Addressing what students have learned through the pandemic

Kathy Walker, Paul Kelly, and Greg Schillinger • Principal Leadership Article

Turn on the TV or open your newsfeed, and you will hear about how students have lost more than an entire year of learning or that their learning was significantly impeded by the school closures and virtual learning during the pandemic. But what about their growth during this time? To get a real understanding of what our students have gained rather than lost, we reached out to Kathy Walker, principal of East Iredell Middle School in Statesville, NC; Paul Kelly, principal of Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, IL; and Greg Schillinger, principal of Rutland High School in Rutland, VT. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

What has the pandemic taught us about what matters most regarding academics in education?

Walker: I think parents, educators, and administrators can agree that nothing can replace having that teacher who cares for and builds a relationship with students. You see the impact, the difference it makes when kids are in person with an educator. The influence that teachers have is important. Content is there. It’s always going to be there, but it’s those relationships that teachers build with their students that is important. If we take away nothing else, we should definitely take away the importance of relationships. As a society, we need to know that, note that, and hold teachers in that high regard and esteem.

Kelly: We’ve known for a long time that relationships have a huge impact on student learning of all types, whether it be social-emotional or academic. The pandemic has, in my view, really highlighted the power of empathy and the necessity of developing empathy in students. As we’ve watched our country split into loud factions that don’t always listen to each other, it is all the more important that school be the place where children learn the importance of empathy, valuing differing perspectives, and preserving a form of government that demands respect for the other. I believe that’s the way the pandemic has really shaped academics.

Schillinger: I absolutely agree that what the pandemic has taught us about academics is that academics require relationships. I would take it one step further: I think what it has emphasized is that schools need to be conscious and deliberate about how we develop those relationships. Pre-pandemic, we could just rely on teachers developing positive working relationships, but now we need to carve time out of the day. We need to provide structure. We need to provide the things that make those relationships possible. We can’t just talk about them; we need to be really intentional about how we’re forming them.

Do we need to change our inherited grading system to create a more equitable one, and how can we do that?

Kelly: We have needed to change our inherited grading system for decades. How we will do that is the subject of debate, but there’s no question that our reliance on compliance and student behaviors as the determining factors for student grades has got to go. In a pandemic situation, students whose lives were disproportionately impacted found it much more difficult to engage in the types of behaviors that a compliance-​based grading system rewards. It is extremely important that we clarify learning targets and give clear and usable feedback to kids so that they may develop the proficiencies we’re looking for. Only through flexibility, support, and patience is that going to be possible, and the inherited grading system we have does not really allow for that.

Schillinger: Yes, we need to continue to examine, review, and revise grading systems. That was true 10 years ago, and it will be true in 10 years. The underlying point to this question is that we have, I believe, a pretty strong educational history of reviewing and revising instructional practice, reviewing and revising curriculum, but for whatever reason grading systems were this sacred cow that no one wanted to touch. Pre-COVID, we were at a point where we needed to revisit these systems to determine what would be equitable.

So, how do we do that? Our efforts in the past few years have been about articulating the standards that demonstrate proficiency, but we can’t just measure that and not measure these other things. I believe the pandemic really highlighted and exacerbated some of those inequities. We’re in the learning business. If we’re not reviewing and learning from our mistakes, we’re doing the learning business wrong.

Walker: That leads to the question, what are we working toward—lifelong learners? We have to be learners ourselves when you talk about this whole question of equity, especially in grading. Are we really learning if we’re just perpetuating the same systems that, again, aren’t fair and equal, and might have been based on behavior—which goes back to cultural norms—because not everybody is raised with the same expectations? If we’re incorporating that into our grading practices, then we’re not doing it right.

We have had an opportunity to make change, to do grading differently, but change takes people out of their comfort zone, so it’s a little harder to sell. Administrators like to muse on it, but when it comes down to it, when you’re talking about these grading systems, it’s the teachers—and our society—that say, “OK. You need a letter grade” to tell you something. I don’t think we will see real change, quite frankly, until the teachers can see the need for it.

