Students stretch legs while wearing a mask during a physical education class at Roger Sherman Elementary School in Meriden. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

For educators, families, and communities, April is bringing a welcome sign of hope to a year of unchartered challenges as political unrest, COVID-19, social and racial disparities, and violence have disrupted and dismantled our schools’ traditional approach to education. The appointment of Miguel A. Cardona as the 12th Secretary of Education and the passing of the American Rescue Plan of 2021 does make it feel like spring, in fact, has sprung. The possibility of equitable school environments for our nation’s children appears tangible, however, recovery must attend to more than filling holes with intent to return to a “new normal.”

Students desperately need support as they try to overcome current challenges to academic learning, physical health, and social-emotional connection. Meanwhile, school leaders must focus on coordinating policies and practices that put equitable structures in place for every child. While the necessary federal leadership and funding provide necessary first steps to tackling multiple points of support to the education infrastructure, we propose that schools reopen not with a “new normal,” but a “better normal” — one where we carry out only a few highly effective actions really well. A “better normal” approach requires us to be scientifically informed as well as contextually and culturally responsive – all of which must be led by individuals who can decisively and expertly do less, better.

Simply telling educators to “do less” is not a solution. We need school and district leaders to make wise decisions as they address the unprecedented increase in student needs across many areas. They need explicit support in establishing this “better normal” — for instance, in the form of guidance distilled into distinct, concrete actions, known as “effective kernels.” Effective kernels refer to fundamental practices, implemented alone or in combination, that produce desired change quickly. Effective kernels are also usable, meaning that the user – in this case, a school leader – can put them into practice with ease and satisfaction. In healthcare, for example, research shows that using checklists increases surgical safety and improves patient outcomes.

As education leaders navigate our emerging new reality, it is critical that their decisions, and guidance that informs their decisions, be effective and usable. The evolving education environment demands nimble decision-making that relies on the best available knowledge.

To inform school and district leader decisions to “do less, better,” we offer the following guiding actions:

–Education leaders must do what has high probability of working. We have limited time to pilot or investigate novel, untested practices. Let’s rely on the robust research base that already exists on effective practices for everything from schoolwide systems of support and problem-solving and effective instruction to social-emotional-behavioral interventions and positive classroom and school climate.

–Education leaders must catch issues early. We cannot wait for problems to surface or worsen, issues to resolve themselves, or react when they occur. More students will be coming to school behind in their achievement and with personal, family, and community trauma. Let’s be prepared for what we know students will bring to the classroom.

–Education leaders must teach positively. Although punishment might signal to students that they have made an error or misbehaved, harsh physical, emotional, or verbal consequences do not result in learning, especially for students at high risk for academic and/or social behavior failure. Teachers and school leaders who provide students with frequent opportunities to see, practice, and experience positive successes are doing less, better.

–Finally, education leaders must make decisions that consider diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Education has not successfully addressed disparities and inequities associated with racism, sexism, or ableism. Now more than ever, school leaders must ensure that every student and their family members and educators have equitable access and opportunity. Let’s remember to consider longtime marginalized groups.

Our children, families, and educators deserve and demand a reopening response that is smart, efficient, and deliberate. Given the current risks and challenges, we do not have the luxury of simply restoring previous routines, taking time to implement, or adding to what was done in the past.

School and district leaders must be supported to do a few tried and true things really well. Let’s do less, better.

George Sugai is Professor Emeritus in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and with 45 years of public school experience. Sandra M. Chafouleas is a licensed psychologist with expertise in mental health and well-being and a Distinguished Professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut.  She is also the parent of three children.

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