Let’s get specific: Steps for centering recovery planning on academics

Following these key strategies moving forward will have a big impact on student success.
By: | July 1, 2021
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Ethan Mitnick is President and Founder of SchoolKit.

Ethan Mitnick is President and Founder of SchoolKit.

States and districts across the country have an unprecedented opportunity today to leverage federal relief funding in support of stronger, more coherent instructional systems to improve teaching and learning for all students. While, of course, we must address schools’ operational needs and students’ social and emotional recovery from the pandemic, academics should be at the center of planning efforts.

This means ensuring the coherence of academic programs, prioritizing high-quality instructional materials and methods, and ensuring sustainability of these efforts over time. Getting started may feel overwhelming to systems leaders and educators, many of whom are experiencing change fatigue and are likely being bombarded with suggestions for potential approaches. But there are simple strategies that can help at the onset of this work.

In my work with schools and systems, I’ve seen a few key strategies have a big impact on student success.

Create a three- to five-year vision for academic impact.

A bold vision for students and educators should drive decision-making and spending rather than the other way around. Creating a vision doesn’t have to be an overly complicated exercise. A “starter” academic vision could look like this:

By summer, 2024:

  • All students will:
    • Engage successfully in meaningful grade-level instruction.
    • Demonstrate significant improvement in academic performance.
  • All teachers will:
    • Be deeply knowledgeable of content and pedagogy for the academic areas and grade levels they teach.
    • Use best-in-class core curriculum resources to plan and teach every day.
    • Understand how to address unfinished learning in their content areas and meaningfully respond to student assessment data.
  • All leaders will:
    • Possess the knowledge and skills to support their teachers with planning and instruction in their content area with high-quality materials.

Center your academic planning on high-quality instructional materials.

Curriculum resources have far more power than many leaders realize. They set the bar for grade-level rigor, empower educators to differentiate instruction, and lighten planning demands on teachers.   Leaders can learn more about high-quality materials through organizations like EdReports and should review the quality of materials currently in use in their systems. It is imperative to adopt high-quality materials in as many content areas as possible, and leaders should leverage recovery funds to do so. It is also critical to provide intensive training on these resources to teachers and leaders. Academic support teachers, such as special education teachers and teachers of English learners, should also have access to these materials and trainings so that they can align their work with core instruction.

First and foremost, schools must have strong materials in place for foundational reading skills instruction, so students are taught to crack the code. To deepen their understanding of best practices and the “why” behind science-based, systematic reading instruction, educators can view sessions from SchoolKit’s Equity for Early Readers Summit or participate in shared reading of a text like Meredith and David Liben’s book Know Better, Do Better.

Build the right mindsets and beliefs across your system.

School systems leaders have a significant influence over the mindsets and beliefs of educators. The core belief that students are capable of succeeding with at-grade-level content is vital to academic recovery, along with fostering awareness of bias and focusing on students’ academic strengths rather than perceived deficits.

School and system leaders can instill these beliefs in their teams by having educators read and discuss research studies such as TNTP’s The Opportunity Myth and Accelerate, Don’t Remediate, by communicating about and celebrating desired mindsets, and providing training on the negative impact of bias and deficit thinking. It’s also important to embrace a “keep/change/add mentality. Data tells us that “back to normal” was often not serving students effectively, particularly students of color and students living in poverty. Academic renewal is a time to think about what to keep, change, and add.

Make time for teacher training and planning.

Because in-person learning time has been lost in many communities, some school systems are reducing opportunities for teacher and leader professional learning to maximize face-to-face student instructional time with students. This is well-intentioned but can be harmful. Teachers need to learn and plan together, especially now.

School leaders can provide this time by creating summer training opportunities, covering teachers’ classes so they can learn with peers during the school year, identifying additional professional learning days, and building teacher collaborative planning time into weekly and daily schedules. It’s also critical to ensure academic support teachers have planning time with general educators.

Build internal capacity for content-area expertise.

Many districts plan to hire additional teachers and staff with their recovery money. This is another well-intentioned move, but districts may struggle to hire strong candidates for these roles and may not be able to fund their positions long-term. For these reasons, districts must also develop academic leadership from within.

This could mean providing distinct training to support leaders in curriculum and content and identifying teachers who can become content experts and support their colleagues over time. Over a three-year period, a school system we support in Philadelphia launched and developed a cohort of math teacher leaders who have built their knowledge and skills of high-quality math materials. This group learns together, receives targeted coaching, and is now well-equipped to offer their colleagues significant support with math instructional planning.

Provide intensive training on how to address unfinished learning.

Addressing unfinished learning, whether caused by the pandemic or not, is sophisticated and challenging work that most teachers have not been trained to do. Leaders should consider seeking expert professional learning providers (consider reviewing Rivet’s Professional Learning Partner Guide) to support this work. Make sure to offer training to all teachers, including special education teachers, interventionists, and tutors. And keep the training content specific. It looks different in mathematics and ELA/literacy.

For example, a district we support in Louisiana is holding four-day Acceleration Institutes for their K-8 literacy teachers over the summer to help leverage their instructional resources to support all students. Teachers will learn about core-aligned strategies such as knowledge building, vocabulary instruction, and fluency support that help all students access the grade-level content that they should be learning.

Looking Ahead

None of these strategies can be realized overnight; they can and should be folded into a multi-year plan. And they need to be adapted to the unique needs of every system. However, by keeping academics at the center of recovery efforts, school systems will be able to address the academic impact of COVID-19 and improve their instructional program across the board in support of students, teachers, administrators, and families.

Ethan Mitnick is President and Founder of SchoolKit, a partner organization to districts and states that train educators and administrators to use high-quality instructional materials effectively, align instruction with educational standards, and implement powerful teaching and leading practices. He taught special education and led schools in New York City before starting SchoolKit.

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