How to Improve Education in America

Nathan (Nate) Levenson

Nate Levenson has long been a thought leader in K-12 education. In this interview, he reflects on how school districts can adjust to learning losses due to COVID-19, and reopen successfully.

​Here he also discusses his new book, Six Shifts to Improve Special Education and Other Interventions: A Commonsense Approach for School Leaders. The book is now out, as of May, from Harvard Education Press.

What can schools do to help kids who fell behind during COVID-19 catch up? How can we improve education in America in a pandemic?

The root cause of lost learning is lost instructional time this spring. Not surprisingly, a key element in catching kids up academically will be more instructional time in the new school year. While intellectually logical, this is a logistically challenging solution. Few schools are going to lengthen the day or year, so how do you find the extra time?

What does the research suggest can help kids regain subject mastery at grade level? What does research say about improvement?

The focus should be making up for instruction in key learning areas – not all learning at once. Teachers and districts need to identify learning standards and content that were missed. Find out which information is a prerequisite for future learning.

For example, Algebra 2 is impossible without students first achieving mastery of Algebra 1. In contrast, European history could be taught even if some content from US history is missing, or wasn’t taught fully or mastered.

What should schools do differently?

Schools should strongly consider a different schedule for the first few months of the school year. This might include longer blocks for classes where learning standards and content were missed. Teachers must identify the prerequisites for future learning. Missed chapters in math courses are crucial to cover for instance. In comparison, other periods such as study halls, or in social studies and foreign languages could be shortened, without impacting future learning. 

Other options include potentially creating 6 week catch up courses, to address specific critical missed standards and content.

Be sure that students are grouped well for intervention. Courses should be based on students’ specific learning needs, not on grade in school or homeroom class. 

What about improving curriculum?

Some students will definitely need more time to catch up than others. For these students,build daily extra help and direct instruction intervention time into schedules at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Be sure that students are grouped well for intervention. Courses should be based on students’ specific learning needs, not on grade in school or homeroom class. Yes, creating extra classes will likely require missing something else. Hard choices need to be made. High school freshmen might delay taking social studies for a year, or middle school students might postpone their foreign language. Even some special education services could be scaled back for a bit.

Most importantly, DON’T cram more into one period. Forcing an Algebra 2 teacher to squeeze in the last several months of Algebra 1 is more likely to lead to students struggling in both Algebra 1 and 2. Extra instructional time is undoubtedly needed.

How can districts meet growing needs despite tight budgets? How can education get better despite limited budgets?

Kids and staff will return with more mental health and counseling needs than ever before. Unfortunately, schools and staff were already stretched thin in this area before the pandemic. Moreover, many of the talented folks who provide counseling services, like school psychologists and social workers, also must spend a lot of time in IEP (Individual Education Program, or special education) meetings and writing IEPs. 

Fortunately, there are steps that can help districts better meet the increased demand for counseling. Some of these include 

  1. Make SEL one of the classes in elementary school special education rotation along with PE, art, music etc. That way every student has access to a professional every week.
  2. Streamline meetings and paperwork for staff who have critical mental health skills. Typically, school psychologists, counselors and social workers spend more than half their day in meetings or doing paperwork. The science of process mapping can reduce this time by a third.
  3. Consider a combination of small group sessions and 1:1 counseling. This can triple the number of students served and is widely used in community based mental health settings but not nearly as common in schools.
  4. Expand partnerships with community based mental health providers by dedicating a point person to find, build and manage relationships. Outside support is available. Even a small investment in organizing outside partners can lead to free or insurance-funded services.

What can districts do to help teachers? What can do to help them improve?

Teachers are rightly stressed for a host of reasons. Many classroom teachers are working hard to convert their lessons into effective online learning. Creating teams of teachers, who can plan remote lessons together, can spread the workload and increase the quality of delivery. Special educators are likely to be overloaded in the fall as missed IEP meetings and undeliverable services come due. 

Here are some specific tips to help these teachers: 

  • Proactively space out and plan IEP meetings for designated times of the week. Fixing time slots for IEP meetings will preserve time for counseling and other services. 
  • Work with parents to rollover, delay or amend IEPs with as few meetings as possible (even without an official meeting in person) to ease overfull schedules. 
  • Thoughtfully schedule required compensatory services– for example, first determine if the services are still in the best interest of students. Many services that were missed may no longer be appropriate, given all the new competing needs of different students. The law says missed services are owed, but parents can agree to waive or modify these services.

Teachers and districts need to identify learning standards and content that were missed. Find out which information is a prerequisite for future learning.

What surprises you the most about education, given all your work in school districts?

Every school district in the country went through the shock of shutting down school buildings, then rapidly ramping up remote learning. All districts moved together with this wave. As the planning for fall reopenings ramps up, I see districts taking divergent paths. 

Some districts are trying to replicate the old normal. Their aim is to get as much of what they had back, as possible. This includes creating similar schedules, if schools are open,  or with online classes that approximate their in-person counterparts. Other districts are betting big on getting good at online learning, as they figure it may be important next year, and for years to come. 

Finally certain districts are realizing that the pandemic magnified past challenges, as much as it created new ones. These challenges include: teachers not planning enough in tandem; too much top down directive from central office curriculum leaders (which are hard to implement well); interventions that seldom caught kids up properly with lessons; and finally social, emotional and counseling services that were stretched too thin. These districts are focusing on addressing these historic challenges, because they matter even more tomorrow than they did yesterday. While every district is different, I believe school districts working to address structural problems will do the most good for the most kids.

​-Ulrich Boser

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *