4 ways to seal education’s missing link during COVID-19

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Nov 24, 2020

This fall when students returned to school, many faced a heretofore unimagined reality: their rooms at home were now one and the same as their homerooms at school. This shift now magnifies a long-standing challenge in K–12 education: the interdependence between home and school. The ebbs and flows of home life and the resources and supports available at students’ homes now affect their learning more than ever before. And recent reports tell us that in this arrangement, many students feel isolated from their teachers while many parents desire more engagement from schools.

Modularity Theory tells us that when two components in a system interact to determine outcomes, the biggest improvement gains will likely come from improving the interfaces between those components. Consider a non-education example: In the early 1980s as IBM developed some of the first PCs, it faced unpredictable interfaces between the microprocessors supplied by Intel and the other parts of its PCs. To remedy this problem, IBM worked closely with Intel on improving the interfaces between their respective components. If IBM and Intel had each tried to fix the problems by doubling down on their respective parts of the PC, it wouldn’t have done much to fix the breakdowns in how their parts work together

Beyond back-to-school night

Unfortunately, the conventional interfaces between home and school are in many ways lacking. Schools formally interface with families through a number of long-standing traditions: back to school nights, parent-teacher conferences, newsletters, flyers, homework assignments, and report cards. On occasion, when pressing issues arise, teachers or parents may also initiate ad hoc connections via phone calls, emails, or in-person meetings. But in general, the standard interfaces between home and school only provide infrequent, impersonal, and opaque connections between teachers and parents.

As both a former teacher and current parent, I’ve repeatedly found these customary interfaces frustrating. When I was teaching, if a student showed up to school late, didn’t complete his homework, or didn’t study for a test, I was at a loss to figure out what was going on and what to do. Now as a parent of elementary schoolers, I’ve been frustrated when my children have faced both academic and social struggles that went on for weeks or even months before I found out about them. And when that information finally arrives through the mediums of report cards or parent-teacher conferences, it’s hard to know what, specifically, I can do as a parent to have any impact on my child’s day-to-day educational experience. 

COVID-19 shakes up the interface between home and school in both challenging and promising ways. For schools and teachers, remote learning can make it harder to do their jobs—not only are time and resources scarce, but they’ve lost control of the learning environment. Who is to stop kids from playing video games or browsing social media when they’re supposed to participate in a class video call? Yet meanwhile, as a work-from-home parent, I’ve found that remote learning strengthens my ability to support my kids’ schooling. I’m much more aware of what my kids’ are learning because learning happens in a room down the hall from where I work, and I’m one of the first people they turn to for help on assignments. 

Not all parents work from home, and many don’t have the time to devote to supporting remote schooling. But across the variety of circumstances families face, there are a handful of technology-enabled practices educators can use to help families coordinate their efforts to support students’ learning. Better home and school interfaces can help parents address challenging moments in their children’s education before these road bumps turn into barriers that negatively affect learning. My hope is that some of the challenges brought on by COVID-19 will necessitate improvements in the home and school interface, and that these improvements will last beyond the pandemic. Here are four places where schools can start.

1. Make real-time learning progress transparent. To facilitate remote learning, many schools and teachers now rely on learning management systems—such as Schoology, Canvas, and Google Classroom—to exchange assignment details with their students. Fortunately, many of these platforms also provide parent logins or send parents regular email updates so that parents can check the status of their students’ assignments. For schools still searching for online and remote learning options, the capability to keep parents in the loop should be a key consideration.

2. Leverage communication technologies wherever possible. As with the example above, many schools and teachers have turned increasingly to apps like Remind, Class Dojo, and Seesaw to communicate with students and their families. None of these apps introduce revolutionary new technology. Rather, they streamline the processes of connecting, thereby making it easier for parents and teachers to share more information more often. Research shows that even text messaging can make a notable difference.

3. Create more time for connection. In a year where teachers are working around the clock even more than usual, the solution isn’t to add hours to their schedules. Instead, change how teachers allocate their time to prioritize connecting with families. One way to do this is by leveraging quality online learning resources to empower students to master content independently. The more online learning can free up teachers from the time demands of planning and delivering direct instruction, the more time teachers can spend connecting with families.

4. Give guidance on learning at home. Small habits at home can go a long way to reinforce the things students learn at school, but often parents aren’t aware of relatively simple things they can do to support learning. Schools can coach parents on how to initiate conversations in the car or over the dinner table that help their children review and consolidate their learning. Likewise, teachers can point parents to activities or games that reinforce relevant learning—such as working with fractions while cooking or drawing connections between current events and history or literature. For more on how to put these ideas into action, check out this micro-credential from the Institute for Personalized Learning. 

No parent or caretaker wants to feel frustrated in their ability to support their child’s learning needs, especially during these uncertain times. By making the home and school interface a key priority, schools can help ensure today’s vulnerable students get the education they deserve.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.