As an individual who has spent the past two decades working in the field of education policy, I know too well how diabolical and difficult a problem it is to provide equal access to students nationwide through our criminally under-resourced public school system. But I don’t know it as well as William Corrin, Director of K-12 education at the storied New York City-based research firm MDRC. In a follow-up to a previous interview, I talked to Corrin about the manifold challenges to underserved communities following the pandemic, as well as his perspectives on how the lost school year of 2020 might change the face of education moving forward. (Full disclosure: William is my boss, and may or may not have been conscripted into playing bass on the new Paranoid Style LP which we’re recording in August.)
EN: I guess the logical thing is to start out where we are currently. I wonder about the pandemic year and what it has meant to underserved students in particular. I also wonder what it implicates for public education moving forward, even as we move towards a post-coronavirus world. Are you of the impression that public education will be different in the long-term as well as the immediate term? If so in which ways, positive or negative?
WC: That’s a lot of wondering that you’re doing. You’re in good and plentiful company. “Public education” encompasses a whole lot of education. It’s a pretty broad brush. As we engage in summer programs and transition into the next school year, it’s important to recognize that there was a lot of variation across the country in terms of the pandemic education experience. Thus, the near-term implications of the transition out of this experience will vary. In communities where schools have relied entirely or almost entirely on distance education, one focus will be on how to prepare school facilities and processes for a return to in-person schooling that both educators and families are comfortable with. In communities that have suffered high rates of COVID deaths, schools may be focused on how to support students who are struggling with the loss of loved ones or who come from families with one less bread winner, creating economic stresses at home. So, nearer term, there are likely varied, more acute needs that schools and school districts will need to navigate. And some of these challenges may have less obvious longer-term implications.
My tarot skills are nothing to brag about, so predicting what might happen long term is a dubious exercise. However, this past year-plus has focused us on unfinished learning: what did we expect students to master in terms of knowledge and skills that we could not get them through under pandemic conditions? It has also focused us on inequities of access to education—both those that affected students immediately in the pandemic, like differential access to suitable electronic devices for learning and reliable internet, and those longstanding inequities, like under-resourced schools struggling to provide services beyond classroom instruction, including providing meals. We now have an opportunity to change education on all these dimensions thanks to a pile of education funding in the American Rescue Plan. How adept can we become at accelerating learning for students? How can we improve education systems and structures to reduce inequities of access and, in turn, support stronger outcomes for all students?
For this to happen, we need to be thoughtful about learning from what we do these next few years. While there is urgency in the moment, rushing to just do a bunch of stuff is less likely to be helpful. How you design new programming or plan adaptations to prior practices matters—and creates a foundation for preparing educators to implement change well. The plan has to address the “hows” and “whys” and provide justification for the actions a school or district plans to take. Ideally those justifications are based on prior research evidence, but they can also be based on strong theory or rationale. Does the plan include milestones or other markers for monitoring implementation? Are there “look fors” that teacher leaders or school administrators can pick up when they visit classrooms or programs to assess how implementation is going? Are there data already being collected that would speak to some aspects of implementation or interim student outcomes? This kind of information can be used by school teams to adjust what they’re doing.
Also, are districts willing to use some systematic decision-making processes to determine what programs or strategies are tried for which schools and students? For example, high-dosage tutoring is getting a lot of attention currently. If I don’t have enough people to provide in-person tutors for all students who might benefit, I could implement a mix of in-person and virtual tutoring in my school or district. If I gave all students or all schools the same shot at in-person versus virtual tutoring support, I could equitably determine via coin flip, so to speak, who participates in which version of tutoring. Everyone would have the same shot at each type of support, and I would create conditions, like an experiment, under which I could learn whether one or the other proved more effective. This in turn can inform future decisions about how I might want to expand tutoring in my district. Systematic decision-making like this can help districts better assess whether some approaches are more helpful to students than others—or even similarly helpful but at a lower cost—freeing up resources for other support for students.
The point is that to really benefit from what we do in response to the pandemic, we must be thoughtful in how we plan for executing programs and strategies and in how we simultaneously prepare to learn from what we try.
EN: A recent Politico profile of schools in Connecticut chronicled the onerous difficulties of distance learning as a model for student-teacher interaction. Despite their best efforts, school districts lost track of students entirely in some cases due to a lack of online engagement. I’m wondering what this tells us about the future of distance learning, which will seemingly play at least some role in education moving forward.
WC: Although different communities varied in how much in-person schooling versus virtual learning they experienced, almost everyone got a taste of distance learning, and it shined a spotlight on the digital divide. In some cases, that divide is about whether students have access to devices that give them the ability to do online school well, like laptops or tablets. In other cases, the divide is driven by limited access to reliable, broadband internet—for example, in rural areas. Let’s think about distance learning in two frames: optional and required.
If we think that having the option for students to access distance learning is important, then we must recognize that that option is not available equitably to all students. Some families rely on distance learning to make home schooling possible or to have educational choice other than their local public district schools or private schools. Students may count on distance learning to supplement their education, taking classes that their school doesn’t offer—like an advanced math class or perhaps a specific AP course. In other cases, they may engage in experiences that better prepare them for life after high school. For example, virtual internships offer opportunities for students to engage in work-based learning in fields that might not be represented in their local economy. If we care about students and families having these options, then we must take action to remove barriers to access to reliable internet and usable technology tools. Why should these options be available only to some, driven heavily by circumstance, if we think that they may be potentially beneficial to all who might be interested?
