Analysis: A Month In, Districts and Charters Make Progress on Online Instruction and Monitoring Student Progress, Lag in Grading and Attendance

Note: 82 districts reviewed.

More than a month has passed since the middle of March, when the majority of districts across the country closed.

This week, we continue to track progress toward remote learning. We also look at attendance tracking for the first time.

We saw more districts providing universal access to instruction, as well as feedback on student work and monitoring of their academic progress. Of the 82 school districts we reviewed, 37 percent provide instruction — an uptick from the previous week. This includes 22 districts, or 27 percent of those reviewed, that provide formal curriculum, instruction and progress monitoring for all grade levels.

Note: 82 districts reviewed.

Another subset of districts provide formal curriculum and feedback on student work but no instruction (12 districts, or 15 percent).

While the charter management organizations and districts we reviewed were not chosen at random and their numbers are too small to enable apples-to-apples comparisons, we do note that the CMOs reviewed still appear more likely than the districts to provide more comprehensive remote learning plans. Similar to last week, 50 percent of CMOs reviewed are providing either formal curriculum and instruction for all grade levels (1 CMO, or 6 percent) or formal curriculum, instruction and progress monitoring for all grade levels (8 CMOs, or 44 percent). Four CMOs, or 22 percent, are providing formal curriculum and feedback on student work but no instruction.

Almost all instruction in districts and CMOs is still asynchronous, meaning teachers provide students with pre-recorded lessons and materials, but students complete them on their own schedules. Just 9 percent of districts and 11 percent of CMOs report providing synchronous, or real-time, instruction to all grade levels.

Grading and attendance tracking systems are just beginning to take shape

While progress monitoring has increased, the majority of districts and CMOs still do not appear to be grading work for all students. Just 26 percent of districts and 39 percent of CMOs we reviewed said they were providing all students with grades that would count toward their academic record.

This week, we examined district and CMO attendance-tracking systems for the first time. We found that 17 percent of districts and 50 percent of CMOs said they have some system in place to track students’ participation in remote learning.

Grading and attendance raise difficult questions. Districts that have these systems in place are best prepared to ensure that all students are accounted for, to measure their academic progress and, crucially, to start preparing now for substantial remediation efforts in the summer and fall. However, it would be unfair for districts to penalize students who cannot access online lessons because they don’t have a reliable internet connection, or whose parents’ lives may be upended by a sudden job loss. Some districts’ grading policies are not punitive in nature. Grades count only if they benefit a student’s final score. For example, in the District of Columbia, secondary students can submit work to earn extra credit on their grades for the current academic term but otherwise will not be penalized.

Remote learning plans differ across schools and age groups

Middle and high school students typically get more access to instruction and progress monitoring than elementary students. This appears to reflect districts’ efforts to accommodate the needs of students of different ages. Plans limit screen time for elementary students and provide activities that require more parental supervision for early elementary students.

It may simply be easier to transition secondary students to remote learning. In some districts, secondary students already had devices or were using an online platform to communicate with their teachers. Also, district planning teams are prioritizing avenues to ensure that high school students can get the credits they need to graduate or to advance to the next grade. It is also likely a reflection of districts’ and CMOs’ assessments of what elementary students can manage on their own, given age-appropriate developmental differences.

Almost half (49 percent) of districts we reviewed provide instruction to at least some students. Two-thirds of CMOs (67 percent) provide instruction to at least some grade levels. Fifteen percent of districts and 39 percent of CMOs reviewed provide synchronous instruction to at least some grade levels. Similarly, 55 percent of districts and 78 percent of CMOs provide feedback on student work for at least some grade levels.

Some districts delegate decision-making to schools or teachers but still set common expectations

About a third of districts (25 of 82, or 30 percent) and a fifth of CMOs (4 of 18, or 22 percent) indicate that they are leaving some decisions about remote learning to schools or individual classrooms.

In some cases, districts highlight clear guidelines that should be followed across schools. The New York City Department of Education, for example, has released expectations for all teachers to communicate learning objectives, activities and assignments to students weekly; interact with students in real time to deliver lessons and facilitate discussion; and archive lessons for students to access later. Teachers can choose their instructional approaches and assignments from there.

Denver Public Schools sets expectations for teachers based on which of these options they choose: (1) support for students using district-provided instructional materials, (2) teacher-led hybrid instruction and (3) fully digital instruction. Teachers who choose the second option are expected to select digital materials (e.g., videos, assignments from district materials or supplemental materials) for students to work on and turn in independently. Teachers who choose the third option are expected to provide online instruction and to communicate with students using a phone or digital platform.

Other districts delegate decision-making but do not set clear expectations, creating the possibility of greater variability across schools and classrooms. In Newark, for example, the district provided paper work packets for students to return to teachers whenever school resumes. Some Newark schools, primarily high schools, have opted to provide instruction, but this is not a district expectation.

We are just one month into the new reality of remote learning, and we may not see a return to “normal” schooling for as long as 18 months. While we are heartened that there is continual growth in many districts’ and CMOs’ learning plans, there is still a long way to go to ensure consistent expectations across states, districts and schools. And formal grading and attendance-tracking systems — basic expectations for any district in a normal school year — are just beginning to return to use, inconsistently at best.

As school district leaders prepare for the end of the 2019-20 school year and look ahead to an uncertain fall, federal and state leadership is paramount. In an effort to better understand how states are shaping their districts’ approaches, this week we will launch a new state-level database and a preliminary review of all 50 states’ distance learning expectations. We are also diving deeper into a few fast-moving districts in Texas and Florida this week to better understand their complexities and conditions for success.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. You can find her on Twitter @RbnLake. Bree Dusseault is practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, supporting its analysis of district and charter responses to COVID-19. She previously served as executive director of Green Dot Public Schools Washington, executive director of pK-12 schools for Seattle Public Schools, a researcher at CRPE, and as a principal and teacher.

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