Monday, 06 February 2023

Salato: Supporting students by setting realistic expectations

Becky Salato. Courtesy photo.

LOWER LAKE, Calif. — In the best of times, education is a team sport. Success requires students, families and educators to work together so students can develop academically, socially, and emotionally. 

This year was not the best of times, and everyone was forced to take on new challenges— some of which felt overwhelming.

At home, some students didn’t have time for their own studies because they had to care for younger siblings. Some students didn’t have good learning experiences because even though the school district provided Chromebooks and hot spots, internet access just isn’t available everywhere.

Some students had a hard time focusing on studies at home because they didn’t have a quiet place to concentrate without constant interruptions. Some students simply couldn’t get motivated with little supervision and so many online distractions.

Whatever the reason, we now have a lot of students who need to catch up, and it’s not the kind of work that can be done quickly or easily.

I share this not to be negative, but to be realistic. If we are to support our students, we must recognize where they are and create a plan to fill in the holes. In education, we call this learning-loss mitigation.

The school system cannot hold back all the students who did not become proficient in their grade-level curriculum this year.

We also cannot simply move forward with next year’s curriculum for those who are unprepared for it.

And expecting students to learn twice as much in a single school year isn’t fair. So, what do we do?

We embrace unconventional thinking.

Traditionally, we’ve had a nine-month school year, from late fall to early summer with a couple of months off. We’ve known for years that students who do not engage in any academic endeavors during the summer lose some of their learning.

Ask any teacher; they’ll tell you they start every year with review. Maybe we make summer school the norm for most students for the next several years. Or maybe we think about time and learning differently.

Time should not define learning. Time should be the variable and learning should be the constant. How do we use the time we have more effectively?

I’m talking about moving from traditional school to transformational education. In the new paradigm, all students still need to master certain concepts. But rather than marching through a book from page 1 to 350, we assess the group and pick the pages they need to master the concepts.

Our school system was created to prepare students for working in factories and farms after the Industrial Revolution. It’s time for a new revolution and the pandemic may be just the break we need to see things more clearly.

If we do nothing differently, nothing will change — yet, the world has changed.

In addition to designing a new approach to education, we also need to recognize the importance of flexibility when students are struggling (remember, everyone struggles sometimes).

School is a place where we want to teach important “soft” skills like taking responsibility for one’s actions and meeting deadlines, but when children are having a hard time holding it together, an all-or-nothing approach is counterproductive and harmful.

We need to think about the world students live in, one that is more complex than the one many of us grew up in.

The social and emotional pressures of social media have had a devastating effect on many students’ mental health. The pandemic has interrupted their social development as well as their academic learning.

I am in favor of high standards, but I am not in favor of setting expectations that are so high they practically guarantee students will fail.

I invite students, families, and fellow educators to work together to come up with new ways to support student learning.

Becky Salato is the Konocti Unified School District superintendent.

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