Do over the lost school year: Hold students back

OPINION

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In my second-semester composition class, I taught this short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by southern writer Flannery O’Connor. The story is about a doddery grandma who wanted to revisit a place from her past. She wasn’t sure any longer where that place was, but that didn’t stop her from getting the family lost while driving to find it.  And, when the family car broke down and some bad guys showed up, it didn’t stop her from angering them. The whole family wound up dead. 

Let’s not be that grandma, dragging students and their families into a past that doesn’t exist any longer. Since March 2020, school boards trying to go back in time have kept everything rocky. Here in the state capital, Lansing schools only decided in April to stick with online learning for the last month of the year. Last week the biggest public school district in Michigan, Detroit, issued a mis-mash statement that basically said to parents, do what you want until June. 

Stop already! Public school boards should declare 2020-2021 the lost school year. Next fall, hold students back to repeat their grade. 

During this ongoing pandemic we have heard a continual banging on the school house door to “open up.” But why? Because of lost educational opportunities? No. Open up so parents who need child care can go back to work. Caring for children is essential, but the first purpose of school is education.

But, this year instruction was all over the place. Some students were in class with a teacher. Some students had several different teachers through the year. Some students attended class onscreen. Others were at home being taught by their parents. Nearly 1 million American mothers left the workplace to help their children with school. Some students attended at learning centers.

That was one stellar accomplishment this year. Putting the term, learning centers, in parents and students’ mouths. It linked schools and learning. Yet instruction was catch-as-catch-can. To measure how much students learned in 2020-2021, I supported continuing standardized testing this spring; the state superintendent of public instruction did not because of a need to prioritize students’ emotional and mental health. But we need to know what happened with academics.

Even the best student suffers gaps in their education. I didn’t really learn commas until my administrative assistant at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine tired of correcting my writing and explained them to me. 

When I was a teaching professor, I worked to get all students to a level where they could take advantage of the instruction I was there to provide. By mid-semester, I hoped to have most students understanding what the class was about, how they fit, and what they needed to do to succeed. Then I could help the two or three others who were far back. 

But, after mid-semester — which is a time on a calendar, not an event — we were off to the races. I was trying to get everyone over the finish line at the end of the semester with a grade that allowed them to proceed to their degree. That was the point. No one likes to take a class over again. That is so defeating.

The effectiveness of any teacher relies in part on the level of class preparedness. That goes up and down with individual students. Some students are more prepared. Some students are less prepared. Some students are just right. Like the three bears. Students will return to class next fall some on mountain tops of accomplishment, others low in the valley. 

Next school year, K- 12 teachers will do their best teaching despite a rough terrain of preparedness. Districts and teachers can help smooth it out with tutors, for instance. These helpers take struggling students out of class one-by-one for a private session. That individualized approach fixes individual failure. But 2020-2021 was not the failure of individuals. Piecemeal efforts won’t work. Students will need solid instruction in the classroom. 

If students are not held back, what are they being promoted to when deficiencies are baked in the cake? Students and teachers will be doomed to harsh judgment in the future. Some of them will never catch up. They will always be behind, and struggling, and frustrated. Or learning goals will be dumbed down to avoid failing most of the class.

The solution? Hold every student back. Maybe at mid-term or mid-academic year, test the students to see who can go forward a grade, maybe. Or give parents the choice: let their child stay back, or be promoted to take the chance their child coming up out of the abysmal school year to succeed in the next grade. Many districts are going to offer intensive summer instruction. A whole fricking year made up in eight weeks? 

Hire more teachers and cut class size. That’s the ideal. It will be expensive, but it’s time to spend the money on education. Use the billion dollars the feds sent to Michigan for education. It’s essential for African-American public school districts like Detroit, or districts like Lansing where many students are immigrants. Let all students be strengthened. Fill or bridge educational gaps. No students’ education need be as potholed as our streets. 

Holding students back is not a new concept. Parents do this for sports. 

Parents who want their sons, specifically, to compete well against other boys in sports, football especially, will hold their kid back, starting them late in kindergarten at age 6, so they are almost an entire year older than other boys in their grade for the rest of their school days. Their kid gets a chance to grow, so he can do well athletically. In this case, being held back is not viewed as a loss, but as a win for the individual. 

There is a saying that it’s not what happens that matters. What matters is the response. The response of public school boards should be to declare 2020-2021 the lost year. Hold every student back and start fresh next fall.

Dedria Humphries Barker a Lansing resident, chairs The Andrew and Mary Jane Humphries Foundation. She wrote “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of each month.

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