The first time my mom interacted with an iPad was this August, when her 5-year-old grandson—my nephew—brought it home from school. Gus is a kindergartener, and his parents don’t have the luxury of being able to work from home, so my recently retired mother has become his education supervisor. She didn’t have a Gmail account, let alone familiarity with Google Classroom. Our family has become an ad hoc over-the-phone IT support unit. A spare bedroom—our family’s “teacher’s lounge”—has a wall covered with Post-it notes with login credentials, a mobile whiteboard schedule and a count-to-100 handmade poster. The dining room table has been repurposed as the classroom.
Our scenario isn’t unique; it’s playing out in millions of households across the nation. My family is fortunate to be able to accommodate and support the new paradigm of distance learning. But that’s not the case for many others--and we must now understand how to reach all students through this new paradigm, regardless of the circumstance.
In these unprecedented times, the expectations for education technology solutions have never been higher. They must meet the pedagogical standards of experienced educators, and also be easy enough to use by a grandmother and kindergartener at a dining room table. They must elegantly integrate with—yet also stand out from—the myriad other tools schools are juggling. And as budgets shrink in a time of decreasing tax revenue, school leaders are forced to prioritize their “need to haves,” over their “nice to haves.” The edtech solutions they invest in must address their most critical and pressing problems.
It’s an interesting paradox: edtech has never been so prevalent, and yet the need for high-quality, relevant solutions has never been more dire.
How do we support and innovate around social-emotional learning when we’re so high on emotions and so short of socializing?
I founded LEANLAB Education, an education-innovation lab based in Kansas City, after spending five years in the classroom and developing a fervent belief that the expertise of school communities—parents, students and teachers—is crucial to developing breakthrough edtech solutions. To ensure their voices are heard, we pair promising tools with a network of pilot school communities to collaboratively workshop solutions.
Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve surveyed more than 700 parents and teachers, and conducted 27 focus groups across Kansas City to understand the most pressing pain points in education. In this new paradigm, what do schools and families really need? Our data revealed three critical areas in need of innovation.
1. Social-Emotional Learning
We’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn, a civil rights movement, and a tumultuous election cycle. It’s a hard time to be a human—let alone a child.
Parents, teachers and administrators alike expressed concern for kids’ well-being. “Our students may have suffered loss and economic hardships during the past six months of summer break and emergency distance learning,” one charter school administrator told us. “We anticipate there being several social and emotional needs as our students return to school, and these needs could be overwhelming to staff.”
There’s also a clear safety concern as children continue to be confined to their homes. “Students are not always able to check in with trusted adults or peers and have less access to reporting violence/abuse in the home,” another charter school administrator told us.
How do we support and innovate around social-emotional learning when we’re so high on emotions and so short of socializing? How can we help kids connect with their friends and with trusted adults? How can we support counselors and social workers as they try to meet a higher demand for their services?
2. Family & Caregiver Engagement
Directly behind social-emotional learning, the second biggest pain point we found was family and caregiver engagement. Parents, teachers and administrators all point to communication as an area in need of innovation, and each group offers a unique insight into why the current methods are failing.
Caregivers and teachers alike told us that they want conferences and check-ins to be about more than grades and disciplinary actions. One public school district administrator told us, “I believe if we can change the parent involvement problem, we can increase student achievement and decrease student discipline.”
So what prevents parents and teachers from communicating with each other?
There were a variety of reasons offered—which means there are a variety of opportunities for innovation. In the school districts we surveyed, we found some very basic barriers. In lower-income schools, the phone numbers and addresses the school has on file for families aren’t always accurate. Language poses another challenge, and not just for parents who aren’t English speakers. There are often culture gaps that have to be bridged as well. For example, we found that a parent’s education level has a greater impact on their approach to remote learning than their race or socio-economic status. Parents with higher education attainment felt more prepared to support their child at home, more comfortable using edtech tools, and, comparatively, less concerned about their child’s educational progress.
Regardless of their circumstances, we found that the adults at home want to be involved, while still maintaining their own jobs and responsibilities. The vast majority of them (73 percent) told us they want to spend 1 to 2 hours each day helping their children with schoolwork.
Parents want to be able to communicate with teachers—but they aren’t starting on equal footing. They need more flexible options that allow for more authentic interactions. We need to level the playing field for parents, equip teachers to share robust feedback about a child’s progress, and remove barriers to holistic communication.
3. Academic Achievement
In the midst of all this upheaval, we can’t forget a very basic principle: academic achievement remains critical for students’ future success—as well as schools’ survival. For the parents and caregivers that we surveyed, their student’s “educational progress” was their chief concern. This was true regardless of income, educational level, race, or geography.
None of us can afford to take a year off without risking long-term negative consequences. Preliminary estimates from NWEA suggest that “students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year;” and in math, they project students will be “nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”
In the districts we surveyed, state testing results indicate a lot of room for improvement, year after year. One charter administrator was particularly concerned about her school’s declining scores in English Language Arts, Math, and Science. Though many states have paused testing this year, her school can’t afford to lose more ground when testing is resumed.“The ability to provide students with engaging activities in these areas would help scores to improve,” she said. “These content areas offer lots of career opportunities for our future citizens.”
The administrator went on to add that it’s not just concern for students’ futures that drives the need for innovation; it’s concern over the future of the school itself. “Charter schools that do not show significant academic growth face closing and non-renewal of charter. Improvement in scores would allow us to remain a charter school in the Kansas City area,” she added.
Adaptability Is Key
If there’s any silver lining to working in the education sector during a pandemic, it’s that the problems we knew existed all along have been made even more blatantly obvious. Remote learning has only exacerbated the divides among parents, teachers and students, across racial, economic and geographic lines.
But this also means there has been no better time to seize the opportunities and innovate. Adaptability is key. Tools and programs should be just as effective in remote learning as they are in the classroom.
The solutions may not provide immediate relief for my mom and the day-to-day headaches of facilitating at-home kindergarten. But the groundwork we lay now will pay off for years to come.