COMMENTARY: Education in the COVID era

Education, as we have always known it, is being reshaped by COVID-19, a mutated Goldilocks virus that has found a near-perfect combination of asymptomatic infection, replication and morbidity.

Another school year is about to start and our children, who have had one year of education stolen from them, are about to be cheated out of another. With no direction or leadership from the federal government our local school districts are carefully weighing options. To their credit, most districts have decided that a careful decision is better than a hasty one. Into the middle of this gloom, I would like to shine a ray of light.

Every realistic model for education in the COVID era includes some version of limited student attendance. Whether it is half the students every other day, or half the students in the morning and the other half in the afternoon, half time on-sight instruction followed by half-time online instruction, all intelligent models limit the class size to ensure social distance. This is as much to protect the instructor as the instructed.

Oddly, this is where the good news arises. And it is news we have known for a long time, A long-term study done by the University of Tennessee decades ago showed that all the barriers to academic success disappear at a teacher-pupil ratio of 14 to 1. No matter how poor or rich, how culturally deprived or enriched they are, no matter their color, name or ZIP code, if you maintain a 14:1 ratio in kindergarten through third grade, all students will learn at the same rate. What is more, their gains don’t disappear as they move to larger classes in upper grades.

The study also showed that trying to reduce the student-to-adult ratio in a large class by putting in a teacher’s aide does not improve a child’s chance of success. Studies show that the presence of a teacher’s aide in larger classes has absolutely no impact on student learning. No matter how well-intentioned or carefully supervised the aid is, they are not providing primary instruction. The answer to student achievement is tied to how many students a trained teacher needs to prepare for and interact with each day. The seemingly magic number, replicated in other studies at other universities, is 14.

This is an expensive but effective solution to a serious educational problem. Yet we, as a society, have never supported that kind of teacherpupil ratio, especially in the school districts where social and economic barriers exist. Where the need was greatest the will and wherewithal to implement the proven solution did not exist.

In the past, when we talked about primary classrooms of 14:1 we were met with pushback because smaller classes meant more classrooms and more teachers. We were talking about real money and long-range planning. More classrooms meant more equipment and technology. We also need the teachers — certified, trained, degree-carrying teachers who know both the subject matter and the science of learning and brain development. Good teaching is not for amateurs. Nor is it cheap, but if the year 2020 has taught us anything, it is the price of ignorance.

Now the requirements forced on us by a militantly aggressive virus may cause us to implement the magic number of 14 students to one teacher. Careful planning might make this work. The loss in contact time by half-time instruction may be compensated for by the quality of that instruction. Add carefully constructed, at-home, follow-up learning to the classroom instruction and our students may receive serious, consistent and productive learning. Instead of losing time, we may be gaining ground.

Good science and good research will keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.