Lengthening the school year is not the answerTuesday, July 20, 2021
Learning is never lost, though it may not always be 'found' on pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or pre-existing measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement — Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut.
Professor Rachael Gabriel has a different outlook regarding the concept of learning loss. The professor argues that students continue to learn about themselves and school when we tell them that their efforts to engage with school this year were simply not enough. They learn about inequality when they see some districts open and others do not, some people vaccinated while others are not. They learn that the world still assumes all children live with their parents and that it is safe to do so. Professor Gabriel concluded that teachers learnt, too, that their already lean curriculum could be even leaner and more focused. That practice and application could, and should, look different at home, and that family members, friends, and neighbours are a resource not only for supporting what happens in school, but also for extending and elaborating on it in ways we could not have predicted.
The concept of learning loss is actually designed to describe declines in knowledge test scores emerging from comparative analysis of standardised test results. In spite of Professor Gabriel's views, the past academic year has not been anything close to normal due to the disruptions associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic. The World Bank states that children's learning has suffered immensely, “and because the education sector also provides health, nutrition, and psychosocial services, the overall welfare of children has declined substantially. Their recovery should start immediately”. As a result, the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank have launched a joint programme called Mission: Recovering Education 2021, which focuses on three priorities – bringing all children back to schools, recovering learning loss, and preparing and supporting teachers.
In the Jamaican landscape there have been calls for an extension of the academic year in order to address the learning loss. The idea is rather appealing, given the extent of the learning loss many of our students have suffered since March 2020 when educational institutions were ordered closed shortly after the first case of novel coronavirus infection was diagnosed. The Jamaican Government has responded to the disruptions in the 2020/2021 academic year by rolling out a Recover Smarter-National School Learning and Intervention Plan. The nexus of the plan is for students to participate in summer school sessions for approximately two hours per day, Monday to Thursday, from July 5 to August 19. The summer school is being delivered online and face to face, with the latter component primarily targeted at students who have not been consistently engaged with the education system. Just over 17,000 students have signed on for summer school. According to the education ministry, more than 120,000 students have not been engaged since the close of schools. Some will argue that much of the discourse regarding an extension of the school year is being done in a research vacuum.
Jill Barshay, in an article for The Hechinger Report, argues: “It seems intuitive that what children need now is more time.” She added that since students missed so much instruction during the pandemic, teachers should get extra time to fill all those instructional holes – from teaching mathematical per cents and zoological classifications to discussing literary metaphors. “We don't really know what the effects are,” said Jean B Grossman, an economist at Princeton University and MDRC, a non-profit research organisation, who has studied this research literature. Grossman added that lengthening the school day or year isn't a new idea. The 1983 report 'A Nation at Risk' highlighted how much more instructional time children received in industrialised nations. Japan had 240 school days, in contrast to Europe, which averaged between 190 and 210 days. The average school days in the United States of America rounds off at 180 days. The discussions surrounding lengthening the current academic year must be targeted, especially as it relates to boys' under-achievement. We must be mindful of the unique sociocultural factors in Jamaica as we seek creative ways to address the learning loss experienced during the pandemic.
Jamaica's Education Regulations, 1980, which governs teaching and learning, states in section 7 (3) that every public educational institution shall meet for classes not less than 190 days of each school year unless it is prevented from doing so for reasons approved by the minister. This minimum 190 days is above that of the United States of America, but less than that of Japan. South Korea has 220 days as their minimum number of contact days for school. Finland has a maximum of 190 days; however, most schools are in session fewer days. Finland's education system, in terms of student outcomes, is among the best, if not the best, in the world. This clearly indicates that the total number of school days is not a critical factor in student performance.
This data-driven reality forces us to examine other factors which are important in determining student performance. A significant number of our students are from dysfunctional families. Summer is often viewed and utilised as a time to 'juggle' for many students in order to get themselves financially ready for the upcoming academic year. If such students did not log into online classes during the interruptions caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, it's doubtful that they will during the hot summer months. Many students take their summer holidays before the official end of the academic year in order to juggle to earn funds to buy school uniforms, bags, and shoes. It is not uncommon for schools in some areas to modify the start of their end-of-year examinations to coincide with students' unofficial holidays. Technically, we have neither summer nor winter in Jamaica, but our months of June, July, and August are extremely hot. In addition to the intense heat is the discomfort that is associated with many of our poorly designed school buildings, which makes teaching and learning that much more challenging. Many students continue to suffer from poor Internet connectivity. There is also the issue of the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Importantly, a significant number of our teachers, as well as students old enough, has refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Undoubtedly, this vaccine hesitancy among these key stakeholders can impact the return to face-to-face school for the upcoming academic year.
We must analyse all the factors before we make any adjustments to the school year.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.