Do we need standardized tests? And how can principals make sure that students can perform equitably on them?

Schillinger: Standardized tests can play a valuable role in understanding what students know and are able to do. I think a metaphor that works is kind of like the Galapagos Islands: We’re all on these little islands sort of doing our own thing and we’re like, “Hey, this is great.” But until you can look from island to island to compare, we don’t know how our island compares to the rest. Standardized tests provide that opportunity. They provide a larger sample than just what’s happening in my particular building.

In terms of performing on them equitably, admittedly the pandemic has posed a real challenge in that regard because those opportunity gaps can widen. If a student is working after school or doesn’t have transportation, those realities create gaps in the opportunities that students have. Standardized tests can play a role in understanding more about the whole picture of a student’s abilities, but there is a note of caution when they’re used as summative assessments rather than formative assessments to see where students are in their progression of learning. When we can look at that data and say, “Hey, it looks like you need some additional work on blank, or an intervention on blank,” that’s really helpful. When we use them to say, “You did a bad job,” that’s not helpful. We can use them equitably by putting them in their appropriate role.

Walker: Standardized tests are one data point. It’s how that student did on that particular day with that test. As far as understanding equity, it’s using that data point and not letting it define a student or a school. Slapping a grade on that school or giving it a label is allowing that standardized test data to define instead of inform. The tests should tell us where we need to go from here.

My teachers discovered that our students needed to learn more academic vocabulary so there is more equity in our testing. They said, “Wait a minute. If some of our kids don’t know what it means when the text says, ‘Consider this part,’ our testing isn’t equitable.” It’s a challenge as the principal not only to make sure there’s equity but to also help my teachers realize that at this particular point in time this is how our student did, so what will we pull from that data? How will we move our students forward?

Kelly: I respect and understand that there is value in seeing what a child can do relative to the thought processes on standardized tests. However, I am extremely concerned about the aggregate impact of standardized tests and the way the data is used—without any real scrutiny—to draw conclusions about communities both in school and out of school. For example, realtors use standardized test data to create descriptions of neighborhoods. Groups of people are labeled because of their performance on a test. The way standardized test data is used is the problem. My fear is that there may be no actual way for standardized test data to be used in a way in which the positives outweigh the societal negatives in the aggregate.

I have been, in the past, a proponent of the value of standardized tests for academic insight into what a student can accomplish in their thought processes. I am very troubled by the aggregate use of standardized test data for society as a whole. It increases inequity, and I would ask: In what instances can people demonstrate that standardized tests and the data from them have actually been used to increase equity or increase opportunity as opposed to tests being used in ways that simply reiterate the already existing inequities?

What are principals doing to address the learning gaps caused by the pandemic?

Kelly: Our job is to inspire kids to see a future that’s better than the life they currently have and to strive to improve themselves in every way. And the pandemic has caused some of our kids to question whether that is possible. The school’s role is to show kids what may be possible. As part of our learning renewal plans, we need to embed future-readiness goals that include workplace learning experiences, academic remediation, and—at particular times during the school day—where students can, as part of their schedules, address any kind of gaps that have emerged.

We changed our schedule to create a block for all of our students to ensure that every student has access to a study hall and a lunch so that they don’t have to choose between career pathway electives and that break time that they need. We have to give kids that time during the school day, because we know they have many life obligations outside of school. As part of this, to address any learning gaps, we have to both inspire and provide access through times that actually can work for our kids.

Schillinger: The first thing that I would say is I’m not sure that I accept the premise of the question. Kids did not stop learning. They might have not had the opportunity to learn the content that schools traditionally carry out, but one of the things that we have to do as schools is celebrate and commend what students have done in the last year. I’m talking about transferable skills like perseverance and grit and determination. They have learned methods of communication that they never would have learned in a different circumstance.

