For Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a fellow Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, asking hard questions of the education establishment – and generating honest debate — is central to turning around the devastating K-12 learning loss of the covid pandemic.
“We’ve got to keep that ability to keep asking questions,” he told me recently on the Route K-12 podcast, which focuses on education recovery across the country.
As billions of federal dollars pour into local school districts to reverse learning loss, educators and policymakers are faced with an opportunity to question and challenge the pre-pandemic status quo. Reconsidering the focus of high schools is a prime example. Most public high schools across the U.S. work toward getting students ready for college, but less so on getting them ready for careers.
“Is the comprehensive high school the best route for, you know, 99 percent of American high schoolers? It can’t be the answer is yes,” he said. “So, if that’s not the right answer, then what is a better answer to that than what we’ve got today? And on and on and on. So, let’s keep questioning, and let’s keep doing everything we can to do right by this generation of kids.”
Some of Petrilli’s ideas might be unwelcome by establishment policymakers and educators. But they are offered in the spirit of fixing what USA Today has called “dramatic and sobering declines in math and reading scores for the nation's fourth and eighth graders, laying bare the ways pandemic-related disruptions damaged American students' ability to learn.”
Petrilli is in the business of questioning education policy. As the leader of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he helps promote educational excellence through quality research, analysis, commentary and advocacy. His organization is focused on “instilling ambitious standards in all academic subjects, strong assessments of student learning, aligned and well-implemented curricula, and common-sense accountability for schools and children across the achievement spectrum,” according to its mission statement.
Ensuring that schools maintain – and not roll back – high academic standards is more essential than ever during this period of educational recovery, he says.
“It still makes sense to have high expectations for kids, and it still makes a ton of sense to make sure that every child has a chance to learn challenging material in all the important subjects, from reading, writing and arithmetic and onto the others,” he says.
Another key element of recovery is providing students with more learning opportunities, in addition to the standard six or seven hours per day.
“Over a year out of school — we’ve got to give them that time back. That means high-quality tutoring. That means after school (learning). That means Saturday school. That means summer school,” he says. “I have floated this crazy idea that some kids may need a whole extra year and we should be open to that, too. Add another year to elementary school for this generation if we need it. Whatever we’ve got to do to make these kids whole.”
Within the standard school day, education leaders and educators should also be open to big changes that lead to greater learning recovery. One possibility is rolling back electives such as foreign language study.
“You could use that hour a day to help kids catch up on mathematics and or on reading and writing, which probably are going to matter more regardless of where they’re heading in their pathway,” he says.
Still another proposal is reimagining high schools to get some portion of students better ready for careers, in an acknowledgement that college might not be the best option for all.
“Almost no kids in America spend a significant amount of time while they’re still in high school getting ready for a career. And that’s crazy,” Petrilli says. “That’s completely different than any other advanced country in the world, and we’ve got to fix that.”
Education recovery is arguably the most important domestic issue facing the nation today, and it is the major focus of my organization as a clearinghouse of programs that are working at the local level. Inflation will eventually abate, and the economy return to full strength, but failure to recover learning losses will impact an entire generation for decades to come. Petrilli’s ideas should be added to the mix for consideration.