OpinionPandemic  

Balfanz & Basile: Emergency Aid Won’t Last Forever. Using Some to Create a Corps of Coaches, Coordinators & Mentors to Support Teachers Would Ensure Long-Term Benefits

By Jim Balfanz and Carole G. Basile | April 6, 2021

(Getty Images)

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden on March 11 allocates $129 billion to help elementary and secondary schools rebound from the severe disruptions to school life caused by COVID-19. Additionally, the law stipulates that recipients are obliged to spend “not less than 20 percent of such funds to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions.

Many education experts and advocates are talking up the virtues of a national tutoring corps as a way to address instructional loss quickly and at scale. Indeed, tutoring focused on critical academic content like reading and math should be part of the mix schools deploy to help students.

But recovery will require more than tutors. And after the emergency funding has been spent, what lasting, sustainable improvements will we have brought to our education system?

Twenty percent of $129 billion is a lot of money to spend on COVID-learning catch-up. For that kind of investment, we should aspire to more than palliative measures. We should push for transformational innovation that begins to build an education system that’s both more responsive to learners and more supportive of educators.

We can begin with a national corps of community educators: people, including tutors, with specific skills that enable them to complement the work of teachers and schools. Community educator roles would include success coaches in the most under-resourced schools, who would build strong relationships with students to support academic progress and social emotional development; coordinators, who can connect community resources to family needs; mentors, who can help young people navigate life transitions; and others who can support the range of student development needs.

A national corps of community educators could kickstart a necessary transformation of the P-12 education workforce into one that can provide all students with deeper and more personalized learning and do so in a way that addresses the nation’s yawning educational equity and attainment gaps. Readying both community educators and the schools that will receive them will be a huge operational challenge.

Community educators will need both a core set of skills in areas such as building quality relationships and specialized skills in areas of focus such as academic tutoring or supporting social-emotional development. Well-prepared community educators can play a vital role in helping schools operate with a high degree of cultural responsiveness as they meet the needs of all diverse learners, including multilingual students and those with disabilities.

Operationally, a well-designed blend of in-person training and evidence-based online micro-courses can prepare community educators at scale. Colleges of education, as well as programs that prepare people to complement professional teachers in schools, have the intellectual capital and organizational capacity to create these learning experiences. Universities and other organizations that have existing and longstanding partnerships with schools are in a great position to support this work.

Those partnerships matter, because a large-scale infusion of even well-trained community educators will overwhelm an overly stressed system if schools aren’t ready to integrate them into their schedules and cultures. Community educators need environments that will know what to do with them. School leaders and teachers need resources to help them integrate new roles into their schools and productively engage with people who fill them.

Meeting these operational challenges will mean drawing on the expertise of colleges of education, nonprofits, local governments and, of course, schools. They’ll need to combine local knowledge with the ability to scale operational excellence. More fundamentally, they’ll need to leverage existing capabilities and organizational infrastructure to train community educators and get them into schools (both physically and remotely) in support of professional educators. Entities like AmeriCorps have demonstrated the capacity to mobilize and train people for effective service, including in schools.

Bringing in a diverse array of community educators to address academic, social, emotional and cognitive learning represents a step toward an education workforce that provides teachers with the support they need to help students succeed. Honest observers have long argued that too much is asked of teachers individually. They must be all things to each student: social workers, relationship builders, content experts, assessment creators, curriculum designers. They must instruct individuals, small groups and large groups. But disparities in educational attainment and school performance by income, ethnicity, and race prove that this doesn’t work for nearly enough learners. Retention rates for teachers and school leaders prove that this doesn’t work for nearly enough educators.

What’s needed is a system that provides mass personalization in education. Instead of asking all educators to be all things to all learners at all times, we need to reallocate the tasks each professional is asked to do across teams. An effective education workforce made up of professionals with diverse expertise requires meaningful opportunities for educators to acquire expert depth, explore functional breadth and pursue paths toward advancement that don’t necessarily require leaving the classroom. Investing now in a corps of community educators to support professionals can accelerate the advent of an education workforce designed to provide all students with deeper and personalized learning. It should free professional educators to be more effective and increase their satisfaction with their work. And it might even invite a significant number of corps members to enter the profession and become certified teachers themselves.

The pandemic hasn’t revealed new problems in our education system. It has made the severity of the most daunting problems both morally and practically impossible to ignore.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity — and obligation — to act on what we have long known and to start work on building and empowering the next education workforce.

Jim Balfanz is chief executive officer of City Year, which leverages the power of national service to partner with schools in creating more equitable learning environments for all students.

Carole G. Basile is dean of Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which is partnering with Arizona schools and other organizations to develop the Next Education Workforce.

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