The Intersection

Access to High-Quality Materials & Instruction

April 1, 2020

Updated: September 14, 2020


In the absence of classroom instruction, what can state leaders do to ensure that all students have access to high-quality online materials and instruction? 

The Challenge

With students being out of the physical classroom for indeterminate amounts of time, concerns have risen regarding how to best provide students with high-quality instruction. This is particularly important as schools begin the 2020-2021 school year and assess the “summer slide,” or the tendency for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to lose a significant amount of their learning over the summer. Being out of the classroom for so long will only exacerbate the summer slide and cause students who may already be performing below grade-level to fall further behind. Policymakers must consider many of the following questions in order to provide students with meaningful online learning experiences:

  • What does high-quality instruction look like? What are best practices for providing students with the best curriculum possible?
  • How can we support parents and teachers in making sure they are prepared to take full advantage of online learning?
  • What can be done to ensure we are equitably responding to the needs of students of different age groups, students with varying levels of access to and comfort level with technology, students with special needs, English Language Learners, and students with visual or hearing impairments?
    • Additionally, how can we support students whose parents or caregivers fall into the above categories?
  • Are online learning environments appropriate for all students? What is an alternative if not?
  • How can we support districts in preparing teachers to provide online instruction?

Policy Considerations

It is highly unlikely that over the next few months, as most school buildings remain closed and students continue to learn online, that children will learn as much material as they would have at school. As an example, studies on virtual charter schools have shown that online charter performance equated to students losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year. There are three issues that can help explain this low performance:

  1. Performance is student-driven; 
  2. Online students have less teacher contact; and,
  3. Significant expectations are placed on parents to monitor performance, which can be difficult for parents who are working. 

Educators and policymakers are aware of these challenges and are searching for solutions not only to ensure students do not get too far off-track, but also that students who were already performing behind their peers or who are in situations that make distance learning even more difficult, are supported as much as possible.

Access to Broadband & Technology

The most important initial concern is access to technology and broadband, which is difficult for many. For more information on what policymakers are doing to support tech access, please see The Hunt Institute issue brief Access to Broadband.

Pedagogy & Curriculum

Making the switch from in-person to virtual learning is not just a technology issue; it also requires a pedagogical and curriculum shift. Providing high-quality learning opportunities to students will not just be about finding online curriculum and assigning students work. States will need to support districts and schools in coordinating efforts between administrators, teachers, technological support staff, parents, and students to provide meaningful learning experiences.

Teachers must be provided virtual training from mentor-teachers and instructional technology (IT) staff to learn best practices for providing high-quality instruction. Administration should carve time out of teachers’ schedules in order to provide this training, and states should offer guidance to districts to help develop that framework. These trainings should be consistent and respond to the needs of individual teachers. It should also be recognized that many teachers are parents themselves, and therefore expected to provide instruction to their own children. For this reason, instructional and development time expectations must be made clear by districts and must be adhered to in order to allow parents to support their own families.

State-provided virtual professional development opportunities include:

  • Florida – The Florida Department of Education has partnered with Florida Virtual School, a statewide internet-based public high school, to provide professional development to teachers in a course titled Virtual Teacher Training with COVID-19. Teachers were financially incentivized to take this course, with the first 10,000 teachers to complete the training receiving a $200 stipend.
  • North Carolina – The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is providing virtual professional development opportunities organized by subject. These opportunities vary in format, from virtual professional learning communities and office hours with NC DPI staff to more formal guidance on delivering virtual instruction and assessment.
  • Maine – The Maine Department of Education is holding regular virtual office hours, as well as providing virtual professional development opportunities around instruction, but also topics such as culturally responsive practice and civic responsibility. These webinars are also recorded and available for viewing after the original session is held. Additionally, Maine is holding virtual self-care sessions for educators twice a day.

