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Betsy DeVos Urges Schools to Teach New Material Amid Coronavirus Turmoil


Despite the challenges that the coronvirus has placed on schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos believes that schools must try to ensure students don't just go over old coursework if they're forced to stay home. 

As schools quickly shifted to online learning, some have encouraged teachers to largely review material they had previously covered, due to concerns that students with barriers like inadequate internet access might miss a chance to master new concepts.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday that focused mainly on higher education, DeVos said that she recognized that the virus has created unprecedented circumstances for students and educators. But in response to a reporter's question, she also stressed that she's not inclined to simply let schools off the hook on their core mission, saying "We can do hard things" and that some districts that have responded well to the coronavirus should serve as a model for others. 

"We have an expectation that learning will continue for all students," DeVos said. "And we would hope that it would be an aspirational goal ... that the students would not only maintain their current level of learning, but continue to expand" it. 

Her remarks hit on a similar theme as when she made when the U.S. Department of Education's release of guidance about online learning last month. At the time, DeVos stressed that federal laws and concerns about equity should not prevent schools from providing online learning to all their students, including those with disabilities. She said it was "extremely disappointing" to hear schools shying away from offering such services over concerns about special education. 

It's difficult to tell to what extent schools are focusing on teaching new content to students instead of reviewing prior coursework and material. Some states have addressed the issue, according to a collection of resources compiled by the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At least a few states are clearly signalling to school districts that given the situation, priority should be given to reviewing prior work. 

  • In guidance to schools about how they can ensure "continuinty of learning," the Delaware education department said, "Districts and charters should focus on reinforcing skills already taught this school year as well as applying and deepening these skills. In cases when teachers and students may wish to continue with new material, particularly at the high school level, districts and charters must consider equity of access and support for all students." 
  • The Massachusetts education department uses similar language in addressing the issue; Massachusetts says it "strongly recommends" that shcools focus on reinforcing skills previously taught. 
  • Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education said late last month that if schools determine that teaching students new materials is a better course of action than reviewing prior coursework in certain instances, then students "cannot be required to master and cannot be penalized for failure to master the new content."

It's also important to remember that grading students during the pandemic is a significant challenge, as Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk reported recently. One of the concerns with assigning grades in the current climate is that not all students are getting the same level of access to their teachers. 

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus pandemic and school closures at a White House briefing March 27, 2020. --AP Photo/Alex Brandon

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