When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools nationwide to close their doors abruptly last spring, it imposed similar difficulties onto schools of all types across the country. But responses to those difficulties—restarting academics, maintaining student engagement, conducting academic testing, providing support services, issuing grades, keeping extracurriculars going, etc.—were rarely similar. In short, some schools responded more effectively to the crisis than others.
Several reports,, have already sought to shine a spotlight on schools that made smoother transitions. An excellent new publication from Bellwether Education Partners and Teach For America adds to this growing literature. Analysts compiled case studies of twelve charter and district schools from across the United States that, by their reckoning, produced a high level of success during a difficult time. They find that the particular circumstances in each school and community led to unique needs, varied responses, and numerous versions of success.
Bellwether and TFA examine schools’ and districts’ successes and struggles in eight areas: providing human capital support and adjustments, innovating instructional content and approaches, serving special student populations, big-picture planning and establishing core principles, designing data-intensive approaches, focusing on social-emotional learning, creating supportive school-student connections, and building relationships with families and community.
By and large, the distance learning model that emerged in each of the profiled schools bore a strong resemblance to the model each building was already implementing prior to the pandemic. For example,, Ohio, (which the Fordham Foundation is proud to oversee as its authorizer) already had a strong technology foundation—providing Wi-Fi enabled devices to each student and having an established routine of doing work and submitting it via those devices. Thus the switch to accessing materials and turning in assignments from home required minimal adaptation. in suburban Boise already employed a rigorous and multi-pronged model for teaching its English language (EL) learners. The remote version played out similarly during synchronous learning in large groups, live meetings in smaller groups with an EL specialist, and asynchronous “homework” delivered via teacher-created videos. The major innovation was additional outreach by EL teachers to students’ families to support them not only in language work, but also in other academic areas and in the area of personal well-being. This was felt to be possible only because the existing EL teaching framework had been strong and adaptable before being tested by Covid-19.
Universally, the schools and districts profiled prioritized personal support of students and their families over academics in the initial weeks of closure. While they weren’t able to directly provide all that families needed during the crisis, meeting basic needs loomed large for families, so those efforts took precedence. The examples enumerated are heartening and often ingenious, drawing on pre-existing relationships between schools and community service providers. The return to teaching and learning took many paths, often requiring intensive planning over a couple of weeks. The less “digital” the school had been beforehand, the more new training and software were required for both teachers and students., a charter network in Cleveland, Ohio, spent three weeks sequentially building their plan—and their capacity—for a remote learning model combining synchronous and asynchronous learning in varying percentages based on grade level. The Breakthrough process was goal-oriented, with each goal met leading to the next step. They were required to overcome a among their students to even reach the intended starting line. And even when their remote model was operational, they continued to refine it based on parent and student feedback, which was actively sought by staff members.
Despite all of the positives, Bellwether and TFA are clear in pointing out that not everything worked, and that those things that did work at one school might not do so at others. There is no one answer. In particular, all schools struggled to develop effective strategies for serving students with disabilities, a challenge that predates the pandemic in many schools. With much in the way of grading, testing, and accountability curtailed or suspended across the country, the academic impacts of various remote learning models may not ever be fully knowable.
The education treadmill is endless, it seems, even when the system itself is brought to a crashing halt. These “promising practices,” as the report’s authors term them, are worth exploring in this level of detail, especially as remote and hybrid models of education are likely to remain widely used for the foreseeable future. “The ‘right’ approach to distance learning may well be embedded in these case studies,” they conclude, “but we don’t yet have the data or distance to determine what that approach is.” Instead, they offer this surfeit of information and detail “in the absence of knowing what schools should do.” That sounds about as right a mindset as any as we navigate these times.
SOURCE: Ashley LiBetti, Lynne Graziano, and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, “,” Bellwether Education Partners (October 2020).