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Welcome to New Jersey’s New Education JournalistJuly 19, 2023
The American School District Panel, a research partnership between the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, just issued a report that focuses on one particular result of the COVID-19 pandemic: while students have certainly fallen behind, so have teachers. Three years in, the pandemic continues to weaken instruction and we need to help students and teachers catch up to pre-COVID levels.
The study comprehensively examines five school districts (which remain unnamed to ensure honest answers) to find out why school systems struggle to implement and scale targeted student supports.The narrative that emerges “is one of plan after plan thwarted by unexpected circumstances and challenges, requiring systems to abandon once-ambitious student recovery plans to address, among other things, a crisis in classroom teaching quality.”
Here are significant findings from the analysis:
- School system leaders reported less day-to-day chaos during the 2022-23 school year, but growing clarity around the enormity of the challenges ahead.
- Staff shortages and challenges associated with providing additional training to teachers made Covid-19 recovery plans difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Tutoring, extended learning time, summer school, the adoption of new curricula, and the implementation of sophisticated instructional approaches all fell victim to staffing and management hurdles.
- Good teaching also suffered after three years of disruptions. Leaders reported that teachers were falling back on outdated and ineffective instructional practices or using curricula that lacked grade-level content and rigor.
- Returning to these school systems for the fourth time, three years after the start of the pandemic, revealed that leaders were reckoning with the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on not just their students, but also their teachers. Many have reported on learning loss and the pandemic’s other negative consequences for students, but we have seen relatively little discussion of how teachers’ instructional practice has fared over the past three years. These school system leaders believe that basic instructional practices suffered significantly, and they have come to realize that they need to pour an unexpected amount of time and attention into helping teachers regain and strengthen core skills. The “learning acceleration” models that many district leaders expected would catch students up required advanced teaching strategies, and were thus difficult to achieve when many teachers needed help reviewing the basics. Further, pandemic recovery programs—specifically tutoring, extended learning time, and bonuses to retain staff—were nearly impossible to implement at scale.
- Improving classroom instruction undoubtedly needs to be a priority for these school systems, and the reality is that each of these school systems will continue to see many students who are not “keeping pace,” who are dropping out, or who are graduating without the skills and competencies they need. This begs the question: How do we best help these students while teachers are re-engaging with core instructional techniques?
The report also includes recommendations for how various state actors can support the necessary improvements in instruction:
Federal policymakers: The school system leaders we interviewed were preparing for the expiration of federal Covid-19 recovery funds, in particular by winding down expensive and difficult-to-implement tutoring programs. Going forward, federal policymakers should support recovery within current budgets by providing greater flexibility on Title I and promoting its use for out-of-school private tutoring or extra coursework. As many students will likely be entering postsecondary education with significant learning gaps, federal funding should support long-term programs to close older students’ skill gaps or cover the
cost of post-high school remediation.
State policymakers: Many leaders are still hopeful that high-dosage tutoring will be the solution to catching students up, but school systems struggle to find enough high-quality tutors. States can help by subsidizing the development of quality independent tutoring and supplementary learning providers, or by recruiting and providing training to staff for tutoring, summer, and out-of-school learning programs. There is also potential for states and charter authorizers to provide oversight and transparent information about vendor performance. In terms of policy, states should ensure that school systems have maximum flexibility to increase student learning time as necessary, as well as the ability to provide adequate professional development to teachers.
Philanthropies: Local and national philanthropies can help identify “bright spot” methods that have been shown to both improve classroom teaching and help the students furthest behind to catch up. They can also support the research and development of programs and strategies to support student recovery, such as innovative delivery models for wrap-around services or extra learning time, including AI-enabled tutoring and teacher coaching.
Local advocates and parent groups: Parents and families can be an untapped resource for tutors. Advocacy groups like The Oakland REACH recruit and train family and community members to tutor students, creating an alternative pathway into tutoring and other educator roles. Other advocacy and parent groups could follow suit and recruit, train, and deploy parent tutors to support student learning.
School system leaders and school boards: School system leaders should consider these leaders’ candid reflections and assessments as a model and carefully examine the instruction in their own systems; early feedback on our findings suggest that these patterns are not isolated to these five districts. For leaders who find similar patterns to those in this report, consider recruiting stakeholders from the above groups. These stakeholders should support teachers in building their instructional capacity and providing key instructional materials, and provide additional resources for students who are furthest behind.