Remote learning did not go well in the spring. What we need, then, are concrete recommendations for how to significantly improve the remote learning experience for students, teachers, and families. Fordham’s new report, Schooling Covid-19, provides just that, with ideas culled from educators who achieved striking success in the face of the viral challenge this spring—educators from some of the nation’s leading charter school networks
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.
If you do a quick search on Teacherspayteachers.com, one of the most popular sources for online teaching materials, you’ll see that “distance learning resources” are now front and center. Unlike last spring’s hit-or-miss, half-baked approach, many districts this fall are prescribing minimum time requirements for real-time, live instruction: Up to three hours per day in Los Angeles, four hours per day in Chicago, and five hours per day in Washington, D.C., depending on grade level and subject matter. Little noticed amid the haggling over these and other logistical hurdles are the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning online—and what schools and systems are doing to set their teachers up for success.
Well, brace yourself, because they’re not doing much. Unless your child’s school is still planning for in-person instruction, yours is likely no exception either. The Center on Reinventing Public Education has been tracking over one hundred districts; nearly 70 percent of them have indicated no additional time will be provided for professional development. To be sure, teacher development has never been a strong suit of school systems, but the lack of attention to it at a time when everything has changed in terms of what teachers are being asked to do will force them to look for support elsewhere.
Indeed, without adequate time and sufficient training, teachers will be left to fend for themselves in procuring tools and resources to help make the leap to virtual teaching successful. Regrettably, most of what teachers find won’t be worth using. A report published last December by Fordham examined the online marketplace as a growing and increasingly popular resource for teachers looking to fill curricular gaps, but one that often fails to provide materials that are cognitively demanding for students. Yet teachers consistently turn to these materials, most often to spark student interest and engagement. With many districts planning to stay fully remote through January, teachers are nervously wondering how to keep their students engaged through the keyhole of Zoom day in and day out. I recently spoke with an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in a mid-size urban district and she told me that most of her teachers don’t even know what a good online lesson looks like.
It’s unfortunate because, for all the competing priorities and interests gumming up the restart of schools, the lodestar should be avoiding complexity and helping teachers sidestep the prodigious waste of time ordinarily spent sourcing lessons from the internet. Four years ago, the RAND Corporation released a study showing that nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers and 98 percent of secondary teachers—uses “materials I developed and/or selected myself” for English language arts. The numbers were nearly identical for mathematics: 97 percent for elementary and 99 percent for secondary. Instead of spending their limited time on instructional design, teachers should be focused instead on instructional delivery, studying student work, and figuring out how to establish and maintain human connection when physically distanced from their students.
Look around the country and you’ll see that the exact opposite appears to be happening. In addition to hours and hours spent scouring the internet, some teachers are painstakingly replicating their lessons in YouTube form, a time consuming and energy sapping exercise. Not to be outdone, one Florida district has raised anxiety to a new level by inexplicably proposing that teachers simultaneously provide in-person and online instruction. It’s this type of superhuman expectation that has prompted the Chicago Teachers Union to embrace the hashtag #MakeItMakeSense. Perhaps worried about what may come from all of this, districts could soon follow the lead of the one outside Nashville that recently required all parents to sign forms agreeing not to watch their child’s virtual classes—a demand that is both inappropriate and outrageous.
As my colleague Robert Pondiscio soberly observes, “Teachers [have been] asked to teach in ways that are not merely foreign to them but which they’ve been trained to believe are bad for kids.” To make matters worse, school districts have ostensibly abdicated their role in providing the time and in-depth training and preparation required to do online teaching well. Not surprisingly, teacher-sourced online supplemental materials, quality notwithstanding, will be increasingly called upon to fill the vacuum. To wit, since schools shut down in mid-March, Teachers Pay Teachers has seen a 20 percent increase in weekly spending per buyer; searches for distance learning have shot up 1,400 percent!
