With less than a month left in what has been the strangest school year in recent memory, it’s hard to make sense of this moment in our district. Since school buildings closed their doors in March, we’ve seen both some amazing things happening for children and some eye-opening injustices in a student’s ability to access high quality, teacher-led distance learning. Nearly 1 in 5 students are not engaging in online learning in a given week; and for our young people fortunate enough to have the appropriate resources and support structures in place to participate in online learning, their experiences vary dramatically — not dissimilar to what we heard from families during pre-COVID school days. These disparities are unacceptable.
We know the COVID-19 pandemic has presented our community with unique and unprecedented challenges, and will likely continue to disrupt traditional schooling, creating seemingly endless potential scenarios for 2020-21; fully in school, fully out of school, or — more likely — some hybrid of online and in-person instruction. But the inequities of distance learning this spring cannot be repeated this fall.
To overcome these shortcomings, our district and community must begin now to co-create a bold strategy to ensure every child has an opportunity to access great teacher-led instruction in the 2020-21 school year. This planning should start with a clear, courageous, unwavering, student-centered vision from the Superintendent. This vision is the driver for all subsequent decisions that follow. It is the standard to which all staff are held accountable. Based on mistakes of the past where vision was lacking, and what we now know about the increased challenges of the current context, a superintendent’s unapologetic advocacy for children is needed now more than ever.
The newly formed task force must take the Superintendent’s vision and convert it into an actionable plan to accelerate student learning. The plan must include the following elements:
- Clarity on the “floor” for instruction: It’s reasonable for families to expect that essential elements from the traditional school model will be replicated in a distance learning environment for all students. These include teacher-led instruction in core areas, meaningful assignments linked to instruction that seek to monitor student mastery, intentional cultivation of class culture through multi-student engagement, and timely, rich feedback on assignments to further learning. Online worksheets alone are not sufficient to replace teacher-led instruction. And all students must have a way to connect as a class to preserve some elements of class culture and relationships.
- Plan for student assessments: Research is clear that the most effective teaching is linked to a robust understanding of a student’s academic strengths and gaps. This past winter the Fastbridge assessment that monitors reading development in our youngest students, was eliminated in the budget reductions for the 2020-21 school year. Additionally, we will have no standardized testing data available. Therefore, we need a clear plan that utilizes a high quality comprehensive assessment to understand the baseline for each student as they re-enter in the fall and to monitor progress going forward. Some assessments that have been used by other districts include: NWEA Map, DIBELS for foundational reading skills and fluency, and short standards-aligned assessments from Achieve the Core for math and ELA. Additionally, some student software includes initial and on-going assessments while offering students a customized set of lessons aligned to assessment results. Programs like iReady and Let’s Go Learn work in this way, in addition to many others, particularly for math.
- Integration between the district’s budget and academic goals: With projected funding declines of thousands of dollars per student, zero-based budgeting is a strong solution. We can start from scratch and add back the programming, staffing, and materials that have been proven to directly increase student achievement. We can no longer simply roll forward historic contracts and partnerships that have failed to produce outcomes. Every investment must be evaluated and have clear, transparent evidence of impact. Failure to do so is a choice to put adult needs far ahead of those of our children.
- Enhanced and authentic family engagement: Families have been required to play the lead educator role in their children’s education over these two months and will likely need to continue to do so in some format this fall. Over the summer, children will be transitioning from one grade to the next which means changing teachers and possibly even schools. There must be a parent/teacher conference for every child, in August, so teachers can understand the needs and experiences of their incoming students and parents can have the opportunity to advocate for support. We cannot wait until the typical October/November conference cycle, as we will lose another two to three months of learning. A high quality template for these conferences will allow families to prepare to advocate for their child’s unique needs.
Over these past months, we have heard a cry for help from hundreds of families. They need far more support around teaching at home. They need access to learning materials to replicate the school environment. They need meaningful and on-going contact with their teachers. They need a pathway to inform and influence district policy going forward. Most importantly, they need students to come first in WCCUSD’s decision-making.
When we are clear about our values and priorities, decision-making in the face of chaos is significantly less complicated. Without a clear vision of what is an acceptable education for all students, how can practitioners be expected to plan for success?