Will Hindsight be 20/20 in 2020?

May 27, 2020

This school year “like-no-other“ is finally gasping to a close, leaving schools, teachers, students, and parents exhausted in ways unknown before. Each has had to wear numerous hats during this time—and none of the hats has been the comfortable “here’s what I usually do” hat of previous years. Many blogs, articles, and webinars have been written to try to help schools and families finish up the 2019-2020 school year with some semblance of grace. Many more are being written to try to predict what schooling will be like or should be like in this upcoming “like-no-other” school year of 2020-2021.

The Centers for Disease Control and individual states are in the process of releasing guidelines for safe schooling next year, no matter if the school year starts in July, August (Los Angeles Unified), or sometime after that. The summer of 2020, as short as it will seem to everyone, is a pivotal time to take stock of what has happened. After all, if hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, we are in the process now of looking at the Spring of 2020 – and this is our chance to learn from it. So what do we know?

Education Week’s April 29, 2020 issue published an article called, “The Disparities in Remote Learning Under Coronavirus,” which identified seven findings gleaned from the EdWeek Research Center surveys of district leaders and teachers. These are areas of disparity in schooling that surfaced in the hectic changeover from classroom learning to distance learning. Here are some of the findings with impact for English Learners, some of which could have been predicted and some not:

  • There are big gaps in basic technology access between high poverty and low poverty schools.
  • Students are significantly absent in lower-income schools, nearly 1/3 of all students.
  • High poverty schools are less able to offer synchronous instruction, live with the teacher and with interaction with others.
  • Rural, urban, and high poverty districts are less able to provide online learning opportunities to all students.
  • The distribution of schoolwork is carried out online, most successfully by low poverty districts.

Whether predicable or not, the survey findings are sobering. This first wave of remote learning had to confront head-on the already-known disparities between high income and low income schooling—who has access to technology, who has Internet capacity, who has food in the house, who has a quiet place to work and an adult at home to support that work. As a second language researcher and educator, it is clear to me that the stories of many English Learners are included inside those numbers somewhere, yet many of their specific learning issues receive no daylight in the article. The Institute for Education Sciences stated that in fall 2016, the percentage of students who were ELLs was higher for school districts in more urbanized areas than for those in less urbanized areas. ELL students constituted an average of 14.0 percent of total public school enrollment in cities, and upwards of 25 percent in high poverty urban schools.

A May 14, 2020 article in USA Today, “Coronavirus' online school is hard enough. What if you're still learning to speak English?” lets in more sunlight on the issues facing English Learners (ELs) and their families within distance learning. “But students who are still learning English—a group that's swelled to 5 million nationwide, about three-fourths of them Latino—are losing even more ground. For them, that doesn't just mean a lower GPA or having to attend a less-selective college. It means potentially not graduating or not advancing to a post-secondary education. It means not mastering a skill critical for upward mobility in America.”

That’s the long-term view. The short-term view is also dire. Learning English well as a Second Language takes several years of focused work, a spiraling of scaffolding and support in school and at home, and lots and lots of practice speaking, reading, writing, and listening to English over time. This includes oral language, written language, communication via media, and one of the most difficult, content-area language. Distance learning places ELs at an extra disadvantage – they may not be hearing English at home, may lose access to English language materials from schools and libraries, and they may not be able to practice English in interactions with their classmates and teachers at this time. In the same article, a teacher from Los Angeles Unified talks about ELs hiding behind the screen in distance learning. "It's almost like the screen makes the students feel more anonymous and isolated."

Some states and districts have access to educational think-tanks and foundations as they plan for whatever the fall of 2020 will bring. Most don’t, and really need to look carefully at what has been learned from Pandemic 1.0 schooling this past spring. The new school year is likely to include some blending of small-group real-time learning and additional remote learning, at least for the first semester.

So now is the time for hindsight. We know now what the obstacles were in the spring, and they don’t have to be repeated in the fall. Let’s take that time to reflect on what we have learned:

  • What did educators do during Covid to support ELs that worked and that you want to continue going into next year?
  • What did you realize about your district or school’s approach to serving ELs that you did not realize before Covid?
  • What factors made it difficult for some ELs to engage in distance learning? Which of those factors can a school/district alleviate?
  • What bridges or relationships need to be established moving forward to ensure that ELs have access to quality instruction in the fall of 2020?

Before retirement, Linda Carstens was the Director of Professional Learning at the School Redesign Network at the School of Education, Stanford University.  She has 30+ years of district-level administrator experience in California, in San Diego City Schools and other school districts, in the areas of standards, assessment, curriculum and instruction, and in services for English Language Learners. She served as a Visiting Educator in the Accountability Branch of the California Department of Education. At WestEd, she worked with California districts in the area of systemic reform and second language, and for two years, co-provided the state’s Title III technical assistance obligation to districts. She earned a Ph.D. in multicultural education from Claremont Graduate University in 1993. Linda resides in New Mexico.  She has been a member of two national advisory boards related to education for EL students and serves as a peer reviewer for federal ESSA applications, for Achieve, Ed Reports, and ELSF projects.


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