It is imperative that we address opportunity gaps, but what schools need to do now is to celebrate the learning that has happened over the course of the pandemic, and there’s some nuance to this. There are definitely skills that need to be addressed at the early elementary level. But as students get older, there’s a degree of independence that our students exercised during the pandemic that they would never have been expected to exercise outside of this scenario. So, congratulations to them! They just learned how to do school almost on their own! The next step is to make sure they can write grammatically correct sentences, etc. But we have to celebrate what they’ve done, because I’ll tell you, the graduating class of 2020 didn’t do what the class of 2021 did. That’s why I say kids didn’t stop learning. They kept learning. They were just learning different skills. So, let’s take advantage of the crisis that we’re experiencing and have experienced, and say, “Let’s talk about student independence. Let’s talk about maturity and self-determination.”

Walker: I tell my middle schoolers, “You know how to do school. You’ve been doing school”—especially when they’re in my office for discipline. I love the whole idea of it’s not really “learning gaps” because they were learning. But what skills were they learning? Some people call them “soft skills,” but it’s resilience, a skill they will need to move forward into the workforce. My district likes to look at acceleration, not remediation. They learned skills over the past 20 months that they would have probably learned later in life. But they have them now, so now the question is how do we get them on track with combining their new skills with the content that they need? We have changed the schedule, built in breaks, developed our students’ SEL, and tapped into the things that they have learned.

How can parent and community engagement help bolster efforts meant to address learning gaps due to COVID-19?

Schillinger: The first thing parents and the community can do is the same thing we’ve been asking parents and community members to do over the last 18 months: to support the student that they have at home, to encourage, to provide—to the best of their ability—a learning space where students can engage. We may be back in the classroom, but our students still need that support while doing homework. That’s the practical approach.

On a deeper level, in terms of civil discourse, the way that parents and community engagement can bolster our effectiveness is to trust their school. We are as interested in their child’s well-being and benefit as they are. We are the local parents when they’re at school. So, trust us. What you want for your child, we want for your child. If we can start with that empathy and that trusting relationship, even when we don’t agree with each other, we can agree that we’re headed in the same direction.

On a broad scale, communities can wrap their arms around their schools and be the people that are taking care of the children so that communities can thrive and flourish. It’s not about politics, and it’s not about who you voted for. We are interested in children succeeding. So, if the community can trust and support the school in that effort, ultimately it benefits the young people of the community.

Walker: I love pop culture, so I’m always quoting some crazy movies. There was a movie called Drumline, and the band director’s motto is “One band, one sound.” Like Greg said, we’re all working in the best interests of our students. We have to take the message we use in school out into the community so we can all point in the same direction.

For example, our motto is “Show your honor and pride to ignite victory.” If I give a poster with that saying on it to the local dentist, the students will see it when they go to the dentist. We have proven to each other that we CAN work together. I don’t want to get lax and fall back into some old patterns of pre-pandemic behavior. We need to keep going with things that worked well. And now that I can welcome parents and community into my building, I want to keep those lines of communication open.

At the start of this pandemic, I heard a YouTuber say, “What does this make possible?” I hope the lessons that we learned we take and move forward to create something better. In our community we’ve had people start small businesses supporting, tutoring, and working with kids and our schools to make sure kids get the support they need. Let’s keep them moving forward and keep working together.

Kelly: We need to do some of the same positive things we did before the pandemic and during the pandemic—such as home outreach and home visits. Those shouldn’t stop because now the kids are back in the school building. We need to continue to embrace the opportunity to talk with parents and families about their kids’ educational experiences and how we can best serve their needs. We’re servants of our communities, and we’re here to help provide the guidance for the kids to grow up and be the leaders of these communities. We have to go to them, reach out to them, and hear what they’re feeling and experiencing as families so that we can best know what their children—our students—need.

When we ask the right questions, we get amazing insights from our families. Some of them say, “It looked like my kid was just fine, but here are the many ways that I can tell you that she is not.” On the other hand, we can feel like we have a kid who is really struggling during the pandemic because they weren’t very engaged in online learning, but the parents said, “They’ve discovered a passion for a career that they now want that they had time to develop.” The student didn’t discover his passion while in the building, but he had the time to figure out that he wants to be a welder. Some things, deemed negatives, have actually resulted in new opportunities. When we go looking in the right places, we’ll find ways to take advantage of those opportunities for the betterment of our kids and their families.

