Where We Stand: Real Solutions for Loneliness, Learning Loss, and Literacy

BACK TO SCHOOL is a time of hope and excitement for students, families, and educators. But this year, teachers across the country are wondering whether topics they teach and books they offer students will get caught up, baselessly, in the tempest of the culture wars. They might hear presidential hopefuls slander them as “groomers” who teach “filth.” These demagogues do nothing to help students in public schools—quite the contrary.

They are engaged in a coordinated attack on public schools (as I explain in my article here) to starve public education and divert public school funding to private and religious schools through vouchers. Ninety percent of parents send their children to public schools, and the vast majority want public schools strengthened, not privatized.

What I’ve seen in classrooms all over the country as educators help their students recover and thrive, and what research has proven, together form a set of strategies and solutions that will help students and strengthen public education.

These strategies address students’ loneliness, learning loss, and literacy, and they are at the center of the AFT’s new $5 million Real Solutions for Kids and Communities campaign. Our goals are to

  • unlock the power and possibility that come from being a confident reader;
  • ensure that all children have opportunities to learn by doing—engaging in experiential learning, including career and technical education;
  • catalyze a vast expansion of community schools that meaningfully partner with families;
  • care for young people’s mental health and well-being, including by demanding that social media companies protect, not prey on, children; and
  • fight for the teaching and support staff, and the resources, students need to thrive.

It starts with reading, the foundation for all academic learning. The AFT’s Reading Opens the World program has given away 1.5 million books to children and families over the last year—and we’re giving away 1 million more. Now we’re helping teachers develop their expertise in reading instruction through Reading Universe, a new online resource developed by working with real teachers in real classrooms. (For details on Reading Universe, see here.) And we’re reaching out to families with this issue of American Educator. We’re even printing 100,000 extra copies to give away at community events!

Another solution is experiential learning—learning by doing: like third-graders in Washington, DC, who role-play that they are officials addressing real issues affecting their city, and chemistry students in Cincinnati who get out of an escape room (their classroom) by solving puzzles that embed the content they just learned. Career and technical education is experiential learning at its best, and it prepares students not only for traditional trades programs, but also for careers in healthcare, information technology, and skilled manufacturing.

Experiential learning prepares students for the opportunities of tomorrow, and community schools help solve the challenges students and families confront today. Community schools wrap academics, healthcare, mental health services, food assistance, and much more around public schools—supports that students and families need to learn and live. Through meaningful partnerships with families and deep community engagement, they become centers of their communities. AFT members have helped create more than 700 community schools across the country, and we are part of a movement calling for 25,000 community schools by 2025. (To determine if your community is ready to launch and sustain community schools, see here.)

To further support young people’s well-being, we are working with parent and student groups to counter the harmful impacts of social media. In our new report, Likes vs. Learning: The Real Cost of Social Media for Schools, we call on social media platforms to make fundamental changes to prioritize safety for children—such as turning on the strongest safety features by default and implementing safeguards that deter students from overuse and protect students’ privacy.

Of course, we need appropriate funding for our public schools and the three R’s—educator recruitment, retention, and respect—so all students have the educators they need.

These solutions are worthy on their own; together, they are transformational. At the AFT, we are doing everything we can to scale and sustain them. And they should be a national priority, because we all want our young people to recover and thrive.

[Photo: AFT]

American Educator, Fall 2023