Photo: Fermin Leal/EdSource
Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, speaks at EdSource's 2016 annual symposium.

Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the State Board of Education in California, and also president of the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization in Palo Alto. Working closely with Gov. Gavin Newsom, she has played a significant role in shaping guidance that the state has issued for schools in how to respond to the corona virus pandemic. Darling-Hammond was interviewed for EdSource’s “This Week in California Education” podcast, but we thought our readers would be interested in her complete remarks below. 

EdSource: What thoughts would you like to share with people connected to the education system in California?

Darling-Hammond: Well, this is unprecedented. We haven’t had a set of closures like this since the Spanish influenza in 1918. It’s been amazing to me, as we tried to pull together guidance and resources for school districts in this serious time, how creative and committed California’s educators are and how many are actively involved in problem solving.

So I want people to know that the state is going to double down to support districts and kids in their learning and their access to meals and access to childcare. There’s a lot of work going on to provide resources and we’re going to try to facilitate sharing among the very, very creative and thoughtful educators across the state. So many amazing efforts are going on that others can learn from. The level of collaboration that people are engaging in is just astonishing to me. So I want people to take some hope in the fact that folks are joining hands to really confront this issue.

EdSource: Gov. Newsom in his executive order said he’s expecting schools to provide a high quality education? Are schools really able to do that? What are the expectations at this point?

Darling-Hammond: Schools are differentially ready, but there are schools in California that have put together an entire distance learning curriculum. Los Angeles partnered as did San Francisco with public television, which has a curriculum and lesson plans in every grade level online. But there are also online resources set up for the standard coursework. San Diego has put together a whole set of resources and plans for it. Riverside County and other counties and districts put together a distance learning guide and resources. All of the A-G courses are online. We’ve published those resources from the Department of Education.

The online courses from the virtual high school that National University runs is going to be made available for free to anyone. People are stepping up, corporations are stepping up to provide free devices and Wi-Fi. We’re looking into ways to be sure that communities that don’t have broadband get it through everything from mounting Wi-Fi on school buses to the free Wi-Fi that many partners are going to be providing. So it’s a work in progress. There are many good models out there. We’ve published them on the CDE website and we’re going to be actively coordinating and updating the access both to devices and Wi-Fi, as well as to professional development for teachers to learn to work in this way if they have not done so in the past, as well as to the curriculum resources at every grade level in every content area that are currently available, and will continue to grow.

EdSource: Should districts be thinking about the next several months as enrichment learning and new opportunities to explore things they haven’t been able to do in creative ways, or as a continuation, a completion of an interrupted semester with grades and the like. Will that be possible?

Darling-Hammond: People are adjusting their thoughts about this because many folks initially thought they might just be out of school for a couple of weeks. And what we’re hearing from the CDC and from epidemiologists that we may be in for a couple of months of social distancing and that really changes the frame. My advice would be to include enrichment because this is an opportunity for kids to do some different things. The PBS curriculum is a really interesting one in that regard. But particularly for high school students, their districts will be concerned about how they can finish out certain kinds of coursework that are needed for college. And that’s why we wanted to be sure that we got those resources for the curriculum out there, so that people can also continue to make progress.

Because California adopted the Common Core curriculum in math, English, language arts and the Next Generation Science Standards, there is curriculum available nationally to continue at the grade level in each of those areas. And so it is possible to support kids to continue to move through the content. But I would hope that there would be lots of opportunities for exploring new ideas. We’ve also published links to social emotional learning lessons that families can do together, ways for kids to understand what’s happening.

EdSource: Do you see anything positive emerging from the experience so far?

Darling-Hammond: We’re in a moment where civic engagement and communal activity is flourishing. It’s an unusual way to engage in communal activity with social distancing. But people are stepping up to try to help each other in lots of ways. I think that’s a life lesson for young people. Many young people are trying to figure out how to be helpful in their communities, taking groceries to seniors, being viral communicators. That’s going to be the more powerful lesson.

