Districts entered the 2021-2022 school year with plans to help students catch up in subjects where they had lost ground during the pandemic. Their “accelerated learning” plans were two-fold: students would continue to progress through the program while receiving personalized support in areas where they were struggling.
But problems have stalled those efforts at virtually every step, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. The report is the third recording with leaders from five districts the center has tracked in the past two years, and it’s based on interviews with 25 participants in the spring of 2022.
The main finding? Accelerated learning simply requires more. More staff, more resources, more energy, more teacher buy-in.
As district leaders talked about their day-to-day realities, they shared how hard these things were to find when everyone in the system was already exhausted.
Although plans to accelerate learning have been slowed, respondents said they were more open to trying new strategies to energize students and teachers.
To make accelerated learning possible, schools needed enough staff to tutor students in small groups. Study districts reported barriers to staffing at all levels: teachers, substitutes, human resources staff, teacher educators.
Mid-year resignations were another blow to the workforce, and even signing bonuses failed to fill vacancies in a tight labor market. Teacher absences have been keenly felt as districts struggled to find replacements. In one extreme case, a medium-sized district reported that up to 90 classes were without a teacher each day.
“I think some of us, myself included, thought this year was going to be back to normal no matter what, but we were quickly reminded that this was probably the toughest year yet. day,” a senior district official told researchers.
Staffing shortages meant that teachers were not free to take the training that would prepare them to implement the ‘high-impact’ curriculum developed to catch up with pupils.
“People cover all the time. They are exhausted,” a superintendent said in the report. “And so we couldn’t really ride [a new program] because we just didn’t have a fair way, you know, to help teachers implement them effectively.
New perspectives, new strategies
Districts have been forced to adjust their expectations and plans for the school year. One district shifted its measurement of achievement from year-end test scores to monthly goals, which helped highlight teacher accomplishments throughout the year.
Another district began thinking about its long-term goals and asked teachers to help develop its vision for “post-pandemic” learning, empowering staff to think beyond day-to-day issues.
“So at the same time that we’re dealing with all these huge issues that are bogging us down, that are making our lives miserable every day,” a senior district official told researchers, “we’re doing all these wonderful things and exciting things that keep you full of energy and really impatient.
To achieve its vision of providing high dose tutoring, one district hired full-time tutors to work during school hours. Another district, which was prone to political battles over the school curriculum, held focus groups of parents to assess their priorities for their children.
Staff from different departments became increasingly interdependent as they had to replace colleagues assigned to other tasks. This has led several study districts to combine the roles of director of studies and head of schools “in an effort to bridge the gap between design and implementation”.
When it comes to changing views on edtech, the outlook for district leaders was not particularly rosy. They saw the growth of their arsenal of technological tools as emergency measures that had mixed results.
“I think we’re going to have a slow break with some of our ed tech tools,” a district manager said. “There’s just a lot of noise in the edtech space. And know what really works and what doesn’t, it’s not clear.”
After another year of crisis management, respondents in the report are still concerned about the long-term impacts for students who have fallen behind. A district leader was particularly concerned about students who are closer to graduation.
“They don’t feel prepared,” the chef said. “I think we don’t talk enough [what] our older children have lost and the lack of preparation they feel for the work they are doing right now.
There are also questions about how patient parents and students will be as districts continue to modify their “learning loss” strategies. Will they move to other schools, taking a toll on enrollment? Can they accelerate their work to prepare older students for careers and college? Will hiring teachers be easier?
One of the report’s recommendations calls on the federal government to extend the deadline for use of emergency fundcoming in January 2023. This would give districts more time to fill staff positions, get out of “crisis mode,” and take a data-driven approach to strategies that would work best for students.
“While many media outlets have lamented the pandemic money that school districts have apparently left on the table, our interviews suggest that leaders are determined to tap into these resources,” the researchers write, “but have sometimes been hamstrung by structural factors beyond their control….”