If we think that more schools will employ at least some distance learning as a required part of schooling, then we must ensure that all students have access. And while we hope not to experience another pandemic, there may be other circumstances under which distance learning could provide a necessary temporary solution. Maybe a school building can’t be used for a short period. Perhaps a district turns to distance learning to support individual students dealing with temporary circumstances that make daily attendance hard for them. So, while there may be lots of teachers and students eager to get back to in-person education, there might still be reasons why districts and schools use distance learning.
In short, if distance learning is to play some role in how we educate children moving forward, it would be really, really important to address the barriers to access regardless of whether we see distance learning as a choice or a requirement. I’d even say that it’s necessary to do so.
EN: I’m also wondering what the implications are for those kids who lost an entire year without terrestrial schooling? How do we avoid ending up with a lost generation of pandemic kids born at the wrong time?
WC: “Terrestrial schooling?” Nice phrase. It does make me think of the delightful odd-time “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters.” But I digress. While there are some differing opinions about the magnitude of the problem, nearly everyone believes that students, on average, are not as far along as we would normally expect, particularly in math. In response, there is plenty of conversation about accelerated learning and catching students up. Fortunately, we have rigorous research evidence that both group formats and individualized supports have helped students behind in reading or math. For example, high school students have benefited from supplemental reading courses and double dosing on math courses like algebra. Several evaluations have shown that high-dosage tutoring makes a difference for kids in reading and math. However, per usual, there’s a caveat. Programs with evidence sometimes don’t work under new circumstances or didn’t demonstrate impacts in all contexts in which they were originally evaluated. As districts and schools consider accelerating learning, they should pay attention not only to whether an approach has been demonstrated to make a difference for students in the past, but also to its potential fit to their context. We have an example on our website of how a district might think through whether Reading Partners’ elementary tutoring model might be a fit for them.
The term “lost generation” obscures a lot of variation and buries within it quite a few assumptions. I’m less worried about losing a whole generation than I am about a subset of kids who disconnected from school during the pandemic whom we should fight to re-engage. Not all students will require the same level of attention as we transition out of the pandemic. Which students were most affected? How do we address their needs?
Several organizations have been compiling resources for districts and schools on accelerating learning and re-engaging students, including the Annenberg Institute at Brown University’s EdResearch for Recovery series and the Education Trust’s Strategies to Solve Unfinished Learning, to which colleagues of mine at MDRC contributed.
EN: What has surprised you about how the pandemic impacted the educational system, either for good or ill? As tragic as the past year was, is it possible that the vulnerabilities it revealed in our system might prove a benefit moving forward?
WC: For me it’s been less about being surprised and more about the things that the pandemic revealed to us more clearly about education in this country. For example, the centrality of schooling in our lives broadly was made ever more apparent. As I mentioned in our prior conversation last year, schools are not just where we send our children to learn, but also where they have valuable social experiences and where services are provided to some who face additional challenges. And so many of us count on schools as safe places for our children to be while we work. In addition, the inequities in our educational system, many tied to zip code and economic circumstances and correlated with race, ethnicity, and native language, were made more apparent. The onus now is on us, as citizens and educators, to not look away from these inequities when schooling returns to more traditional modes. Can we challenge ourselves to be more ambitious in our efforts to address these inequities? This is where the potential benefit lies from this pandemic experience.
EN: President Biden has recently introduced a plan to expand funding for education by historic orders of magnitude with an emphasis on schools in underserved communities. Biden’s plan calls for ostensibly a seventeen-year promise of government funded education from Pre-K through community college. This represents a historic expansion of the federal government’s oversight. I’m wondering how you feel about this kind of top-down emphasis given the specific needs of individual communities? We’ve seen ambitious federal leadership initiatives like No Child Left Behind fail to grasp the complexity of district-by-district rollouts. What advice would you have for making these new programs more effective?
WC: Education laws on the books constrain the ability of the federal government to dictate much at all in terms of what happens in education at the state and local levels. The federal levers of control are limited and often connect to incentivizing particular choices at the state and local levels through the provision of funds.
That said, the new administration’s interest in federal investment in education before and after K-12 recognizes that early education and college yield benefits. Sometimes, however, access to these early and postsecondary education opportunities are constrained by factors that affect some students and families more than others, namely being able to pay for them. I don’t think the interest in supporting more years of education necessarily blows away choices that are made locally about education. As I mentioned before, current federal education law constrains how hard the federal government can push specific programs or activities, so states and districts will continue to hold a lot of cards in terms of how they might try to support more students for a longer stretch of their education.
No matter who controls education policy, I care about evidence and using research to inform the decisions we make. How could we make programs more effective? It goes back to what I mentioned before about trying to start or expand programs with good evidence behind them or at least very strong rationale. It’s about paying attention to the potential applicability or suitability to one’s own context and simultaneously planning to learn from our implementation of these programs, including the adaptations we may make so we understand better for whom they make a difference, why, and how.
EN: Now let’s get down to what’s really important — do you have any ambitions to play live music again? Any interest in joining the Paranoid Style on a mini-tour?
WC: Ah, the good stuff! Most definitely have ambitions to play music live on stage again. All of us in one current project are vaxxed and plan to return to rehearsing soon to knock the rust off. Is this a serious invite to roll with The Style?! Alright, full disclosure, I’ve got a P bass primed and ready to give the ambassador his morning lift, help rock and roll get its memory back, and save the world from turpitude. Send me the set list. The thrill is back! And my green room expectations are much lower than Nigel Tufnel’s.