EdSource: The question of equal access has come up constantly. Districts are concerned about whether students with disabilities or those who don’t have Wi-Fi access will be able to access this online material. What are your thoughts about that?

Darling-Hammond: The needs of students who have a variety of learning differences is going to vary, obviously. Some kids can’t engage in the content in the same way using the same vehicles as others. We’ve encouraged educators to think about how to vary the mode of transmission as needed. For some kids, it may be working out of hard copy materials. For others, it may be working online. But we don’t want anyone to think that they should do nothing if they can’t do the same thing for everyone. Lots of shared strategies are being communicated across districts for working with students with disabilities, and resources that are available for working with students who are not native English speakers. These are serious issues but they are being tackled in some very creative ways.

I think it could be possible in the next couple of months to have every student in California connected to the Internet with devices in ways that we will do more quickly now that we’re paying attention to it. If we are purposeful, we might find ourselves next fall in a more equitable position with respect to the digital divide than we were when this began to happen. But that’s because so many people are stepping up.

EdSource: What you think this means for the whole reform agenda that California is really in the middle of? The goal of all of this was to improve education outcomes. Do you have concerns that this is going to interrupt this whole process?

Darling-Hammond: We are certainly going to be interrupted in the process, along with every state in the nation. But the improvement of education that got planted with the Local Control Funding Formula, the new standards and new accountability strategies is pretty deeply planted in California. We will probably find ourselves rethinking some things as a result of the disruptions, but not in any way abandoning the progress that has been made.

I hope the reflection that comes from disruption will cause us to double down in the most productive ways. It’s interesting that so many governors across the country have been saying our focus in this time should be health, safety and learning and that testing is not the main point. So many states have called for suspension of testing. That’s an important point — that learning and testing are not the same thing. Testing is helpful as a tool for understanding where to make investments and how to continue to improve.

We will resume assessing and improving in the way that the Local Control and Accountability Plans asks us to do. But in the short run, it’s much more important that we engage in learning and teaching than worry at this moment about testing.

EdSource: Will the whole accountability system through the California School Dashboard be in jeopardy this year as well? .

Darling-Hammond: We’re looking at what will have to happen. Certainly if we’re going to look at issues like chronic absenteeism, suspension rates — at minimum those would have to be sort of prorated across the part of the school year that we were open, and factor in the weeks or months of closure. Whether that can be done productively is currently under study. And certainly we’ll have to deviate a little bit the way in which things get reported, not counting the closure months.

Regarding graduation rates, it’s really important for districts to figure out how to not interrupt the education of kids who are planning to graduate this year. And we will want to double down on figuring out how that can be made possible for those young people, and how it will be part of the Dashboard. But all of that is under study. Whatever we can continue we will, and whatever we can’t, we will pick up again next year.

EdSource: Some parents want to know “will my child be held back next year?” or “will my child graduate?” Is that something that the state board will get involved in?

Darling-Hammond: We’re actually looking at these questions right now at the State Board of Education. We expect all the kids who are on track to graduate should graduate and we’ll figure out with districts how to acknowledge their progress and make sure that can happen for them.

EdSource: People are realizing that the state doesn’t have all the answers. So it’s going to be people at the local level who are going to come up with the answers.

Darling-Hammond: One of the things though that the state can do, and we are very focused on this, is help people share the local answers with each other because we have amazing educators in this state, at both the county level and at the district level. As we were putting together resource guides, we saw so much going on that was illuminating, inspiring and transformative. Part of our job in a big state like California is helping people who are inventing great solutions to share and learn from one another,

EdSource: Are you having to spend a lot of time in Sacramento or are you able to do a lot of your work remotely?

Darling-Hammond: I have not left my house since Friday (March 15). I am engaged in social distancing. I am doing a lot of work by Zoom and telephone. And I’m washing my hands frequently too for 20 seconds at a time. I encourage all of you to do the same.

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