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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Tighten Up

In a recent report for NPR, Education Correspondent, Anya Kamenetz, relates how a new poll reveals that for most American parents of school age children, the culture wars playing out in the headlines are not playing out in their homes, regardless of their political affiliation. Most American parents, Kamenetz writes, are content with their children's schools, teachers, and what they're teaching. They are even sanguine about their children having made up "learning loss" this year, although standardized test scores and college attendance rates nationally would argue that they're wrong.

All of this, pending, God forbid, a resurgence of the virus, argues for a 2022 - 2023 school year focused on tightening up, a return to the high-expectations-with-support environment that lies at the heart of independent schools' long-term success. By necessity, in response to the rapid pivot to remote learning and the longer-range impact of isolation on children's social and emotional lives, schools relaxed some of their academic and behavioral expectations. Simply completing assignments was often good enough in the early going of remote school work, in some cases even showing up was heralded as an accomplishment, and without the structure and responsiveness of high quality in person experiences, many kids developed very low expectations for their engagement with school work.

Back to school in person this year, educators told us that scaffolding their way back to the standards that defined school life pre-pandemic was tough, frustrating work. For some second graders, this fall was the first time they'd ever been in person at school. Some first year high school students hadn't been in an IRL science lab since 6th grade. You don't have to be an expert in child development to know that some age segments represent more concentrated periods of growth, where access to resources and context that promote academic, social, physical and emotional growth has enormous impact. For many of the theoretical second and ninth graders in this example, in person school this year must have felt overwhelming, at times incomprehensible.

In my conversations with school clients--whom I began visiting in person this year as well--I heard that the structures of school life will be the theme of conversations in preparation for next school year. I also heard teachers and administrators using the vantage point of the last 3 years' disruption to examine disinterestedly the structures some were wistful for. Yes, kids who were allowed to bring their remote learning wardrobe to school--pajama pants, fleece blanket, sketchy hygiene--felt a long way from the dress code of yore, but would a strict return to that dress code really be as meaningful as some thought? At some schools, the answer was yes. The conversation about academic standards has been simpler in many ways: how do we reacclimate kids to what "best work" looks like without crushing their motivation, and how do we support the kids who have skill gaps that are preventing them from doing their best work? Rob Evans says in his book Family Matters that for parents and teachers helping kids grow involves an on-going re-formulation of three key ingredients: nurture, structure and latitude. Independent schools prospered during the pandemic because of their capacity and willingness to deepen the nurturing and latitude they extended to students. Next year will be about amplifying structure.

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