Last year Kiana Jones took a summer job at a trampoline park, supervising birthday parties and keeping an eye out for overzealous bouncers. This season Ms Jones, an undergraduate in Tennessee, is spending seven weeks in a community centre drilling children in reading and maths. She is one of around 600 locals swiftly assembled by Tennessee Tutoring Corps, a charity set up in May by a former state governor to help children who have missed months of school. It will pay each tutor $1,000, more than many had expected to make during a summer overshadowed by the pandemic
The efforts of those such as Jones are a rare bright spot in America’s scholastic landscape. The government has largely failed to control the pandemic, with most schools remaining closed. President Donald Trump and education secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to defund schools that refuse to reopen. Those that do welcome back children in the autumn may have to rely on rota systems that allow pupils to attend in person only part-time
In other parts of the rich world, however, children are already coming back. In France, Denmark and New Zealand social-distancing rules have been relaxed to allow most children to return to classes every day. School children in England will return full-time from September, says the government. But getting children back into classrooms is only the first step in repairing the damage the pandemic has done to their learning. Educators must now work out how to make up for lost time.
The challenge is huge. Lessons from the year now ending in May/June remain untaught. When children spend any significant time out of school (including normal summer holidays), they tend to forget some of what they have already learnt. Analysts at NWEA, an American tests-provider, reckon that by autumn some children will be a year behind in maths.
Guidance produced by Unesco and McKinsey, a consultancy, identifies three types of catch-up strategies. Schools can give children more time, or they can adjust their curriculums. Or they can try to improve the quality of their instruction. The greatest success will probably come from a combination of all three strategies.
Some countries have tinkered with timetables. Singapore pulled forward its month-long annual recess — usually in June — to May, when the country’s lockdown was already keeping schools shut. In some parts of Vietnam, schools have crunched the usual three-month break down to a few weeks.
Squeezing curriculums to create more time for the most important subjects is less painful than it sounds. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, says that politicians have long found it easy to add fashionable new topics but more difficult to take things away. As a result, he continues, syllabuses have become “a mile wide but only an inch deep”.
Experts are most enthusiastic about using tutors to help children catch up. The British government has put aside £350 million (Rs.3,395 crore) to launch a national tutoring programme in September. Schools can use existing organisations or hire graduates who would work full time. They can top this up with money from another pot of £650 million that schools can use for any remediation strategies they deem helpful. The Dutch government has earmarked €244 million (Rs.2,147 crore) for a similar programme. It plans to enlist trainee teachers to help bring struggling learners up to scratch.
Ultimately no child will learn anything “unless they feel psychologically and emotionally safe”, says Pasi Sahlberg of the University of New South Wales in Australia. When schools reopen, he reckons, they will need to provide children with counselling and time to play as they adjust to their return. Tute Porter-Samuels, a primary-school teacher in New Zealand, says that when her school in Wellington reopened it devoted two weeks to music and art.
Distance-learning, despite its glitches, has made teachers more familiar with technology. Recessions may force governments to trim school budgets but they may also get some new blood into the teaching profession. In Britain applications to teacher-training programmes surged in May and June. A recent study found that teachers in Florida who started their careers in downturns are better at raising test scores than those who did not. Schools will need all the help they can get.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)