As quickly as the NBA put its season on hold and the summer Olympics rescheduled, schools across America switched to “school from home.” It happened almost overnight. Regardless of teacher training, parent comfort, or students’ technology access—remote learning was the new reality. It was amazing to watch, noteworthy for both incredible bright spots and complex challenges. An April survey by Learning Heroes found that two-thirds of families felt more connected to their child’s education as a result of remote learning. At the same time, schools reported limited internet access and technology, absent students, and ongoing problems with video meeting platforms.
We at the Cicero Group—an organization that provides data-driven consulting services in PK–12 schools and education nonprofits, among other areas—engaged with dozens of schools as they fully shifted to remote learning. In reflecting on what we saw and experienced, a number of lessons and success stories emerged. As we and the country rightly focus on racial justice, an issue of paramount importance to both society and to our nation’s youth, we encourage educators not to miss the opportunity to learn from their experiences this spring. We hope these lessons will help schools plan for an uncertain school year, with a focus on students and family.
1. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Trying to move our public education system out of the classroom and into a remote model is a monumentally complex task that we may never fully get right. This was especially true this spring, when we had to move quickly and with little warning. It will still be true in the fall, when we may have to implement creative, longer-term solutions.
The schools we worked with this spring seemed to fall into two camps: those whose first reaction was to convene a series of planning meetings, and those that immediately started collecting working laptops and passing them out. While the second strategy wasn’t without its challenges—software updates had to be made remotely, notes scribbled on scrap paper had to be retrofitted into a technology check-out system, etc.—we found it to be much more successful. Jumping into action ensured that there was little to no gap in learning time or lost momentum, and kids didn’t have time to slide into an “early summer” mindset. Educators still created plans—they just didn’t wait until they were done to act.
2. Family engagement is no longer optional
While we all know how important it is to engage families, the relationship between home and school changed dramatically when remote learning began. Family partnerships became essential. Schools needed parents more than ever before, and for many parents, the reverse was also true. Although communication with moms and dads was an obstacle for many, others saw it as an opportunity for a different type of connection. The most successful schools we saw were those that prioritized building authentic relationships with families, as opposed to those whose outreach strategy consisted mostly of demands.
This dynamic was clear in every school we support. Teachers and schools that built strong relationships with families saw increasing levels of student engagement, while those that hounded parents about assignments, Zoom sessions, and grades often saw more and more students and families growing fatigued and throwing in the towel as the end of the school year grew closer.
So how can schools build those authentic relationships? A few things we saw work were transparent communication about what schools knew and didn’t know, really listening to families’ challenges and helping them find creative solutions, and being flexible and not over-focusing on deadlines and grades. Educators should consider these a starting point for reimagining their relationships with families this fall.
3. Put learning first
Maybe it was a side effect of the emphasis we place on accountability, but we saw the stresses of grading and graduation have an outsized impact on teachers’ plans, with a huge amount of the dialogue focused on the quantity of assignments submitted. But we were impressed by what happened at a few schools that gave themselves permission to go off script. For example, one small, rural high school made the choice to completely scrap their traditional curriculum and replace it with a series of cross-curricular, schoolwide projects centered around what students have access to at home. While it didn’t result in many discrete assignments tied to grade-level standards that teachers could put into the gradebook, it did yield high student engagement. We are willing to bet that these students ultimately learned more than those at schools that took a more traditional approach.
A final insight based on years of working with schools is that there’s tremendous benefit in focusing on a few core solutions and using data to continuously inform and improve. That advice holds true in the Covid-19 era. Schools that were most successful created a narrow and simplified plan, worked together to implement it, and communicated transparently with teachers, staff, and parents about how it was working. They used data to ground their conversations—not just to be “data-driven,” but because looking at the actual percentages of student engagement, for example, allowed them to pinpoint challenges and create collaborative, customized solutions. That’s what worked before March 2020, and it’s what will continue to work no matter what comes next.
No one can predict what the next school year will look like. During these summer months, our hope is that schools will use this opportunity to rethink, in fundamental ways, how learning can occur. It is our opinion that if we simply offer the same learning program but add masks and six feet of distance, we will be doing students, families, and educators a huge disservice. Embrace the imperfections. Work with families. Put learning first.