This New Nonprofit Is Training Better Online Teachers This Fall

Aug 19, 2020

Last spring, after schools had closed and students were forced onto Zoom and Google Classroom in a rush, experts and educators around the world clamored to make a rather fine distinction: What they were doing wasn’t online learning, but rather emergency remote instruction.

Semantics aside, the phrase has become a somewhat euphemistic way to acknowledge that teachers simply did not have the time, training or opportunity to improve their online teaching craft.

This summer a group of education leaders, many from the world of charter schools and education reform, sought to change that by launching the nonprofit National Summer School Initiative, or NSSI for short. Its solution was both a crash course in effective online teaching—and figuring out what good online teaching looked like—and a summer enrichment program for students across the country.

“There had been a great deal of talk over the years about virtual education, but very little focus on what constituted quality virtual education,” said Chris Cerf, a member of NSSI’s design team and a former education commissioner in New Jersey, on a recent conference call with reporters. “We really wanted to explore that question, and in a direct application that made a difference to the thousands of children across the country who found themselves facing significant learning loss by virtue of the absence of the traditional modality of brick and mortar schooling.”

Essentially, NSSI began a one-week training institute for more than 500 teachers who wanted to become better online instructors, and paired them with mentor teachers who could demonstrate effective teaching strategies. Afterward, teachers and mentors put those skills into practice during a free summer program that ended up serving about 12,000 students, teaching them core English and math classes along with the arts.

Now NSSI, which is rebranding to Cadence Learning, is also transitioning its program into a full-fledged fall offering for interested districts, community groups and charter networks. (Applications are ongoing).

The program is free for districts and networks with under 5,000 students, and low-cost for larger ones, thanks to a $4 million fundraise from philanthropic groups such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. (The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has also supported projects at EdSurge, including a series on school reopenings in which this story appears.)

Schools that partner with the new Cadence Learning will organize their schedules around the program, which can last up to four hours a day. In addition to academic subjects, including science and the arts, the program makes time for twice-weekly sessions between grade-level teachers and mentors. Cadence Learning also offers detailed lesson plans, student materials and will even help with schedules for districts that want them.

Example schedule created by Cadence Learning, showing how a typical school day may be structured.

Given that the back-to-school season may look different from one school to the next, the Cadence Learning program is being designed with a certain amount of flexibility—to account for a variety of in-person, remote or even hybrid models, where students mostly learn online but come to campus a few days a week.

“One of our objectives was to build something that could be modified and expanded from summer to fall in a way that met schools and districts, where they were in each of the different scenarios,” Cerf said.

In an EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis of reopening plans, districts are split between remote, in-person and hybrid instruction models.

Along with the focus on mentorship, the program emphasizes live instruction as a best practice. Mentor teachers record video lessons with students to model learning and class discussion techniques, such as asking students to complete exercises over video calls in real time, just as they would in a classroom. Part of the pedagogy also involves using student responses as showcases for the rest of the class—for example showing how two students independently came to a correct answer using different approaches.

Yet discussing how incorrect answers came about can be just as illuminating—a concept that can be extended to the simultaneous learning teachers are undergoing as they improve their online teaching.

“The biggest thing that we did as mentor teachers in working with partner teachers was to build this environment where it was okay to make mistakes,” said Wayne Banks, a program mentor and middle school math teacher for KIPP charter schools. “We get excited about that because it allows us to do our job—to show, why doesn’t this work? It deepens the conversation and the conceptual understanding that kids are going to leave with.”

According to Banks, since mentors work with many teachers, it creates a scalable model for improving online teacher quality. “If we have better teachers in the field, especially now, the better our kids and their families are going to be in these uncertain times,” he said.

The summer program finished at the end of July but already it’s earned high marks from parents. In an internal survey, 85 percent of them said they were satisfied with the program; and 92 percent said they were very likely to recommend it to others. In an effort to gain more evaluative feedback, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Virginia will look at the long-term effects of the summer program on student learning, as compared to peer students in the same school who did not attend.

“It’s only a five-week program and we know from our long work in school reform and educational change that we can’t expect to see enormous effects from such a short term impact,” said Steven Wilson, a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education who is also on the Cadence Learning design team. “But nonetheless, I think we will see that. I think we will also see social-emotional impacts, which are very important to us.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many weeks teachers and mentor teachers were in pre-training over the summer. It was a one week training.


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