Petrilli: We’re Crowdsourcing the Wisdom of Dozens of Experts on How Schools Can Best Address Unfinished Learning. Some of What They Have to Say

After one of the worst years in the history of American education, light is finally glimmering at the end of this very dark tunnel. Teachers and other school staff are getting vaccinated; infection rates are starting to drop; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reduced its safe-spacing guideline for (most) schools to 3 feet; and President Joe Biden has promised a partial return to normalcy as soon as the Fourth of July.

For instructional leaders in school districts and charter networks across the land, that means their focus can start to shift from managing the daily crises of remote and hybrid learning to looking ahead to autumn, when there’s reason to expect almost all students to be back in class full time once again. In other words, it’s time to focus on education recovery, to ensure that the challenges encountered by students since March 2020 do not set them back for the rest of their education careers.

A new resource from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Acceleration Imperative: A Plan to Address Elementary Students’ Unfinished Learning in the Wake of COVID-19, aims to give the nation’s chief academic officers and other educators a head start on planning for that recovery, with a particular focus on high-poverty elementary schools.

The document is intentionally a work in progress. Though it already contains thoughtful advice from several dozen instructional leaders and scholars, our goal is for this model plan to continue improving with the help of practitioners and other readers — via crowdsourcing through a wiki site named CAO Central. American public education may be divvied up into 13,000 districts and 7,000 charter schools, but that doesn’t mean we need to work in isolation. As with other open- and crowd-sourced efforts, the idea here is to address common challenges together.

The plan we’re starting with arose from four key assumptions:

1. Many students — especially the youngest children in the highest-need schools — will need extra help coming out of the pandemic, particularly in such forms as extended learning time, high-dosage tutoring and expanded mental-health supports. The latest data from i-Ready winter assessments show that elementary school pupils, particularly students of color and those in high-poverty schools, have been hit particularly hard, and many are far behind where they usually would be in both reading and math. And every day we see new evidence about the burgeoning mental health crisis affecting American children.

2. That extra help should complement but cannot replace what students need from schools’ core programs. Tutoring cannot substitute for high-quality curriculum, and mental-health services can’t substitute for a positive school culture. No amount of extended learning time can compensate for not making optimal use of the regular school day. So while education leaders must address the particular needs of students related to the pandemic, they may also need to reboot their school improvement efforts. Implementing a high-quality curriculum is job No. 1.

3. To make up for what’s been lost, we need to focus on acceleration, not remediation — going forward rather than looking back. That means devoting the bulk of classroom time to challenging instruction, at grade level or higher, and giving all students access to a rich, high-quality curriculum in English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, the arts and more.

4. Decisions should be guided by high-quality research evidence whenever possible.

The good news is that the American Rescue Act provides over $100 billion for local districts and charter schools to address student needs in the wake of the pandemic. The bad news is that, as highlighted above, just throwing money at the problem won’t lead to success. Nor can schools simply purchase additional services for their students, like after-school programs, tutoring initiatives or mental health counseling, and expect to see good results. They have to sweat the small stuff, and connect recovery-oriented supports with their overall programs.

What might make for smarter investments of the new federal funds, with an eye toward academic recovery? And what action steps should schools take? The Acceleration Imperative is chock full of specific recommendations, including:

  • Administer a school culture survey to evaluate strengths and weaknesses. Examples come from Johns Hopkins University and UChicago Impact. Do teachers and staff believe the school has clear, high expectations for teaching and learning? Do they feel that vision is aligned with policies and practices?
  • Select and implement comprehensive, high-quality instructional materials. Reviews from EdReports are helpful; only resources that meet expectations for usability and alignment to college-and-career-ready standards should be used.
  • When selecting a curriculum, arrange for professional development from a training organization that specializes in supporting educators to use that curriculum. Rivet Education is one trusted source of reviews for professional learning providers.
  • In English language arts and math, focus on “priority instructional content” as identified by Student Achievement Partners, at least during the 2021-22 school year.
  • Establish science and social studies as part of the daily core of elementary school instruction rather than as special subjects that happen once or twice a week. Don’t pull students away from that core instruction for any reason, not even for tutoring.
  • Keep struggling students, including those with disabilities and English learners, together with their general-education classmates as much as possible, even as their specific learning challenges are also being addressed during additional instruction in small-group settings.
  • Use the same instructional materials for interventions and supports — including tutoring — that are used for regular instruction.
  • Implement an evidence-based mental health program, such as Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools, for students who have experienced significant trauma or been diagnosed with serious mood, anxiety or other behavioral disorders.

The most important suggestion: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The only recommendations that will help students thrive are ones implemented thoughtfully, as intended and with attention to detail. Aim for quality over quantity and save some steps for later.

Nothing in The Acceleration Imperative is brand-new. Almost everything has been validated by quality research on implementation in existing U.S. schools, in addition to the experience of our expert reviewers. But pulling it all together and applying it within schools that already faced considerable challenges before the pandemic will be a heavy lift. We know that. The goal of the dozens of practitioners and academics involved in the project is to help with the task, and to assist educators in accelerating the progress of the most disadvantaged students across this great country.

Now, let’s get to work.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and founder of CAO Central.

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