This is Part 1 of a short series on issues specific to teaching and teachers.
No, this isn’t another post about how teachers are leaving the profession. In fact, this is not about teaching the profession, but rather, about teaching the practice — the strategies and approaches teachers employ when they deliver learning to students (aka pedagogy). An interesting study was published in July of 2023 as part of a collaboration between the American School District Panel, Arizona State University, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education (funded by the Rand Corporation). The report details changes that have occurred in teaching since the pandemic that are directly impacting schools’ ability to recover from said pandemic.
Things to know: the study is very small. Researchers examined five districts and granted them total anonymity to ensure that all the responses were as truthful as possible. The study mentions only in the broadest terms where the districts were located (urban and suburban, but no state or regional information). The report says they followed five public charter and traditional school districts in a variety of urban and suburban settings but doesn’t specify the proportion of each. Districts ranged in size from 6,000 to more than 40,000 students and primarily served students of color and high proportions of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. There is no explanation of what “primarily” means, but these are among the most vulnerable students and the ones who suffered the most learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Interviews were conducted between 2021 and 2023 and that’s important because it means the conclusions of the study may document a legitimate pattern as opposed to just a snapshot of current conditions. There is little data, at least not in the sense of percentages and numbers; it’s largely anecdotal evidence from interviews. We can assume that the administrators interviewed are seeing problems with student achievement; certainly they discuss problems with implementing Covid recovery plans to address achievement.
A singular phenomena emerged from the study: In much the same way students experienced learning loss as a result of the pandemic, teachers appear to have suffered “teaching loss.” Rather than research-based best practices and innovative approaches, teachers are falling back on outdated, ineffective strategies to deliver instruction or using curricula that lack grade-level content and rigor.
Why this has happened is also a product of conditions created by the pandemic: staffing shortages, frequent student disruption, loss of prep time and time to collaborate with colleagues, teacher exhaustion. Some of these have persisted since the pandemic and have led to further issues like anxiety and depression among front line educators. Much of this was well documented during and immediately after the pandemic in several large NEA surveys. Further, many teachers went years without feedback from principals and have been tasked with managing higher rates of challenging student behavior. Another cited factor? A tight labor market post-pandemic that is relying heavily on early-career educators without the experience to confront these kinds of difficulties. In other words, the most vulnerable teachers are being asked to help some of the most vulnerable kids.
The upshot of all this is that Covid recovery plans meant to accelerate student learning to get them back up to grade level are almost impossible to carry out. Instead, administrators are having to focus on building or rebuilding teachers’ core skills. This is a critical factor to understand. Often, students are blamed for “failing” to learn when a host of other factors often contribute to this phenomenon, most of which are out of the student’s control. Multiple studies have underscored the impact a high-quality teacher has on students, especially in the primary grades. For the most vulnerable students, the lack of a skilled teacher has repercussions that go far beyond Covid recovery.*
Although the study was only five districts, it does mirror what we’ve been hearing in the course of our audit work over the last 2 years. We have seen these same post-pandemic problems in economically disadvantaged districts and schools, many of which are heavily populated with students of color; similar situations are likely playing out across the U.S., to varying degrees. In many cases, the conditions were already there and Covid merely exacerbated them. These conditions are — and this is not an exaggeration — a recipe for disaster for the kids who have no other recourse for learning than what they get at school.
But here’s a ray of hope: the study identified two problems that districts can attack immediately to produce improvement in instruction and learning.
- Provide targeted, required** professional development designed to improve instruction and build teacher capacity. This addresses the fallback on outdated, ineffective strategies. Goals for this would be informed by observation of classroom teaching and collection of student work artifacts — the work students are actually asked to do in the classroom. CMSi does this as part of every audit and it’s very revealing: many schools say they provide lots of opportunities for hands-on, real-world problem-solving, but an examination of what students are actually doing often shows that this isn’t happening, or isn’t happening as frequently as the district wants it to. Student work artifacts and instructional observation help districts understand how instruction and classroom activities need to change. they can then target professional development toward those changes. A caveat: professional development should provide strategies and practices that are concrete and immediately applicable in the classroom. Then — and this is key — hold them accountable for implementing what they learned.
- Develop curriculum guides for the core areas that are deeply aligned to external, high stakes tests and go beyond those tests to provide deeper, richer understanding of concepts and content. This addresses the use of curricula that lack grade-level content and rigor. Guides should have clear, specific objectives that define what mastery of the objective looks like so that teachers have a clear finish line to aim for. Guides should also contain components designed to support the least-experienced teachers, such as: links to assessments in use, strategies for delivering the curriculum, suggested resources and activities, pacing information, and where the learning falls in the K-12 articulation of objectives. All of this is not a day-by-day script but rather a framework that gives the teacher freedom to deploy their own expertise and knowledge of their students to select resources and design approaches that best fit student needs. Guides should also provide extensive support (scaffolding) for the acceleration needed to address learning loss and to assist special education students and English Language Learners.
Obviously addressing all areas of weakness in a district system is best, but just addressing these two things can lead to marked, positive improvement in student learning. The real problem here is time. It takes time to develop and implement curricula, time to get teachers back up to speed, time to get Covid-recovery plans fully operational to accelerate kids. And during all that time, kids continue to age out of K-12 education. As the study aptly put it, it’s time for “all hands on deck.”
*Students with a lot of cultural capital — the money and opportunity to access tutors, supplementary educational programs after school or in the summer, highly educated parents — don’t need to rely on what the school district provides. The most vulnerable students, like those qualifying for free/reduced lunch, have no other means of getting the learning and so are more profoundly impacted in situations where instruction is substandard or not present.
**The study noted that “teacher appetite for engaging in professional learning outside of the school day
[has not returned]”, which is a nice way of saying “they’re not attending unless they have to.” Please note, in light of all the other issues teachers are dealing with, this attitude is understandable. But understanding the reasons doesn’t make the problem any less urgent.
If your district would like assistance with curriculum development or an assessment of current curriculum guides and instructional delivery, CMSi can help. We offer Curriculum and Program-Specific Audits to document and prioritize those areas that need immediate attention and provide specific, actionable recommendations to address them. We also offer a multi-phase curriculum writing training that will walk you through the development process and result in high-quality curriculum guides that will help teachers plan effective instruction. Contact Us! We’d love to help you improve learning for all your students.