World War II, Britain, 1944. Earthquake, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2011. Hurricane Maria, U.S. Virgin Islands, 2017. Tragic disasters with epic devastation and loss of life. And, as horrific as all these events were in human history, they also share another less reported catastrophic interruption in people’s lives – school closures. Significant losses of instructional time, as taxing as it is on students, teachers, and families, is not, research indicates, as impactful on student achievement as we might tend to believe.
Newfoundland and Labrador shuttered its schools on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. It is unlikely that the doors will reopen for the remainder of the school year. Factoring special events and holidays, the students of the province will miss approximately 10 weeks of instruction. No one will argue that this is not a significant loss of instruction. It is. But, large scale interruptions in instruction have happened before in our province. Students lost 3 weeks of learning in 1983. Ten years later, in 1994, students lost 4 weeks of school – both owing to teacher strike/lockouts (in the former I was a student, in the latter I was a teacher). I remember both clearly. The conversation then, as it is now, was exactly the same; What do we do about the missed content when school resumes? And guess what? Everything worked out just fine. Why? Well, the answer is a relatively simple one – the teachers.
One of the most important educational researchers of our (all) time, Dr. John Hattie, weighs in on this COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting impact on school closures and lost learning. In his impressive meta-analyses research, Hattie ranks, with effect size, all those influences that impact student learning. The 277 effects range from -0.90 to 1.44. The vacation effect, when students are not in school for extended periods of time, is -0.01. This means prolonged absences from school have virtually no effect on student learning. To put this stark reality in context, Australia and the United States have the longest school years, and days, in the industrialized world. But, if 10 weeks of instruction were to be removed from their calendars (which it will most likely be), then these two countries would still fall below, in terms of performance, than countries like Finland, Korea, and Sweden which already have 10 less weeks of instruction.
In light of this pandemic, it might be rightly asked; “How is that even possible?” Based on strike research and interrupted schooling, when schools reopen teachers respond. In ‘normal’ times teaching tends to focus on what we believe students need. But following prolonged absences from ‘normal’ times teachers tend to focus instruction on what “students could NOT do” (Hattie, 2020, p. 2). Educators become hyper-focused on filling in those gaps. As a result we refocus our instruction on not what we think students need but what students actually need.
After the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the education system was delivered a terrible blow. Many believed at the time that the loss of almost 7 weeks of instruction would have a catastrophic effect on student achievement. They were wrong. The focus for teachers (and for themselves) was on the individual first, the instruction second. Most students had no connection with the school, teacher, or work. However, after schools reopened teachers rose to the challenge (the drop in state test scores was 0.06).
So, what does all this mean? Well, to put it simply, Hattie points out that when it comes to lengthy shut downs “the message is that the effects are very low” (p. 2). Collective sigh of relief. Now, to be clear, that is not to trivialize or minimalize the effects of school closures. Education is a human endeavour. It is a societal enterprise. There are many layered effects on countless levels. And there will be no shortage of work to do in September. But on balance, students are resilient and teachers are masters of making-it-work. Recently, I heard Dr. Hattie speak about the plight of education following the COVID-19 pandemic. In the final analysis, he pointed out, “for most kids, this shut down is not going to affect them much at all.” Why? Simply put, Dr. Hattie went on to add, that this is a time to “unbelievably esteem the competence of teachers. They are going to find ways for recovery for nearly every kid as we go through this. They will find ways to make this not such a difference.” If this doesn’t settle the jittered instructional nerves, then I encourage you to keep reading Dr. Hattie’s work. During these difficult and uncertain times, it is just what the doctor ordered.References
Hattie, J. (2020). Visible learning effect sizes when schools are closed: What matters and what does not. Corwin Connect, 1-15.
Dr. Scott Linehan is a Program Specialist for the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. His Ph.D. is in Educational Leadership. He is the provincial facilitator for Visible Learning. Scott’s first book And The Tony Goes To – NL On The World Stage was released in the fall of 2019.