Written by Nick Siewert, Senior Educational Consultant
The 2021-2022 school year is in the books and one need only look at the titles of various retrospectives from leading education publications to garner a sense of how it went. From an Ed Week article about principals: We’re not okay. From Chalkbeat: The comeback we didn’t expect. And from the Cult of Pedagogy: Barely Hanging On. Okay, I cheated a bit there. That last one was authored in October of the past school year. That’s the kind of year it’s been. By November of this year, many teachers we work with were reporting feeling “June tired.” And yet schools soldiered on, through mandatory masking, a January return from break which saw massive student and teacher absences, and through a spring punctuated by a return to high stakes standardized testing. In all ways, the school year was a stress test of the elements most important to schooling: time, space, love, money, safety, dedication, resiliency and so on. How do we make sense of it, and most importantly, how do we chart a path forward?
In looking back to make sense of the year past, I thought it might be useful to employ a time tested assessment framework. Educational theorists including Jan Chappuis and Dylan Wiliam tell us that any solid assessment system is based upon three fundamental questions:
- Where is the learner now?
- Where is the learner going?
- How does the learner get there?
Where Are We Now?
In August of last year, I sat at an opening faculty meeting at a high school in Colorado, helping teachers map out the beginning of the school year. Everyone knew it would be difficult. They worried about learning loss, about maintaining their tradition of adventurous teaching while finding space to backfill skills and knowledge, about taking time to reestablish relationships with students while recognizing the urgency of forging ahead to rigorous work. They plotted and planned for re-entry. They were as passion-driven a group of educators as one is likely to find. I asked them to pause briefly. In my experience, teachers rarely take the time to step back and examine the unique complexity of their chosen work. Education philosopher David Cohen describes teaching as “the impossible profession.” The process of human improvement is routinely difficult, he notes. Among jobs whose objective is human improvement (psychiatry, therapy, social work, medicine, etc), teaching at the K-12 level occupies a rarified space. It is the only profession where the practitioner is asked to co-create a result with not one, but a group of participants, who on any given day, bring to the effort a broad range of these and many other characteristics: neuro-developmental readiness, social, cultural and familial history, affect, investment and willingness. Underpinning teacher and school leader efforts are further systematic complexities: funding, training, availability of resources. All of these factors are in play in a system where there is not broad agreement about what the ultimate goals of schooling should be, at a societal level, or even at a community level. At the same time, every community recognizes the centrality of its school to its effort to progress. And all of these tensions are intensely amplified in traditionally underserved communities, where teachers are rightly thought of as first responders to the immediate and endemic challenges their students and families face and where the school is seen as a key source of stability and opportunity. Every teacher knows that without a sense of safety and connection, little learning is likely to happen.
This was the backdrop for teachers welcoming their students back into real classrooms this past fall. Amid the ongoing challenges to health and safety, teachers strove first to reconnect with their students. Talking through masks and trying to read students’ expressions by their eyes, they worked to rebuild the human connection which is foundational to classroom learning because they know intuitively that “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And so began a year which might best be described as an attempt to uncover and examine the damage done by the pandemic.
As much as school leaders sought to provide instructional direction and support for their staff, the tensions were staggering. Most school leaders I worked with described devoting north of 60% of their time to COVID monitoring, reporting and management. In an understandable rush to measure learning loss, states and districts mandated previously optional benchmark assessment systems, frequently without sufficient guidance for how teachers might use the data. Teachers attuned to the fact that these tests were not instructionally sensitive*, bristled at the loss of instructional time and grew discouraged watching student behaviors taking online assessments and knowing the data would not be reflective of where their students actually were in their learning. All in, in the rush for measurement of learning loss, school systems risked the peril of, as my friend from Tennessee says, “weighing the pig more than they were feeding the pig.” While situations varied by school, I did not meet a teacher all year who found the external assessment processes empowering or vital to their teaching practice.
Within this context, the engine that continued to drive progress in schools this year was exactly the thing teachers had dedicated themselves to focusing on--relationships with students. The students were back, and happy to be back. As one of my high school teachers reflected, “The best thing about this year was being able to look my students in the eye and have conversations with them about schoolwork or about life in general. My favorite part about teaching has always been developing strong bonds with students and that was 10 times more difficult on a Zoom call.”
Where Are We Going?
Everyone agrees that the process of instructional recovery will take several years. The trauma experienced by so many students, teachers and leaders during the pandemic will not be easily mitigated. The loss of teachers’ most precious resource, time, can only be addressed through strategic and time intensive interventions. High dosage tutoring, for example, is effective precisely because it is so targeted and personal, the very same properties which make it difficult to fund and staff. Ideas for instructional recovery like accelerated learning still show promise but their implementation requires high levels of trust, focus, resources and stability within the system. A quick look at the Carnegie Foundation’s five principles for implementing accelerated learning** reveal the adaptive challenges and why a multi-year approach is required. The accelerated learning approach makes sense: it also requires whole school change.
