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?
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.