For most of these teachers, separating the wheat from the chaff is no easy undertaking. Fordham’s report found that nearly two-thirds of instructional materials were either weakly aligned or not aligned at all to standards, and when it comes to remote learning, some resources are far better than others. The NewSchools Venture Fund has a curated list of some very good ones; EL Education, Match Fishtank and LearnZillion also offer high quality, Common Core–aligned materials. Next month, bestselling author and instructional guru Doug Lemov has a new book coming out on the topic, Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. Doug and his Teach Like A Champion colleagues have done as much as anyone to identify, study, and disseminate effective teaching practices.
The prospect of millions of teachers foraging for distance learning tools and strategies online is a discouraging vision of the new school year—one engendered by an underinvestment in teacher professional learning that could come back to bite us no matter how much effort is put into procuring more devices and hotspots, streamlining online platforms, or tightening attendance and grading expectations. But we can take heart that many are meeting the remote learning challenge head on, working closely with scores of schools and districts as they adapt to all of this uncertainty. With back to school season well underway, these efforts have taken on added urgency at a time when there’s very little in the way of silver linings.
Eventually we’ll learn whether our mass experiment in “remote learning” leads to durable changes in the U.S. education system, such as more students taking some of their courses online or opting out altogether from school as we know it. In the meantime, the massive digital footprint this experiment is creating can provide fresh insights into how students spend their days. Here’s one project we could launch immediately: Let’s start collecting information about the assignments schools are asking pupils to complete and use that information, in addition to test scores and survey results, to evaluate educational quality.
It’s no secret that for years now, policymakers, researchers, and educators have been searching for additional school-quality measures to accompany standardized test scores. The quest for valid and reliable indicators has included a range of options, such as chronic absenteeism rates and access to challenging coursework. Some of this is wrongheaded and merely an attempt to avoid public oversight. It may well be an attempt to go back to the days when schools were judged by the size of their budgets or credentials of their teachers, rather than the outcomes of their students. As my colleague Chester E. Finn, Jr. has argued, tests may be the messengers, but accountability itself is the message that so many in education really want to shoot.
Regardless, it is certainly the case that data from large-scale testing is far from perfect, and that supplementing it with other strong performance measures could do a lot of good. For one, it could counteract some of the perverse incentives built into our current approach, especially the narrow focus on English language arts and math instruction. And the added metrics might get closer to the kinds of information that parents say they value. For example, some states and scholars have embraced school climate surveys, the most comprehensive of which poll parents, teachers, and students about their experiences, academic and otherwise. Several instruments have shown promise and can reliably identify which schools are nailing it with student engagement.
That’s all well and good, but surveys come with their own limitations, especially if fed into high-stakes accountability systems. Surveys are subjective. They provide impressions of the learning environment, but they don’t provide hard data about the learning process itself. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think that school staff members might put their thumb on the scale if they think it will make the difference between, say, being handed a B rating versus a D. Furthermore, surveys can suffer from “reference bias.” For instance, parents who themselves attended horrible schools might be thrilled with their kids’ mediocre schools, while more privileged parents would be aghast with the same institution. It’s hard to control for that.
So let’s supplement the tests and surveys with something more concrete: the work that students are expected to complete.
A Question of Rigor
We know from studies by TNTP, the Education Trust, and others that the quality and rigor of assignments vary widely by school, contributing to achievement and expectations gaps rather than narrowing them. For instance, TNTP’s influential 2018 report The Opportunity Myth contrasts eighth-grade English language arts assignments from two different schools. In one school, students were asked to read a book-length memoir (A Mighty Long Way, by one of the Little Rock Nine), and write an essay analyzing the role the press played in portraying and influencing the events surrounding desegregation. In the other school, students were assigned a short informational text written at a fifth-grade level. The students at this second school then were tasked with answering a few multiple-choice questions and filling in the vowels in related vocabulary words.
Surely we want educators to emulate the first school and not the second. It would be fair to evaluate schools at least in part on the quality and challenge of the work they assign to their students.
These student assignments have become exponentially more transparent to us parents thanks to the learn-at-home experiment, with our kids completing their work in our own living rooms. After all, what “remote learning” fundamentally does is put distance between what teachers do and what their students do, given that they can’t be in the same physical location. And while the teacher side of that equation has gotten much attention from reformers and the research community in recent decades, there’s a stronger case that what kids do (or don’t) all day is what really matters.
