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Voice and choice: New England students highlight which pandemic-era changes should stay—and which should go

Research on the pandemic’s negative impact on student learning, peer-to-peer relationships, and teenagers’ mental health makes it easy to assume high schoolers are eager to “return to normal.” Yet recent conversations with high school students throughout New England reveal very different hopes for this period of recovery.

Students at Margarita Muñiz Academy in Boston collaborate on a project in 2021. The dual-language school, featured in this project’s earlier research, created new opportunities for students to develop deeper relationships with teachers and to have more say in the design of instruction.

Our researchers and those from Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL), with support from the Boston-based Barr Foundation, have begun a two-year project focused in part on listening to and learning from high school students across New England. The goal is to better understand how students are experiencing shifts in instruction and operations and to document the changes they want to see carried forward. These conversations will be conducted with juniors from spring 2022 to fall 2023 as they complete their senior year and embark on post-high-school pathways.

Understanding the ways in which students are experiencing adaptations made by school leaders can inform planning for next school year and suggest areas that merit further research.

This research builds off student focus groups completed during the 2020–21 academic year. The largest district we studied had 14,400 students, and the smallest had 4,500. Consistent with the diversity of New England communities, the students we spoke to came from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Our conversations so far, from the 2020–21 academic year and spring 2022, yielded three key insights.

Students want flexibility in “how, where, and when” learning takes place

Changes in class schedules, staffing structures, learning supports, instructional materials, and assessment practices ushered in by remote and hybrid learning hold promise for in-person instruction. Flexibility with respect to how, where, and when learning takes place allows every student to master content in ways aligned to their strengths and needs.

Some students we spoke to enjoyed flexibility afforded by hybrid schedules adopted during the 2020–21 school year. Many students alternated days in which they attended school in person or virtually, and some schools implemented one full at-home, asynchronous learning day each week to accommodate campus cleaning. This schedule often gave students more time to complete assignments or meet with teachers one-on-one. “I can do homework all morning, which I don’t know if I would have done if I had to be at school all day,” one student said. Another student proposed schools should continue full in-person learning but offer late starts so students could “have meetings or catch up on homework.”

Other students appreciated the flexibility of remote learning because it allowed them to work part-time jobs and save money on transportation costs. One student said the option to attend school from home helped her save money on transportation costs because her school doesn’t provide busing. “I was excited not to have to pay for a bus card [to commute to school] because when you add it all together, it does get a bit pricey,” she said. “So the option of staying home did save me a lot of money this year.”

The responses from our small sample of students should not be interpreted as a push for hybrid education for all. But it’s clear some students still want to see schools carry forward some of the flexibility and autonomy afforded by remote learning. For others, fully in-person learning worked best because they struggled to stay engaged while learning at home, often due to distractions and the lack of a workspace conducive to learning. “I feel like there’s no boundaries between the home and the workplace anymore. There are distractions 24/7 now,” one student said.

Margarita Muñiz Academy students in the same “crew,” or social cohort, walk together through a park in 2021. The school’s model prioritizes expeditionary learning, which helps foster community connections and close ties among students and staff.

Shifts from teacher-centered to student-centered learning make class more engaging

Students want ample opportunities to bring their ideas, experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds to classroom activities. Yet over the past several years, schools across the region have struggled to make these types of learning experiences the norm rather than the exception. For example, New England students reported having limited access to challenging, relevant, individualized learning experiences, according to a fall 2020 survey

Implementing high-quality, student-centered learning requires significant shifts in educator mindsets and behaviors. One district developed guidance to help teachers self-assess the extent to which they have effectively moved away from traditional teacher-centered instruction. The “Student-Centered Learning Look Fors” developed by the district include indicators of the following:

  • Student ownership over their learning (e.g., whether students are engaging in inquiry and formulating questions to drive learning)
  • Personalized learning (e.g., whether students are proposing learning activities to support knowledge and skills acquisition)
  • Anytime, anywhere learning (e.g., are students directing their own learning outside of the classroom through the use of technology)
  • Mastery-based learning (e.g., are students leveraging teacher and peer feedback to revise work product)

In student-centered classes, students reported greater levels of engagement in the material, and they appreciated the opportunity to build skills and competencies that transferred to the real world.

One student favored chemistry in large part because the chemistry teacher leverages a group-learning strategy that allows students to work in small, self-directed teams. The strategy, known as Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, or POGIL, has the teacher act as a facilitator as students construct knowledge and understanding collaboratively—an important skill that’s transferable across disciplines.

Students have their say from The POGIL Project on Vimeo.

Another student was engaged by assignments that moved away from rote memorization. “I [liked] one assignment in which we made Twitter feeds or Instagram comments through Google Classroom,” the student said. “[The posts] didn’t have to use formal language. You would just respond to people how you would on social media. Keeping things current and modern was really engaging.”

Other researchers studying how schools have navigated this period of recovery similarly found that assignments that ask students to bring their own personal experiences and interests help students build a sense of ownership over their work, leading to deeper engagement and deeper connections with teachers and peers.

Students want to understand and have input into school policy and practices

Many students in our sample want to understand the rationale behind changes in their schools. But administrators often struggle to fully communicate those to students, causing them to feel overlooked. For example, one school adopted a new grading policy that did not punish students for certain behaviors, such as turning in assignments late. The goal was to make grading more equitable while honoring students’ well-being. Yet the lack of communication from administrators led to frustration among students. One student who turned in assignments on time found the change frustrating because it disrupted his planning—and the student did not understand what the change in grading expectations accomplished.

Students also expressed interest in understanding policy changes outside of the instructional context as well. From a school’s uniform policy to approaches to student discipline, students want to be consulted and informed about decisions that directly impact their high school experience. 

Schools that did this best created formal structures for student feedback and ongoing participation. For example, at Common Ground High school, a single-site charter school in New Haven, CT, school leaders encouraged student voice and agency through several initiatives. Those included a shift from elected student leaders to an opt-in, after-school leadership group open to all students and also the creation of two student seats on the school board to ensure that the school’s leaders are officially accountable to students.

Looking Forward

As school and system leaders look to next year, they face critical questions about how to grow and sustain pandemic-era changes. Our interviews with students are a good starting point in understanding what young people need to recover from the pandemic. Across a range of New England schools, students have said they want more control over when, where, and how they learn. They want more class activities that put them, rather than their teachers, in the center of the learning process. And they want a voice in the policies that shape their daily educational experiences. Developing those skills under the guidance of adults now will serve them well—both now and later in life.

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