How Schools Can Prepare for a Very Different Kind of School Year

May 23, 2020

While we are facing a lot of uncertainty about what school will look like this fall, it is virtually certain that, when the 2020-21 school year begins, teachers who have always had diverse levels of student performance in their classroom will be looking at even greater diversity. Depending on each student’s circumstance, some students will have grown academically, while others will have fallen further behind their peers.

Here’s what we’ve heard in conversations with schools and districts around the country, and some thoughts on how to use the sense of urgency the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired to help students get back on track.

The disruption will widen equity gaps.

Equity and access have been huge concerns with remote learning, to the extent that some districts have not permitted online learning to be their primary approach. Many students simply don't have access to a stable internet connection or the proper devices. On the flip side, some students have a stable internet connection, proper devices and dedicated “school time” set by their parents or guardians.

This is all magnified by variance in schools’ responses to the disruption, resulting in dynamics that will unquestionably precipitate wider achievement gaps in the fall. We must acknowledge that students are having widely different experiences which will make the return to the classroom challenging.

This summer will be more academic than usual.

EdWeek recently conducted a survey asking teachers how they plan to make up for lost time during the pandemic. In response, only a small number of educators said summer school was the way they were going to make up for the loss of learning. While we can't mandate summer learning, making the summer a bit more academic than usual is something we can do. Studies have shown that when we support students in the summer by providing literacy activities, books, and ongoing practice, they can keep up with rising levels of expectation.

Many parents and guardians might decide that summer is not necessarily going to be quite as free and open as it would typically be. For example, they might want their kids to complete some work online while balancing their free time. Kids need to keep their minds active through practicing the fundamentals of reading and math.

On the other hand, many families can't teach their kids over the summer because they don't have active oversight over their kids or the luxury of working from home. Schools and districts can offer support by providing programs that students can use to practice math and reading on a regular basis, even if it is self-paced.

The fall will begin with “instructional triage.”

Because educators won’t have end-of-year assessments to guide them, one way to think of what school will look like in the fall is an “instructional triage.” Triage, of course, starts with screening. Once teachers have a sense of where their students are, they will need to be equipped with both quick ways of understanding specific student gaps as well as the learning tools and guidance students need to catch up.

There will also be a heightened need to progress monitor students’ academic performance. Administrators will also want to use student achievement data to make growth and proficiency projections throughout the year. Many conversations currently surround what assessments can do now, and how teachers can broaden their use. For example, many assessments can not only generate instructional recommendations, but they can also link to practice programs, apps, free videos and resources to place students in the appropriate content.

Schools already have the tools and expertise they need to get students back on track.

Schools have been implementing response to intervention, or RTI, strategies over the past decade. They have been building up their capacity around interim assessments, which allows them to screen students to get instructional recommendations, monitor student progress and provide targeted instruction.

Most educators will come into the next academic year with the idea that our students are behind, and we must do everything possible to catch them up. Administrators can parlay that sense of urgency into paying more attention to how to use and interpret the interim assessment data they have from prior test administrations. That way, schools that have a robust culture of data will have the structures in place to make informed decisions.

On the educators’ side, most teachers have been taught how to differentiate lessons and material for their students. They have specific strategies for working with students at different levels in the classroom.

To help teachers help their students, schools might consider gathering professional learning communities beyond a grade level, especially for students moving from first to second or eighth to ninth grade, which are key transition years. Teachers are experts in their grade level and content, but they may not have spent as much time at that lower level, and their students might need help making the transition.

Flexibility and responsiveness are the new key virtues. As the health issues play out, things may well be disrupted in some schools or districts for continued periods of time over the next academic year. School leaders would do well to prepare multiple plans. When resilient, schools and districts can flex from a building-based model to an anytime, anywhere learning and access model. The more capable we are together, the more agile we are to respond to anything that arises.


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