A new study on distance teaching and learning in Minnesota during the coronavirus pandemic suggests that there may be valuable lessons to learn that can help narrow achievement gaps between student groups.
The Minneapolis Foundation report includes research-based insights for educators, families and policymakers that could lead to new approaches on instruction and learning — with a focus on what works for lower-income kids and children of color. And the study wisely outlines practical ideas for parents to use to strengthen family engagement while schools are closed due to the pandemic.
“The pandemic has disrupted ‘normal’ for every school in America, and the move to remote learning is posing huge challenges for everyone,” Minneapolis Foundation President and CEO R.T. Rybak said in a news release. “Yet it’s also true that a ‘return to normal’ is not what we’re aiming for — not if that means that you can still predict a child’s education and life outcomes by knowing their race and ZIP code.”
The new study, along with one released last fall, builds upon the “Reimagine Minnesota” work that has been led since 2016 by school superintendents and the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. That effort included input from students, parents, cultural representatives, business leaders and other community members to gather ideas about closing the state’s well-documented achievement gap between white students and some students of color.
Both studies were commissioned by the foundation and produced by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development.
Researchers recommend, for example, that educators use the blended educational context (home and school) to: allow students and families to share their ideas, better understand the types of information that are valued in their communities, and develop lessons that are more meaningful and relevant. Educators can encourage students and families to do offline activities together, then share those experiences online.
That, in turn, can improve student engagement and achievement.
Distance learning may also reveal ways to better tailor learning to individual students. Some do well with more structured learning, but others may thrive online when they can take short breaks throughout the day. U researchers encourage using this experience to reevaluate whether all students are best suited to be learning in the same place at the same time.
It’s important to find more effective ways to reach and teach students. Minnesota has some of the nation’s largest education achievement gaps, with disparities across race and income and in both urban and rural areas of the state. In fact, a 2019 Minneapolis Federal Reserve report called the problem a crisis, and its leaders have recommend that the state constitution be amended to make quality education a fundamental right for all students.
Globally, the World Economic Forum is considering ways the pandemic could change the delivery of basic education in the future. The organization says education system worldwide are being pushed to innovate.
It’s unclear how long Minnesota schools will be shut down, and some states are preparing their schools for phased reopenings in which students might do a mix of classroom education and online learning at home.
The Minneapolis Foundation report rightly highlights that the challenges of distance learning also present opportunities. That holds potential to narrow Minnesota’s learning disparities with a “new normal” of more equitable educational outcomes.