Do you think the pandemic will leave a negative mark on this generation of students because a year and a half of their education, possibly longer, was not as rigorous as it could have been?

Walker: There have been events that have marked every generation, and there’s always going to be these defining moments. In my school, I think, “Wow, I have kids who weren’t alive during 9/11,” but for me 9/11 was a pivotal event that made me want to become an educator. You could be part of the generation who was sitting in school when [John F.] Kennedy was shot or [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was killed. Hopefully we will not have one quite as dramatic as the pandemic and what we’ve been through, but as a society, we are going to have to realize having that sheltering in place or having to deal with mask/no mask, the politics, all we’ve been through, that we might be suffering some post-traumatic trauma. So, as a society, we’re going to have to deal with that.

In the past, we’ve always been on a path to tell kids that they need to be college ready, military ready, or work ready. But now I offer another option: entrepreneurship. Many people discovered with this pandemic that maybe they weren’t learning the capital of every state in this nation, but they were taking time to learn how to video edit, or do YouTube, as so many of my kids are doing. Additionally, for this generation, they’ve had some of that time to explore different scenarios. They may have realized that when their mom had to work from home or their dad didn’t go into the office, they had more time for the student.

I go back to: What does this make possible? We can take this as an opportunity to strengthen those family bonds and strengthen what is happening at home by sharing with children. I don’t think the pandemic will leave a negative mark. It’s definitely going to leave its mark, and it’ll have a place. If we go back to your earlier question, if we’re only marking and judging our kids by how they perform on some standardized tests, oh yes, there will be a negative mark. But if we’re judging them by the citizens and people that we are hopefully guiding them to become, it’s going to leave a mark, but it’s going to be a defining mark that’s going to shape our future. I’m not going to entertain that negativity, because I think it’s going to inform it in a more positive way.

Kelly: Only a person of undeniable privilege would prioritize so-called academic rigor during a pandemic, and only a person of undeniable privilege would think that trauma and disruption are a new phenomenon. For many, many kids, the pandemic was yet another significant disruption to stability and “normalcy.” Only for some is disruption new. Each generation has experienced trauma and has had difficulty with meeting Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs. And the idea that now academic rigor and the loss thereof is a problem, I believe that is the creation of a very few voices that are very privileged, and we do not, honestly, need to worry about that. We need to worry about the wellness of our kids, and their academic development will follow if they are emotionally well and they have the right people around them.

Schillinger: I wholeheartedly agree with Paul and Kathy’s remarks on this one. First, I would say that just because it was not as rigorous as it could have been, the pandemic was a pretty rigorous experience. Maybe I didn’t get as far in the textbook as I would have previously, but it was still pretty rigorous. Teachers have been the heroes in this. Ask them how rigorous the last few months have been. The thing I would add is that adversity is not necessarily a negative. When it’s toxic it can be a negative, but I think what we’ve seen is some adversity that has been shared. So, it’s been an adversity that we’ve all experienced.

It’s not necessarily a traumatic and negative experience that one person needed to suffer through. There’s actually some benefit where we can all come together, and I as a principal and the new ninth grader in my high school can look at each other and be like, “Wow, that was awful. Let’s not do that again.” There’s a shared adversity. One of the positives is now appreciating being able to see people in person. Five years ago, if someone asked, “Isn’t it great to see people?” I would say, “Sure. I see people every day. What are you talking about?” Then that face-to-face contact gets cut off for 18 months. That was awful. I really appreciate those small things now, which I did not before.

What do we call the generation that endured the Great Depression, that won World War II? We call them “The Greatest Generation” because they overcame adversity. The pandemic is this generation’s adversity. They’re overcoming it. They’re thriving in it. Will it leave a negative mark? Absolutely not. I think it’s going to be a hallmark of pride in the future for this generation.