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Coronavirus in the United States : "We have to make sure that all students come back"

School portal: What experiences are schools currently experiencing in the USA during the crisis? What are your observations in California and what support can you currently offer the schools in critical situations there?
Rick Mintrop: Here in California the schools have been closed almost continuously for a whole year. I work with my team at the University of California in an initiative called the Research-Practice Partnership. Normally we support schools and school supervisors in particularly challenging situations in school development. We start with a detailed problem-finding process on site. But this form of so-called design-based school development is currently not possible because it takes far too long. Rapid support is required in an emergency. So we changed our logic with the first lockdown and, together with the top leaders of the school districts, analyzed in particularly critical situations what the schools now need most.

What challenges have emerged in the process?
We worked with the school administrators and control groups in 30 schools with around 12,000 students and identified five urgencies with the school authorities:

  1. We have to adapt the curricula because the teaching time has been reduced.
  2. We need to step up diagnostics to find the gaps.
  3. We need to develop procedures to help teachers maintain personal contact with families in the virtual space.
  4. We need to train teachers in the basic technology for digital teaching.
  5. We need to support teachers in offering online lessons that maintain student participation.

For each of these challenges, we worked with selected teachers from the schools to develop materials and advanced training modules that were then used in the schools. The schools could choose from the five fields which challenge they are currently facing. We in research accompanied the process and collected data, but unlike in design-based school development, the results were not fed back directly to the schools in order to set up new test loops. This step would have overwhelmed schools during the crisis - there was simply no time for that.

In your list of priorities, it is interesting that the two points you mentioned first - namely curriculum abbreviation and diagnostics - are only now being discussed in Germany, while at the beginning the focus was primarily on further training in the use of digital instruments such as learning platforms. How do you explain that?
In the summer it was not yet clear here either that the schools would no longer open. But the chaos that had developed in the spring made it clear that material had to be reduced in the new school year to fill the gaps.

In fact, that wasn't the top priority for the schools here either. Personal contact with families and technological training were the top priorities for the schools. Many schools in California have certificates issued every three months. When the first report had to be written after three months in the new school year, it turned out that an incredible number of poor grades had to be distributed. By then, at the latest, it became clear: If teachers ask about the material "according to the scheme F", a lot of students fall by the wayside. Since then, the subject of shortening the curriculum and diagnostics has been hotly debated. Poor grades can severely demotivate students - at secondary schools this can lead to young people dropping out of school.

But the problem is only now being seen really clearly. The development seems to be similar to that in Germany. Schools cannot tackle all problems at the same time in a crisis. In design-based school development, the process is actually slowed down first in order to think in peace and define a clear problem.

How do you find out under the current crisis conditions which measures are bearing fruit?
We have feedback forms for all five fields of activity, but these should be viewed with caution. As a rule, such bows are always very positive here, and criticisms are seldom openly named. We have selected a few schools where we have followed the processes and training courses more closely. There we can see directly how the modules are recorded. Feedback is an important point, but we lack data on how exactly the online lessons are designed - we are not part of that! In contrast to traditional observation at schools, teachers are much more reluctant to let someone take a look in online lessons. That is understandable, because the teachers have little experience.

Does lockdown learning take place mainly in the form of online lessons?
The teachers do online lessons exactly according to plan, alternating synchronously and asynchronously. That is also checked. In the secondary schools, the pupils have six hours of lessons a day. In primary schools there are slightly fewer hours of instruction, but more time is spent on contact with families. All the students were given a laptop, as were all the teachers. That was ensured right at the beginning of the crisis.

During the crisis, the young people in the poor communities mainly helped to feed the families because their parents' precarious jobs had collapsed.

Still, it doesn't always work. In the primary school sector, the children are usually present in online lessons, but in the secondary sector we assume that 20 to 25 percent of young people do not take part regularly. A poll of high school students by the district found that 80 percent have a job. During the crisis, the young people in the poor communities mainly helped to feed the families because their parents' precarious jobs had collapsed. We weren't aware of that before.

Is there a risk that these young people will not return to school at all?
That is exactly the huge problem we are facing now here in California, especially in the poorer districts. The school dropout rate had systematically decreased in recent years, now it will rise sharply again. We know that so-called high school dropouts are condemned to poverty. They never get a proper professional training, never a proper job - they can only work as simple unskilled workers.

Precisely for this reason, one really has to get serious about adapting the curriculum and make sure that realistic expectations are placed on the students. At the same time, you have to think of a support system to contain this problem. All teachers should be vaccinated by the end of March. The schools open in the hybrid model in April at the latest. Now we have to make sure that the students all come back.

Apart from that, are there experiences from the crisis that could change schools in the USA in a positive way in the long term?
Yes, for example, the digital tools make teaching much more individual. The teacher can follow exactly how the individual children are working in the digital classroom. The teachers will certainly also use this in face-to-face teaching. Another major step forward is the completely new approach to training. The nimble teachers, for example, have learned in a relatively short time how to produce good videos in which they report on their teaching attempts. Digital demonstrations of lesson sequences are also possible in training courses without having to travel from school to school. We have now put the modules that we developed for the crisis on a training platform, which can now be expanded at any time.

I very much hope that this will continue. The teachers now know how to do it and have learned to appreciate the benefits. As a result of COVID, the school authorities regularly send questionnaires to all parents. This systematic feedback with quick results is likely to be maintained even in well-organized districts. School development can benefit from this.