For most schools, the spring of 2020 was nothing short of a calamity, as they were challenged to meet their students’ academic, social, emotional, and nutritional needs at a distance. It was as if we had asked produce farmers to grow vegetables without plots of land. Yes, technology now makes some of that feasible (thanks to aquaponics), but nobody would expect a farmer to accomplish the shift overnight, much less to do it successfully. Yet that’s what we asked of educators when we expected them to teach students from far away.
So it’s no surprise that “remote learning” did not, for the most part, go well, which is the only fair conclusion that can be drawn from the available data. Dozens of surveys and several analyses of school and district websites show that it took the vast majority of schools multiple weeks to stand up any type of online instruction, and challenges abounded even once they did. Millions of families didn’t have high-speed internet access or devices suitable for learning. Teachers were unfamiliar with online learning platforms and, on average, provided instruction just two hours a day. Districts that lacked a centralized curriculum had no feasible way to shift to digital materials. Many students were simply lost, not logging in and unreachable by educators. Of the parents, 80 percent reported that their children learned less than normal during the crisis. And of course, all of this was (or wasn’t) happening as a pandemic spiraled out of control, bringing fear, illness, and death into our communities—and especially into hard-hit communities of color.
When the school year ended, most of us hoped that fall 2020 would bring students back to school, if not yet back to normal. But given the resurgence of the virus, and pushback from many teachers and parents, “remote learning” looks to continue for tens of millions of students, at least for the first few months of school. Even where the pandemic seems to be under control, social-distancing requirements mean that most students will spend significant chunks of time learning at home for the immediate future. We have no choice but to get better, faster, and fairer at remote learning for the sake of the Covid Generation.
What we need, then, are concrete recommendations for how to significantly improve the remote learning experience for students, teachers, and families. That is what the Thomas B. Fordham Institute new report, Schooling Covid-19: Lessons from leading charter networks from their transition to remote learning, aims to provide, with ideas culled from educators who achieved striking success in the face of the viral challenge this spring at some of the nation’s leading charter school networks: Achievement First, DSST Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, KIPP DC, Noble Network of Charter Schools, Rocketship Public Schools, Success Academy, and Uncommon Schools. Together, they educate more than 140,000 students, most of them poor Black and Hispanic children.
Why study those schools? We at Fordham have long admired these networks, given their breakthrough results for low-income students and children of color—not just on academic tests but also in terms of long-term outcomes such as college completion. They are highly effective, well-run “learning organizations,” with gobs of talent, enviable autonomy from the many rules and strictures that can make life difficult for educators in the district sector, and the mission, resources, and incentives to keep innovating. Because they tend to have a culture of continuous improvement, we surmised that if anyone had met the coronavirus challenge, it would be these schools. And they did not disappoint.
But let us be clear, especially for readers associated with traditional public (and private) schools: We’re confident that hundreds, if not thousands, of other schools and districts could also have served as models of how to make an effective transition to remote learning. Several have received well-deserved attention in the press, such as the systems serving Miami, Dallas, and Cleveland.
Nor can we claim that the eight charter networks we looked into are representative of the charter sector writ large. Before the pandemic, they were among the best of the best, as judged by various research studies. They are likely outliers in their response to Covid-19, as well.
Still, one hope for charter schools at the outset was that they might serve as laboratories of innovation for the entire enterprise of K–12 education. That was our hope with this report, as well.
To carry out the ambitious assignment of interviewing leaders, teachers, and parents at these networks and distilling their lessons for the field, we turned to our good friend, and one of Fordham’s founders, Gregg Vanourek. He is a teacher, trainer, author, and researcher, as well as a working parent who helped his daughters with remote learning during the crisis. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC (training and consulting) and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver and at Stockholm Business School. Vanourek is coauthor of three influential books, including Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education, LIFE Entrepreneurs, and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations.
The eight charter networks featured in this analysis achieved remarkable success, transitioning quickly and effectively to remote learning. All were up and running with online instruction within days of the mid-March shutdowns. Together, they distributed tens of thousands of Chromebooks, internet hotspots, and other devices, and they offered a robust mix of live and recorded instruction, which led to high levels of student engagement. Their teachers and leaders, though exhausted, embraced the chance to innovate like they hadn’t in years. More details and data about these successes appear in the report—as well as the recognition that even these exceptional organizations struggled with aspects of the challenge.
What did we learn? Most critically, what are the key actions taken by the networks that other schools and school systems could take in the months ahead to make remote learning more successful? Five key steps stood out to us. These schools strove to:
- Meet their students’ social, emotional, and nutritional needs.
- Place technology in the hands of each of their students and educators quickly.
- Re-create the structure of the regular school day and maintain regular grading practices.
- Reach out to individual students and families on a regular basis.
- Embrace a team approach to teaching and instruction, centered around a common curriculum.
Many other U.S. schools doubtless strove to do likewise. But the success of the charter networks came from doing all five of these key things—and doing them remarkably well. Others could, and should, follow their lead in the months ahead.