That was doubly the case during the spring 2020 school shutdowns. In most districts, according the Center for Reinventing Public Education and the American Enterprise Institute, real-time live instruction over platforms like Zoom was more the exception than the rule. Strip away classrooms and classroom instruction, and what’s left are the assignments given to students—paper packets to complete in some cases, to-do lists posted online in others.
Last Spring, as the father of third-grade and sixth-grade boys, I was able to see myself all of the work they were being asked to do. I had glimpsed bits of this before, especially the homework parts, but much of what they were doing while at school was a blur. Surely that’s true for many other parents. It was enlightening, to say the least. For my middle-schooler especially, it was easy to see which teachers were asking him to struggle with deep intellectual questions and which were just assigning busy work.
I would love to know how their assignments compare to those given at other schools. Are there some schools where kids are being asked to read high-quality literature and engaging nonfiction, instead of the drivel that often passes for “reading passages” in so many ELA curricula? What kinds of essays, research papers, and other writing assignments are students elsewhere asked to complete? How challenging are the problem sets in math? What kinds of interdisciplinary projects must they tackle?
What’s great is that all this is now knowable. With remote learning, teachers had no choice but to post assignments on Google Classroom and similar sites. Imagine if states published school report cards that included examples of the books assigned every student, math problems kids are expected to solve, and a sample of writing prompts by grade. This would get us much closer to what we all have in mind when we conjure “academic quality.” And if states aren’t willing to do it, maybe a nonprofit such as GreatSchools could collect the information directly from parents, and publish the data itself.
No, it’s not everything. It doesn’t provide information about extracurricular activities or whether schools help their students feel cared about or motivated. And without collecting graded student work, we couldn’t be 100 percent sure which schools are actually holding students to higher standards
But as a measure of school quality, tracking the work assigned to students would nudge educators with the right incentives and provide parents with valuable information. And there’s even the remote chance that it would lead to better assignments and less pablum—a nice outcome of our remote learning experiment indeed.
Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this article first appeared in Education Next.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused plenty of problems in education, but a recently published study offers a sliver of good news for schools that—despite recent budget constraints—may soon find themselves in need of additional teachers to make social distancing feasible or to cover the loss of veteran teachers who opt to retire rather than return to the classroom amidst a pandemic.
Harvard professor Martin West and his colleagues begin with a simple question: Do economic recessions, and a tight job market in the broader economy, impact teacher quality? In theory, teaching becomes more attractive to jobseekers during a recession because of the profession’s relative stability; even during economic downturns, teacher pay is rarely cut, schools often continue to hire, and tenure provides job protections that are seldom available in the private sector. Although the comparatively low salaries of teachers might be a deterrence in a healthy economy, downturns could make the classroom more appealing. If that is indeed the case, the average ability of adults entering the teaching force during recessions may also be higher.
The study focuses on Florida, where the state’s certification system includes alternative routes that make it easier for non-education majors to become teachers. The dataset includes approximately 32,600 fourth and fifth grade teachers who started in the classroom between 1969 and 2009, a time span that contained six recessions. Roughly 5,200 teachers entered the profession during one of the recessions. The sample was limited to educators who taught fourth or fifth grade because they typically teach multiple subjects and could be “confidently associated” with student test score gains. The data also included teacher demographics and years of experience, as well as the demographic and educational characteristics of students. To measure teacher effectiveness, the researchers estimated value-added scores based on the math and reading portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test from 2000–01 through 2008–09.
The findings indicate that teachers who started their careers during a recession are more effective at raising student test scores. When compared to those who entered the classroom during better economic times, recession-era teachers registered value-added estimates that were 0.11 standard deviations higher in math and 0.05 standard deviations higher in reading. These are modest effects that translate to no more than a week’s worth of additional learning per year, but the researchers point out that even small differences can add up. It’s important to note that these results were not driven by a specific economic downturn. The recession impact appears over time. The results also do not reflect a difference in observed teacher characteristics or teaching assignments. Instead, it appears that recessions temporarily change the supply of new teachers in positive ways. Furthermore, while they may have been pushed into teaching by temporary economic conditions, the data indicate that many of these teachers opt to stay in the classroom even after economic conditions improved.