Diagnostic Assessment

In response to the shift to virtual learning, states across the country have canceled summative assessments with the understanding that students will be challenged to engage in the quantity and quality of learning that these tests require. While this provides flexibility for districts and schools, teachers need tools to assess student learning, particularly when learning loss is of heightened concern. States have provided guidance to support teachers in diagnostic assessment, including:

  • California – The California Department of Education is encouraging teachers to use diagnostic assessments in conjunction with formative assessments to determine students’ strengths and learning needs and to monitor and adjust learning throughout the year.
  • Texas – Texas regularly requires diagnostic assessment for students in kindergarten, grades 1 and 2, and in grade 7 for students who did not demonstrate proficiency on their grade 6 reading assessment. The Texas Education Agency is providing flexibility on the diagnostic tools used by teachers for the 2020-2021 school year only. Additionally, Texas made a free diagnostic assessment tool available to districts and parents for the end of the 2019-2020 school year so that student learning could be assessed even with the absence of the standard end of year testing.
  • North Dakota – North Dakota has not determined a plan for the 2020-2021 state standardized summative assessments, but is directing districts and schools to not utilize summative assessments upon re-entry at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is directing districts and schools to prioritize formative and diagnostic assessment to support student learning throughout the 2020-2021 school year in order to identify learning gaps.

Student & Parental Support

Schools must also support parents and students in best preparing them to receive online instruction. Clear expectations and guidance should be released from states to districts, districts to schools, and schools to parents. This includes distributing a list of frequently asked questions and answers, and updating them regularly based on progress. In addition, there should be time set aside by districts for students and parents to be trained in how to effectively use online learning platforms that does not count towards instructional time. Training should include software usage, learning expectations, daily schedules, options for support, and options for offline and independent learning. Individual parent training should particularly focus on methods of engaging students in learning outside of online learning time, such as educational games and hands-on activities. Schools should also have a database of learning resources prepared for parents to use as needed.

Students with Disabilities

The U.S. Department of Education has released guidance stating that “federal law should not be used to prevent schools from offering distance learning opportunities to all students, including students with disabilities.” There are a number of options that districts can use, and states can encourage, that allow students with disabilities and students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to still receive individual instruction. Some of these include:

  • Setting up virtual IEP meetings to track students’ progress;
  • Providing individualized instruction to students over phone, email, or video conference;
  • Providing instruction that includes both the student and parents simultaneously;
  • Carefully tracking material that is covered and not covered in order to develop a follow-up plan once in-person instruction resumes; and,
  • Parent-specific individual training and check-ins to make sure they have the resources they need to support their children.

For more information on this topic, please see The Hunt Institute issue brief Support for Students with Disabilities.

Individualized Student Support

In order to support low-performing students, schools can work with teachers to develop plans for checking in and providing individualized instruction to a targeted group of students, which will need to include the use of multiple methods of communication, including phone, email, and online platforms. This is also an opportunity to engage hourly employees, such as paraprofessionals. Many of them are experienced educators who will be looking for consistent income during this time of uncertainty, and providing them training on how to give at-risk students individualized instruction and support would benefit students, teachers, and aides.

In the long term, the development of formative assessments that are administered when students return to school is crucial. This will allow teachers and schools to gauge what learning their students have retained, gained, and lost, and will target specific areas that teachers need to address when they return. These assessments should not negatively impact a student’s grade or standing, but should be viewed as a support to help get them back on track. Additionally, in the future states should consider mandating a certain number of “virtual instruction practice days” a year. These digital learning days will help administrators, IT staff, teachers, students, and parents learn their school’s plan for remote learning and work out any issues such as technology access, internet access, or communication concerns before there is an urgent need.

There are many valid concerns regarding students who need the most support being left behind during their months out of the classroom. The most effective way to address those concerns is clear, consistent communication between all parties, including states, districts, schools, teachers, parents, and students. Schools should do all they can to reach out to students who will need the most support and offer individualized support wherever possible.  

← Click to access The Hunt Institute COVID-19 Resources & Policy Considerations Page

Share This