Back-to-school: What does education triage look like in an uncertain fall?

Focusing on teamwork, communication, and essential skills will be key to addressing learning gaps
By: | June 23, 2020
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Dr. Gene Kerns is the Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance.

Creating a roadmap to help build trust with students and parents throughout the summer and into the fall is going to be a tough challenge this year because no one really knows what form “back-to-school” will take. Even schools that do return in fairly normal order may experience disruptions later in the year due to recurring closures.

Given the unusual and unpredictable dynamics at play, it’s a good idea to be more proactive about reaching out and trying to build solid relationships. At the end of the 2019–2020 school year, educators merely had to continue existing relationships online. In the coming year, some relationships are going to begin digitally as well.

Here are a few tips to help your district get off on the right foot, whether you’re lucky enough to share space in a classroom or are challenged to begin a new school year online.

Multiple lines of communication

Families will certainly have some questions about how things will proceed academically, but the first and foremost concern for many will be safety. That’s good news if your school must meet online. The fact that parents, guardians, students, teachers, and administrators are all more comfortable with teleconferencing is even more good news.

That said, some families lack the devices and connectivity necessary. In those cases, socially distant home visits on porches and in front yards may become a critical bridge across the digital divide.

Assessment and triage

The 2020–2021 academic year will be the year of interim and formative assessment more than any other. Schools will go an unprecedented two years without summative data, and educators will have a heightened desire to know how students are performing and to what degree they experienced any “COVID-19 Slide.”

As the results of those assessments help us understand where students need additional support, educators will also need to understand which skills are going to help students cover the most ground in catching up. Some skills, which we refer to as Focus Skills, are critical in that they apply to multiple domains and are prerequisites for other skills.

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Consider, for example, the ability to match the correct sounds to particular letters. If a student misses that skill, their literacy development will be held up indefinitely. They simply can’t progress without it. On the other hand, many state literacy standards also require that students learn the skill of comparing and contrasting different versions of a story. It’s a nice skill to have, but a student who doesn’t receive instruction in it will likely be just fine academically.

Focus Skills deliver the best “bang” for our educational “buck” in bringing students to their grade level and preparing them for the next level of content as expeditiously as possible. Understanding how to identify Focus Skills and developing a plan for drilling down on them is something teachers can do over the summer, with help from the free platform that Renaissance has created, based on data from millions of students.

Assessment transparency

This is an environment in which not only the need for interim assessment is greater than ever, but also the openness to it. Presenting assessment results in a manner that makes sense to parents is going to be critical to maintaining that openness. That applies to students as well. For years, authors like Bob Marzano and Rick Stiggins have encouraged educators to have students interact with and plot their data. This sort of engagement is consistently powerful and can become a critical lever for increased involvement and achievement.

Cross-grade learning communities

With Focus Skills in mind, teachers may find it helpful to participate in cross-grade learning communities. Teachers who are experts in their grade and its content are not likely to be as familiar with the standards and Focus Skills in previous years — yet their students may need a good deal of instruction in those areas.

Related: How will schools reopen safely in fall 2020?

For some grades and some academic areas, this is going to be more important than others. Focus Skills are not evenly distributed throughout grades. There are so many essential literacy skills taught in kindergarten and first grade, for example, that if I were an elementary school principal, I’d be a little more concerned about those students.

When we look at math, the number of Focus Skills most often spikes when students study algebra, typically in ninth grade, so a high school administrator may find it necessary to shift extra attention to that subject area. No matter the grade level or how many Focus Skills students may have missed, teachers are going to have a lot to learn from their colleagues in adjacent grades this year.

An academic summer

An Education Week survey done late in March suggested that most educators were not looking at summer school as the solution to any learning loss students experienced this year. That may simply have been because no one was sure they could pull off an effective summer school program at a safe social distance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make this summer more academic than the typical summer break.

We can make an extra effort to get books into students’ hands this summer for more independent reading, which goes a long way toward eliminating the typical summer slide. There are also many practice applications out there for kids to work on math or other skills, many of which their schools already pay for. Encouraging parents to get their students on those apps for a little bit each day isn’t going to erase the disruptions that have already happened, but it will go a long way toward slowing or eliminating any further slide while reassuring families that their students will be back on track in the fall.

Dr. Gene Kerns (@GeneKerns) is the Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance. He is a third-generation educator and has served as a public-school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. He has trained and consulted internationally and is the co-author of three books. He can be reached at