Overall, the study offers a silver lining for schools in the age of coronavirus. The current crisis is undoubtedly painful, but it may allow school leaders to hire more effective teachers over the next few years.
SOURCE: Martin R. West, Markus Nagler, and Marc Piopiunik, “Weak Markets, Strong Teachers: Recession at Career Start and Teacher Effectiveness,” Journal of Labor Economics (April 2020).
Academic acceleration—either through grade skipping or advanced coursework such as Advanced Placement or early college access—is a longstanding practice for primary and secondary students who show above average ability for their age and grade level. However, concerns over possible negative impacts of acceleration on the social and emotional development of students can sometimes deter parents or educators from pursuing acceleration. A number of studies have suggested that these concerns are unfounded in the short term. A new report from three Vanderbilt University researchers looks at the question over the longer run.
The report covers two separate longitudinal studies. The first surveyed a total of 1,636 participants from three cohorts of gifted students—all subjects in Vanderbilt’s fifty-year (!) longitudinal experiment called Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY)—who were initially identified as gifted between 1972 and 1983. Those cohorts represent the top 1 percent (1,020 students), the top 0.5 percent (369 students), and the top 0.01 percent (220 students) of cognitive ability. Each participant completed three surveys. The first, at age thirteen, was part of their identification process—termed a “talent search” by Vanderbilt, but with no other details provided—to enter SMPY. The second, at age eighteen, collected information regarding the acceleration opportunities participants used prior to obtaining their high school degree. A composite acceleration score was calculated based on which of the four experiences individuals had: AP, dual enrollment, early graduation from high school, and grade skipping (which was afforded four times more weight than the others due to the potential for social emotional struggles). The third, at age fifty, assessed individual well-being, measured in terms of personal growth, purpose in life, autonomy, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction. The findings indicate that not only did the adults who experienced academic acceleration as primary and secondary students not suffer negative effects on their well-being, the typical study subject actually scored above normative standards of wellbeing, a staple of psychological research, on such scales as “psychological flourishing” and “life satisfaction.” Little variation was seen between males and females or between adults who had experienced the most intense form of acceleration via grade skipping.
The second study aimed to replicate the original findings using a different set of subjects identified later in life (and later in time). It consisted of 478 graduate students identified in 1992 from top STEM graduate institutions in the United States. Participants were surveyed at age twenty-five, upon their identification, when information about their educational acceleration opportunities in primary and secondary school was collected. They were surveyed again at age fifty, using the same questionnaire from the first study. Once again, participants were found to be at or above normative standards on all dimensions of social and emotional well-being.
The researchers conclude that fears of psychological harm accruing to gifted students through academic acceleration are unfounded over the long term, just as previous research has shown for short term outcomes. Instead, they reason, parents and educators should consider the potential harm of not providing robust academic challenge for these students at the earliest possible opportunity. But they also note that there is much that we don’t know about what these young people experienced over their lives and what else may be going on. Parental education levels and genetics, for example, rarely factor in to psychology research of this type. Controlling for socioeconomic status does not rule out all of the potential causal antecedents that give rise to academic acceleration. The picture is perhaps becoming clearer with such long-term research as this, but we likely still need to take the findings with a grain of salt.
SOURCE: Brian O. Bernstein, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow, “Academic Acceleration in Gifted Youth and Fruitless Concerns Regarding Psychological Well-Being: A 35-Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Educational Psychology (July 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Gregg Vanourek joins Mike Petrilli to discuss Fordham’s new report that Gregg authored, Schooling Covid-19: Lessons from leading charter networks from their transition to remote learning. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the firmly established benefits of acceleration for gifted children.
Amber's Research Minute
Brian O. Bernstein, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow, “Academic Acceleration in Gifted Youth and Fruitless Concerns Regarding Psychological Well-Being: A 35-Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Educational Psychology (July 2020).