One of the requirements for successful leadership is understanding your mission. If you don’t know your target, you’re not likely to hit it. Though my job requires attention to any number of things — budgets, federal and state laws, facility needs, student transportation, etc. — my mission is student achievement. It is that for which schools exist.
For that reason, I have spent an inordinate amount of time during my career as a school superintendent figuring out — i.e. reading the research — just what optimizes student achievement. And the number one factor associated with (there is quite literally no causality in education research or in most social sciences) student achievement is parental involvement. This is important to note but it is also largely out of my hands. I can talk about the necessity and benefits of parental involvement, put up banners, invoke persuasive slogans, schedule parent-teacher conferences, etc., but it still comes down to the parent sitting down with their children. For good or for bad, I can’t affect that very much. Thus, I must move on.
What I move on to is the number one school-based factor affecting student achievement. That factor is student engagement. The more time students spend in school actively involved in what they are learning, the more likely they are to achieve. I can affect this, though largely indirectly. I can work hard to hire great teachers, provide professional development that emphasizes the need and the ways to engage students meaningfully in class, etc. Yet, it is still indirect. Teachers and principals must pursue this factor. Any involvement I might have is tangential.
What I can do, however, is safeguard time spent learning in classrooms. Teachers can’t use time well if they don’t have sufficient time in the first place. I think about this a lot, perhaps never more than during the current bizarro-world reality of physical school closures. I know Mitchell teachers are working hard to provide virtual lessons and I know many parents are working hard to keep their children’s shoulders to the wheel and noses to the grindstone but I also know some can’t and others simply don’t. (See paragraph 2 above.)
One of the conclusions I’ve made about learning time is that, alas, this may not be the last time we experience school closures. Biological research goes on and the drive in the natural world among the smallest of pests to overcome our immunizations and antibiotics and other treatments is relentless. Nature truly is “red in tooth and claw.” (Tennyson) Thus, while Mitchell was pretty well-prepared for the current school closures, it needs to be even better prepared in the event there is a next one.
This can be tough. Memories are short and experience too often lost once the initial crisis or urgency is past. Years ago, I was certified as an asbestos inspector for a school district. I trained others to meet a federal mandate for asbestos awareness, which lasted two hours. The same day of the training and for a few weeks afterward, the students of the class were reasonably vigilant. But even a few months later, I’m not convinced they could have told you the difference between asbestos and corned beef on rye. Absence may make the heart grow fonder but it can also erase awareness pretty darned quickly. Ask any GI Joe whoever received a Dear John letter. Thus, lessons learned in this COVID-19 age can be soon erased by even a few months in the traditional classroom setting.
To combat that reality, we are now developing a more comprehensive plan for eLearning in the event of future school closures. That will help but, unfortunately, plans are even more forgettable than experience.
Thus, what I am now considering is an occasional reminder in the form of a snow day. Some schools across the country have already instituted eLearning for snow days. I’ve declined to do so, believing that eLearning, as presently practiced, is significantly less successful than in-person instruction. (I still believe this and, perhaps until we master interactive holograms, it will remain subpar.)
But perhaps we should consider the current practice of building in two snow days into the calendar and then moving to eLearning for the third and any subsequent days. This would solidify the calendar but, more importantly, it would give educators and students a (usually) annual reminder of what eLearning is and how it can be done most successfully. This reminder, like the annual practices for fire and tornado drills, would keep everyone sharp and thinking of just how they would best approach another round of long-term eLearning.
Such a change would have its disadvantages and it would have its obstacles. But if it moves us forward toward higher student achievement in the long-run, then we’d be right on target.