After one of the worst years in the history of American education, there is finally light at the end of this very dark tunnel. Teachers and other school staff are getting vaccinated, infection rates are starting to drop, and President Biden has promised a partial return to normalcy as soon as the Fourth of July.
For instructional leaders in school districts and charter school networks nationwide, that means their focus can start to shift from managing the daily crises of remote and hybrid learning to looking ahead to the fall, when there’s reason to hope that all students will be back in class full-time once again. In other words, it’s time to put our attention on the recovery phase of the pandemic, when we all must work to ensure that the challenges encountered by students since March 2020 do not set them back for the rest of their education careers.
A new resource from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Acceleration Imperative: A Plan to Address Elementary Students’ Unfinished Learning in the Wake of Covid-19, aims to give the nation’s chief academic officers a head start on planning for America’s educational recovery, with a particular focus on high-poverty elementary schools.
The document is intentionally a work in progress. It’s already the product of thoughtful advice from more than three dozen instructional leaders and scholars. The intention is for this model plan to continue evolving and improving with the help of practitioners and other readers—via a “crowdsourced” initiative on a new “CAO Central” wiki site. After all, America’s public education system may be divvied up into 13,000 districts and 7,000 charter schools, but that doesn’t mean we need to work in isolation. As with other open-sourced and crowd-sourced efforts, the goal here is to address common challenges together.
This document rests on four key assumptions:
- Many students—especially the youngest children in the highest-need schools—will need extra help coming out of the pandemic, in the form of extended learning time, high-dosage tutoring, and expanded mental-health supports. The latest data from i-Ready winter assessments show that elementary school students—especially students of color and those in high-poverty schools—have been hit particularly hard, and are significantly behind where they usually would be in both reading and math. And every day we see new evidence about the burgeoning mental health crisis hitting American children.
- That extra help should complement but cannot replace what students need from schools’ core programs. Tutoring cannot substitute for high-quality curricula, and mental-health services can’t take the place of a positive school culture. No amount of extended learning time can compensate for not making optimal use of the “regular” school day. So while education leaders must address the particular needs of students related to the pandemic, they may also need to reboot their school improvement efforts. Implementing a high-quality curriculum is job number one.
- To make up for what’s been lost, we need to focus on acceleration, not remediation—going forward rather than going back. That means devoting the bulk of classroom time to challenging instruction, at or above grade-level, and giving all students access to the good stuff: a rich, high-quality curriculum in English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, the arts, and more.
- Our decisions should be guided by high-quality research evidence whenever possible.
The good news is that the American Rescue Act provides over $100 billion for local districts and charter schools to address students’ needs in the wake of the pandemic.
So what might make for smart investments of the new federal funds, with an eye toward academic recovery? And what action steps should schools take? The Acceleration Imperative is chock-full of specific recommendations, including:
- Administer a school culture survey to evaluate the current strengths and weaknesses across the community, such as those from Johns Hopkins University or UChicago Impact. Do teachers and staff view the school as having clear, high expectations for teaching and learning? Do they feel that vision is aligned with school or network policies and practices?
- Select and implement comprehensive, high-quality instructional materials. Reviews from EdReports are helpful; only green-rated curriculum should be used.
- When selecting a curriculum, also arrange for professional-development services from a training organization that specializes in supporting educators to use that curriculum. Rivet Education is a promising source of reviews for professional learning providers.
- In both English language arts and math, focus on “priority instructional content” as identified by Student Achievement Partners, at least during the 2021–22 school year.
- Establish science and social studies as part of the daily core of elementary school instruction, rather than “special” subjects that happen once or twice a week. Ensure that students are not pulled away from science or social studies instruction for any reason, including for tutoring.
- Keep struggling students, including those with disabilities and English learners, together with their general-education classmates as much as possible, even as their specific learning challenges are also being addressed during additional instruction in small-group settings.
- Use the same instructional materials for interventions and supports—including tutoring—that are used for regular instruction.
- Implement an evidence-based mental health program such as Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) for students who have experienced significant trauma or who have been diagnosed with serious mood, anxiety, or other behavioral disorders.
The most important suggestion: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The only recommendations that will help students thrive are ones implemented thoughtfully, with fidelity, and with attention to detail. Aim for quality over quantity, and save some steps for later.
Nothing in The Acceleration Imperative is brand new. Almost everything has been validated by quality research on its actual implementation in existing American schools, in addition to the professional experiences of our expert reviewers. But pulling it all together and applying it in schools that already faced considerable challenges before the pandemic is going to be a heavy lift. We know that. The goal of the dozens of practitioners and academics who have contributed to the project is to help with the task, and to assist educators in accelerating the progress of our most disadvantaged students across this great country of ours. Now let’s get to work.
Editor’s note: A different version of this article was first published by The 74 Million.