- Adopt an acceleration strategy. Convene representatives of all key stakeholder groups to build, execute, and communicate the system or school acceleration plan.
- Invest in essential resources for effective acceleration. Ensure that high-quality instructional materials, embedded assessments, and prerequisite skill guidance are available for all grade levels and courses and that teacher meetings are focused on how to use them.
- Focus on the whole child. Effective acceleration is a student-centered strategy. Relationships and trust are central. Leverage the guidance within high-quality instructional materials to increase relevancy and meaning for students.
- Support educators as they implement acceleration. Review essential elements of curriculum-based professional learning and align professional learning plans to them. Give teachers opportunities to experience, observe, and practice those skills deemed most essential to acceleration.
- Engage families and other community stakeholders in the acceleration strategy. Learn ways to increase cultural relevance and meaning for students from their families and community.
Many of these efforts were underway prior to COVID and reclaiming the momentum around them will be critical to start next year. A quick word about each:
Strategy: A convening of stakeholders to discuss strategy, a stretch in a year when many faculties met remotely all year, represents a doable and logical step for a school leader next year.
Resources: The degree to which federal, state and local governments will continue to support instructional recovery remains in question. Whatever that level, school leaders will have better opportunities next year to focus their professional learning in targeted areas. Professional learning focused on refining culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy presents schools an opportunity to center student engagement in their planning.
The Whole Child: Having spent 150 days in a wide variety of classrooms this year, I can attest that teacher efforts to build trust and relationships with students paid off. Sometimes that mutual trust was leveraged to engage students in challenging work. Sometimes, engagement in grade level work took a back seat to a belief that inclusivity was best maintained by teaching toward remediation. That needs to change.
Curriculum Based Learning: The question of what curriculum to use has long been one of the most contentious in education. The focus on culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy has highlighted the need for instructional materials and approaches that honor student backgrounds, funds of knowledge and ways of knowing. Even while choices of open source high quality curricula increase, schools understand that to be truly culturally responsive any curriculum will require adaptation. Curriculum based coaching presents an opportunity for schools to center student needs in their planning.
Family Engagement: The pandemic has paradoxically both strengthened and strained schools relationships with families, frequently on a case by case basis. But as families assumed the shared role of teacher in remote instruction, teachers similarly gained insight into students’ family lives. Schools are now positioned to enter into deeper partnerships with families centered on specifics of curriculum and experiences of student learning.
How Will We Get There?
Any effort to address unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic must by necessity center the voices, identities and ideas of students. This is not just a catchphrase. Students are the central users of the educational system, but are too infrequently positioned that way. Great school leaders realize that changing this is within their locus of control and great teachers set up their classrooms to acknowledge and treat students as equal partners. The engagement of students in setting the direction of the work of their school should take place across instructional and cultural spaces. In our work at Teaching Matters, our Network for School Improvement is studying significant gains in ELA scores as a result of focusing instruction on student identity. In the same project, frequent administration of student surveys focusing on engagement and belonging help teachers improve planning and pedagogy to meet the needs of their particular populations. Our Elevating Voices literature units provide models for the design of rigorous, engaging, student centered work focused on books by and about historically marginalized people. In our assessment work, we focus on practices which demystify the assessment process for students, establish transparency and clear purpose across assessments and help teachers develop coherent responses to formative data. By promoting practices which activate students as assessors of their own work and learning resources for each other, we are signaling trust in their intellect and belief in their ability to carry their own learning forward. There are dozens of other ways schools can engage students in real design work: student-led conferences, including students in policy and department meetings, focusing student government on meaningful school culture work to name a few.
If we consider this past year one of inspecting and assessing the situation left in the wake of COVID, the most important work of next year will be to reestablish a shared understanding of what high quality work looks like and to create the conditions for it to happen. Student engagement in that discussion and planning is essential to student engagement in the work itself. Put another way, if we wish to build independent learners, we must trust and listen to our students as independent thinkers.
The pandemic added dense and demanding new layers of complexity to “the impossible profession.” At the heart of that impossibility is the position of the learner in the learning process. As we emerge from the constrictions of pandemic teaching, we have a unique opportunity to solve for some of that impossibility by rebalancing the equation. That can only happen if we reaffirm by thought and action our belief that our students have a central role in helping shape and lead their own learning.
school leaders will have better opportunities next year to focus their professional learning in targeted areas. Professional learning focused on refining culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy presents schools an opportunity to center student engagement in their planning.
* i.e. Since standardized, they covered material and standards which may not have been taught into yet.