Published: August 5, 2020
—Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
When teachers go back to school this fall, the classroom as they’ve known it will be gone, and their instruction will be more critical than ever.
That’s a daunting combination, but it’s what the pandemic has delivered. The spring produced crisis schooling, and teachers and schools scrambled to find online resources and master remote teaching techniques. A more deliberate approach this fall could mean a better experience for students; the lack of one could turn equity gaps into chasms.
With so much riding on instruction, districts need to plan for it with the same rigor they’ve applied to more operational aspects of reopening. “School leaders can’t be swallowed up in figuring out where the hand sanitizing stations are going to go,” said Justin Reich, the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab.
It’s a lot to take on even as the ground shifts under teachers’ feet. In the building, social distancing could put an end to the group projects and partner work that are central to many teachers’ pedagogy. Online, they will have to develop relationships and classroom routines with students they may have never met in person.
And engaging students is more essential than ever: Months of unequal access to instruction last spring mean that students will be coming back to school, in person or remotely, with varying degrees of learning loss. Teachers will have to address those losses as they introduce grade-level content.
They’ll also have to keep instruction coherent across online and in-person settings, since many districts plan to offer hybrid schedules. Schools might well need to respond to that reality by forging new roles or responsibilities for staff members—making one teacher the “remote lead,” or creating new cross-grade teams to support progressions in learning.
Schools should acknowledge upfront that they’ll likely have less instructional time this year and should plan to identify the highest priority parts of their curriculum accordingly. Teachers will need to create flexible, adaptable assignments that students can complete in different environments and with varied levels of technology access.
Experts say no students should be held back from grade-level work—instead, teachers and instructional leaders should figure out where they might need to revisit prerequisite skills in the context of instruction. That’s where a rethought approach to assessment can play a role. Experts are advising educators to use standardized tests sparingly and focus more heavily on informal assessments in the classroom: well-designed activities that “assess” the few, most critical things their students haven’t yet mastered for the next unit. Teachers can then remediate those gaps “just in time,” instead of trying to cover every standard or skill that might have been missed last spring.
Professional development will carry an outsized burden this fall, too, as school staff members require training to serve not only as instructors, but as social-emotional supports for students. Connection and trust are as central to instruction as curricular mapping and assessment. More than ever before, it’s essential that instruction encourages strong, caring relationships with adults and provides opportunities for students to think deeply, to connect with their peers, and to get excited about learning again.
Education Week reporters Catherine Gewertz and Sarah Schwartz interviewed 50 teachers, instructional leaders, and curriculum and assessment experts, and reviewed dozens of documents for this installment. It offers advice for deciding what to teach this year, how to teach it, and how to make sure students and teachers both get the support that they need from schools.
Now more than ever, schools need to give all students access to grade-level work, experts say. Even if students had little instruction in the spring, districts should fight the impulse to require extensive remediation or reteaching of whole units from last year. Doing so can widen equity gaps.
Instead, instructional leaders need to create a range of entry points into the grade-level content—scaffolds for students who require them, and places where teachers can refresh or reteach concepts that students need to understand in order to succeed this fall.
With many students on hybrid schedules that plan for some in-person and some remote learning, one “class” of students likely won’t be the coherent unit that it was in past years. Schools also need to plan how they will keep curriculum and instruction cohesive across different environments.
The coronavirus has already restructured one big pillar of the assessment world: It obliterated federally mandated statewide testing last spring. And now, as the new school year approaches, it’s led experts to wave cautionary flags that say: Be very careful about how you handle testing this year.
In a year when so many children have unfinished learning, leading experts are advising educators to resist a “test and remediate” mentality, which risks trapping children in a scrambling-to-catch-up place.
Instead, they’re urging schools to focus deeply on instructional techniques and informal tests in the classroom. That information offers the best way to do what’s crucially important
this year: adjust instruction to meet students’ needs, and provide support to help them be successful with on-grade-level work.
It’s particularly important this year, experts say, to use each kind of assessment for the right purposes, and to avoid overidentifying struggling students, English-learners, or students with special needs for remediation.
Teachers’ practices and routines will look different this year, whether they’re holding class online or in-person. But there are some priorities—like engaging with students, providing access to cognitively demanding work, and responding to formative assessment—that teachers can address in any environment.
Regular teacher-student interaction is critical to remote and hybrid learning. But districts can’t expect teachers to be available 24/7—setting boundaries is essential for creating a sustainable work environment and protecting teacher mental health.
STAFFING AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
The coronavirus didn’t just disrupt learning last spring; it opened up vast craters of academic and emotional need in students that adults must now try to meet. All of that has created a new set of staffing and professional development challenges for school and district leaders.
When it comes to staffing, it’s likely that the usual roles and responsibilities will need to shift to allow a school to focus deeply on things that matter most: good instruction, since many students missed key content last spring; support for technology, since many students will be learning remotely; emotional support for students, who have likely experienced trauma in the pandemic; and connecting with families, whose help is required now more than ever as more learning takes place at home. (Previous installments in our “How We Go Back to School” series have focused on staffing changes needed for health and safety.)
In this section, we explore staffing ideas that some schools are implementing to better support students’ academic and emotional needs, whether they’re in the building or learning from home. We also offer one organization’s thoughts on a way to envision and rework staffing models.
As if staffing isn’t challenging enough, professional development is shaping up to be a full plate all by itself. The pandemic has forced so many changes that experts are saying teachers and other school staff members need training on a wide range of things. They’ve issued a stack of papers and guidance documents suggesting that these topics are important and urgent, but it’s a daunting list to conquer.
Here’s a sampling of the topics most frequently mentioned as especially important for PD this year:
- recognizing trauma in children and providing support;
- weaving social-emotional skills into academic instruction (watch for more on this in Installment 7);
- deepening instructional skills for the most vulnerable students;
- maximizing the effectiveness and engagement of your online instruction;
- pivoting easily from online to in-person instruction;
- building new kinds of professional-learning communities that work as well remotely as in person;
- analyzing the year’s curriculum and identifying the highest priority standards to focus on;
- shifting thinking about assessment to focus heavily on informal classroom assessments;
- and remediating on just the few, key concepts students need most for the next unit.
Feel like a long list? You’re not alone. Leaders vary on which of these they feel should be top priorities, but it’s easy to see there is a lot to tackle. How does a principal or superintendent manage busy schedules to get all this done?
“It’s aspirational,” said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “In an environment like this, where there is so much going on at the same time, it’s true, there is an awful lot to cover.”
Domenech imagines most districts will focus heavily on PD for remote learning, because so many teachers have not received deep training on it. Training on how to respond to students’ unfinished learning and their emotional needs will likely be two of the other most common areas of focus, he said.
As this report is published, many school districts are already conducting a week or more of professional development on a range of topics. But it’s a lot to take on. And whether teachers will feel adequately prepared and supported to meet the coming year’s challenges remains an open question.