The coronavirus pandemic has upended many facets of K–12 education but not the regular surveys of public school teachers and principals conducted several times annually for the RAND Corporation’s American Educator Panels. The spring 2020 surveys provide the first nationally representative data from both teachers and principals regarding their experiences teaching, leading, and learning during the chaos of pandemic-mitigation closures and the pivot to remote learning. These data—from district and charter teachers and principals—were obtained in late April and early May. There were 1,000 complete responses out of 2,000 invitations for teachers and 957 complete responses out of 3,500 invitations for principals. No information is given as to the breakdown of charter or district school respondents. The key topics surveyed were distance learning and curriculum coverage, perceptions of school challenges and needs, school and teacher contact with families and students, teacher training on remote instruction, teachers’ needs for additional support, and priorities and plans for the summer and next school year.
Consistent with other reported data on this ever-changing topic, the RAND Corporation researchers find that while almost all schools required students to complete distance learning activities, teachers reported wide variation in curriculum coverage and approaches to monitoring student progress. Approximately 80 percent of teachers reported requiring students to complete assigned learning activities, although only one-third were issuing letter grades for students’ work. No data were obtained on the types of teaching (synchronous/asynchronous) or curricular materials (worksheets/online lessons/virtual classroom lectures) provided. Of the teachers who responded, 17 percent were monitoring work completion but providing no feedback on it. These findings diverge depending on grade levels. More elementary teachers reported providing no feedback than did secondary teachers, but far more secondary teachers reported assigning letter grades than did elementary teachers. The researchers speculate that these differences could simply reflect prepandemic variation in feedback and grading processes. One could imagine that the long-standing pressures of GPA calculations and graduation requirements might drive a continuation of traditional grading for high schoolers even in a time of otherwise radically altered grading paradigms.
Just 12 percent of teachers reported covering all or nearly all of the curriculum remotely that they would have covered during the year in person. Overall, more than 25 percent of teachers at all grade levels and school types reported that the content they taught was mostly review, with a smaller amount of new content. Nearly 24 percent reported an even split between new content and review. However, teachers in high-poverty schools (those in which at least 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch) were more likely to have devoted most of their curriculum to review relative to counterparts in low-poverty schools and schools with a majority of white students. Teachers in schools defined as “town or rural” were most likely (30 percent) to report teaching content that was all or almost all review.
Students lacking high-speed Internet and/or devices were top of mind for principals responding to the question of factors limiting the provision of remote learning. Both items showed up as specific survey responses, but the digital divide was also likely at play in other reported concerns, such as equitable provision of instruction and difficulties communicating with families. It is interesting to note that nearly 39 percent of principals also reported lack of teacher access to adequate technology as a major or a minor limitation. This, also, was more pronounced in town or rural schools.
A majority of teachers—62 percent—indicated that they had received at least some training on how to use virtual-learning-management platforms and technology. However, a far lower percentage of teachers indicated receiving training on other distance-learning topics such as equal accessibility of remote lessons for all students, differentiating lessons to meet individual student needs, engaging families in at-home learning, and providing opportunities that support students’ social and emotional well-being. As far as supports teachers need going forward, nearly 45 percent of teachers said that strategies to keep students engaged and motivated to learn remotely was a major need, followed by strategies to address the loss of hands-on learning opportunities such as labs and internships (just under 29 percent).
Going forward, principals anticipate that they will prioritize emergency preparation for ongoing pandemic disruption, eliminating academic disparities, and boosting students’ social-emotional health when their schools reopen in the fall. As to concrete actions to address these and other future concerns, over 40 percent of principals anticipated that their schools or districts would take one or more of the following actions during the new school year: providing tutoring (58 percent), changing grading or credit requirements for grade promotion (48 percent), modifying the school-day curriculum to help students catch up (47 percent), providing supplemental online courses to help students catch up (45 percent), partnering with out-of-school organizations to provide resources to families and students (43 percent), and providing a stand-alone summer program (42 percent).
Conducting research in the midst of a pandemic is somewhat akin to reconstructing Pompeii while the ash is still falling, but these data from the front lines of education are a vital step toward building knowledge of the moment. What we learn now about how this crisis was addressed will be a vital part of the story going forward.
SOURCE: Laura S. Hamilton, Julia H. Kaufman, and Melissa Diliberti, “Teaching and Leading Through a Pandemic: Key Findings from the American Educator Panels Spring 2020 COVID-19 Surveys,” RAND Corporation (June 2020).