

“Giving multiple recess breaks to students throughout the day actually improves students’ academic outcomes, as well as their behavior outcomes,” said Debs, citing research done in Texas based on a Finnish model. 

And a more relaxed school environment may not just benefit elementary school children. Chafouleas thinks that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for high schools to be more flexible about assignments and deadlines. 

Chafouleas said that once children reach high-school age, there’s a tendency to shift to a much more academic model, which can take attention away from  critical relationships between teachers and students. 

“It becomes very academically focused, right? Very college and career readiness,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but it’s not fun to show up at 7:00 a.m. and start with physics right away.” 

She said that along with cultivating those relationships, students could be given more freedom in their assignments. This could mean more flexible deadlines, or an opportunity to show that they have learned the material in ways other than a traditional term paper. 

Madonia emphasized that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work with this funding. Each district needs to decide how the funding can best help the particular community it serves, he said. 

“Every school has a feel for what really distinguished them in terms of their relationship with students, parents, community, prior to the pandemic,” said Madonia. “We sort of have to go back and put our thumb on the pulse of that and rediscover it.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.