Districts went into the 2021-2022 school year with plans to help students catch up in the subjects where they had lost ground during the pandemic. Their plans for “accelerated learning” were twofold: Students would continue to advance through the curriculum while getting personalized support for areas where they struggled.
But problems stalled those efforts at virtually every step, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. The report is the third check-in with leaders from five districts that the center has been following over the past two years, and it is based on interviews with 25 participants during spring 2022.
The main finding? Accelerated learning simply requires more. More staff, more resources, more energy, more buy-in from teachers.
As district leaders talked about their day-to-day realities, they shared how those things were all tough to come by when everyone in the system was already stretched thin.
While plans to speed up learning have been slowed down, interviewees say they have been more open to trying new strategies to get students and teachers energized.
Bleak Staffing Numbers
To make accelerated learning possible, schools needed enough staff to provide small-group student tutoring. Districts in the study reported staffing barriers at every level—teachers, substitutes, human resources personnel, teacher trainers.
Midyear resignations were another blow to staffing levels, and even sign-on bonuses failed to get vacancies filled in the tight labor market. Teacher absences were acutely felt as districts struggled to find substitutes. In an extreme case, a medium-sized district reported that up to 90 classes were without a teacher every day.
“I think there were some of us, myself included, who thought this year was going to be back to normal, whatever that is, but we were quickly reminded that actually it’s probably the hardest year yet,” one senior district leader told researchers.
The staffing gaps meant that teachers weren’t free to take the training that would ready them to implement the “high-impact” curriculum developed to catch up students.
“People are covering all the time. They’re exhausted,” one superintendent said in the report. “And so we couldn’t really roll [a new program] out because we just didn’t have a fair way to, you know, support teachers to effectively implement them.”
New Outlooks, New Strategies
Districts were forced to adjust their expectations and plans for the school year. One district shifted its measure of success from end-of-year test scores to monthly targets, which helped highlight teachers’ achievements throughout the year.
Another district shifted to thinking about its long-term goals and asked teachers to help develop its vision for “post-pandemic” learning, allowing staff to think beyond day-to-day problems.
“So at the same time where we’re dealing with all those huge problems that are bogging us down, that are making our lives miserable every single day,” a senior leader from the district told researchers, “we are doing all these wonderful and exciting things that keep you kind of energized and really looking forward.”
To execute its vision of providing high-dosage tutoring, one district hired full-time tutors to work during school hours. Another district, which was prone to experiencing political battles over curriculum, hosted parent focus groups to gauge their priorities for their children.
Staff from different departments became increasingly interdependent, the result of having to cover for colleagues pulled into other duties. This led several districts in the study to combine the roles of chief academic officer and chief of schools “in an effort to reduce the gap between design and implementation.”
When it comes to shifting views on edtech, district leaders’ outlooks weren’t particularly rosy. They saw the growth in their tech tool arsenal as emergency measures that delivered mixed results.
“I think we’re going to have a slow breakup with some of our ed tech tools,” one district leader said. “There’s just a lot of noise in the ed tech space. And knowing what actually works and doesn’t, it’s just not clear.”
Following another year of crisis management, the report’s interviewees are still concerned over the long-term impacts for students who have fallen behind. One district leader was particularly worried about students who are closer to graduation.
“They don’t feel prepared,” the leader said. “I think we are not talking enough about [what] our older kids have lost out and the lack of preparation they feel for the work that they’re doing right now.”
There are also questions about how patient parents and students will be as districts continue to modify their “learning loss” strategies. Will they move to other schools, striking a blow to enrollment? Can they speed up their work to get older students ready for careers and college? Will hiring teachers get easier?
One of the report’s recommendations calls on the federal government to extend the deadline for emergency fund use, coming up soon in January 2023. It would give districts more time to fill staff positions, get out of “crisis mode” and take a data-driven approach to strategies that would best suit students.
“While numerous media accounts have bemoaned the pandemic money that school districts have seemingly left on the table, our interviews suggest that leaders are determined to tap into those resources,” researchers write, “but sometimes have been hamstrung by structural factors outside their control … .”