Lessons from the pandemic: A conversation with education leader and author Kristen Amundson

We’re still learning so much about the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and well- being, and we’re still learning so much about how to respond.

One expert sharing powerful insights in her new book, Unfinished Learning: Schools, Parents, and COVID School Closures, is Kristen Amundson, a former delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, chair of the Fairfax County School Board, and president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

I had the great fortune of connecting with Kris recently to talk about her work and observations. I’m excited to share highlights of that conversation here, edited for length and clarity.

The importance of listening to families

Lindsay Dworkin (LD): Thank you for taking the time to really look at the impact of COVID-19 on public education and where we go from here. How did you go about writing the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

Kris Amundson (KA): I interviewed so many families during the pandemic and kept hearing what a truly awful time they were having. I wanted to tell their stories and connect those stories to decision-making and policy-making, to make sure we learned from what was, without a doubt, the biggest disruption to our kids’ schooling ever.

We were, as a nation, massively unprepared, and I think people saw clearly that school is the single most important institution to children’s lives outside the family structure. In addition to acquiring knowledge and skills at school, many children get breakfast and lunch there. They also lost their ability to socialize and connect with peers, which is as much a part of growing and developing as academic life. Families were just stranded.

LD: You write about a shift in parents’ perceptions of, and involvement in, schools today rooted in their experience with the education system during the pandemic. Can you tell us more about what you learned?

KA: At first, people were shocked but then came to support the school closures at a time when scientists just didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But as early as May 2020, NWEA® experts were sounding alarms that prolonged absences from schools were likely to affect kids’ learning. As school closures extended into the fall of 2020 and then into 2021, there was even more evidence that students were struggling. US parents were frustrated to see that countries in Europe kept schools open and closed everything else. What I won’t ever come to peace with was that in the US it was apparently more important to open bars and tattoo parlors than schools.

School is the single most important institution to children’s lives outside the family structure.

By the time vaccines arrived in early 2021, public patience had pretty much ended. In the 2020–21 school year, NWEA released data showing that learning loss was real and that opportunity gaps had widened. Policymakers started to track that and make it public. Parents were upset. They also came to see more about what was happening educationally. Before the pandemic, they might not have known the ins and outs of their child’s curriculum and the school day. Some of that started to change when kids were at home. All of a sudden, families could and were tuning in. We’re still seeing increased parent activism as a result.

What’s been lost

LD: What do you think the most profound impact of COVID-19 was on public education? What can we learn from that, and how do we steer schools toward a full recovery?

KA: We had, as a country, been closing opportunity gaps before the pandemic. We weren’t doing as well as we needed to, but the lines were moving in the right direction. That’s all gone. And the mental and emotional well-being of children has declined so much, too. Teachers say they’re seeing things—behaviors they’ve never seen before. All of this is putting a lot of pressure on those who work in schools and school systems. People are leaving. They’re exhausted.

We can’t ask teachers to do anything like this again, and we need to support them on the road to recovery. I interviewed the dean of teacher education at Arizona State University, Carole Basile, who said that one teacher in a room with 25 students working at different grade levels and trying meet all their educational and social needs wasn’t working well before the pandemic. Then, we asked them to do that online, and it worked even less well. We must think about how we use education personnel. One teacher can’t do it all. Arizona State is working with schools to support a new approach to school staffing that supports teachers and increases student learning.

The SPARK School in the Kyrene school district in Tempe, Arizona, shows how this new approach might work. Before the pandemic, the school had divided students into multigrade teams of roughly 120 students. The teams were staffed by a teacher leader, two certified teachers, three teaching candidates, as well as special education teachers and paraeducators. The students had routines, were used to being grouped, had a learning plan, knew what they were supposed to be doing, and had support from their teachers. So a shift to online learning at home was easier because students were already used to taking responsibility for their own learning. And when one teacher unfortunately got COVID-19, the whole structure didn’t fall apart.

Online learning didn’t work well during the pandemic, but given ongoing public health issues and student and teacher absences, teachers still need to be trained on how to teach virtually, and systems need to make sure kids can work digitally. I hope schools never close for as long as they did during COVID, but there are always going to be school closures for bad weather and other unexpected events.

Using data and choosing interventions

LD: We’re getting more data every day on student progress. NWEA released data showing students are back to pre-pandemic growth in many grades but haven’t caught up yet or closed all COVID-related gaps. We’ve also seen Nation’s Report Card and state assessment data that can help inform policy and practice. How do you think we should be using this and other data to inform school and system improvement? How can we talk about the data while taking an asset-based, solutions-oriented stance?

KA: We need to be transparent about the gaps. We need to have open conversations centered around the data. We make a mistake when we assume the community and parents are not able to handle the truth. They can. Parents have expectations of schools, and one of their expectations is that schools will share information on what their kids have learned and where they still need to go. That’s a thing parents took away from the pandemic: they didn’t know how much schools measure, and now they kind of do. We need to be honest about what’s been lost and come up with sound, evidence-based solutions regarding what to do about it.

We must think about how we use education personnel. One teacher can’t do it all.

It’s also important to remind people of the bright spots. So, even if a student’s test score shows they are behind a year in math, that doesn’t mean they haven’t learned any third-grade skills. It might mean they have a gap or two in a specific area. We’ve got to spend our most precious resource—instructional time—on the stuff that kid doesn’t know. We can provide interventions targeting what they need. Parents and kids find that comforting and helpful—plus it works.

LD: You make a great point that data needs to be granular enough to unpack, to be actionable. If there is a big lesson I hope we get out of the pandemic, it’s that information is necessary and eye-opening and tells us what kids know and where the gaps are. We know that states and districts are looking at interventions such as high-dosage tutoring. In addition to writing a book during COVID-19, you started a free tutoring program for K–12 students in Virginia led by college students. Tell us about that.

KA: At a virtual event with US Senator Mark Warner during the pandemic, he noted that many college students lost opportunities like internships and had more time on their hands in lockdown while K–12 students were struggling with online school. He suggested that it would be great to pair the two groups up so the older students could help the younger ones.

A group of colleagues and I loved the idea and sought advice from the late Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Slavin about how to design a high-quality program. He explained that it should include small groups and be frequent, targeted at student needs, and delivered by well-trained, paid tutors. So we set up EduTutorVA.We’re using MAP® Growth™  data to measure progress and target where to spend our tutoring time.

We are so gratified to see that this approach is helping students make real progress. We served seven schools in Virginia last year and are in ten this year, with continued plans for expansion throughout Virginia We’ve linked up with preservice teaching programs at the college level and are working with aspiring teachers. They’re helping K–12 students while gaining strong, real-world, professional experience.

Learn more

You can find out more about Kristen and her book on her website. Kristen is a wonderful storyteller, and her book offers insights from the people we most need to hear and learn from: students, families, educators, and leaders. With her extensive background as a policymaker, Kristen connects the problems of the pandemic to solutions available to us today.

Let us know what you think! You can find us on Twitter @NWEAPolicy.

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