If our goal is to accelerate learning for those most impacted by the pandemic, we must make the most of the time that we have. We’ve known since TNTP’s The Opportunity Myth study that, all too often, only a quarter of students’ time in their classes is spent on activities that are moving them sufficiently toward college and career readiness. Simply doing more of what we did before the pandemic will not get us where we need to be as we seek to recover from it.
We actually know a lot about how to make the most of learning time: Create a climate in which students feel safe taking risks and offering up their ideas; make lessons meaningful, culturally relevant, and varied so students remain engaged; anticipate and prepare to address student confusions before teaching; give lots of opportunities for guided and independent practice; provide timely and precise feedback on their work; and reteach specific skills as soon as possible when they struggle and use this data to inform future lessons.
And, most of all, make sure students are engaging in grade-level work—every day.
Ultimately, making the most of students’ time is the responsibility of school and district leaders. From their positions they can set the expectations, create the systems, provide the resources, and give the encouragement to enable teachers to do their best work. A recent major review of research commissioned by the Wallace Foundation confirms it: What schools leaders do has a major impact on educational outcomes.
We know what such leadership looks like because we’ve seen leaders who, despite all the challenges of the past year, put in place systems and marshalled their people and resources to make sure all students engaged in rigorous instruction on a daily basis. Some of these leaders, like Kimberly Grayson, principal of Dr. MLK Junior Early College in Colorado or Ashley Johnson, principal of Henderson Collegiate in North Carolina are featured in our Follow the Leaders project, which Relay Graduate School of Education launched to share how leaders with previous track records of improving student learning were leading for equity during the pandemic. We will continue to do so as leaders work through the recovery in the coming year.
These individuals – including school and network leaders in both district and charter schools – each approached the task somewhat differently, in ways appropriate for their context. But they all committed to the following actionable strategies to make the most of people’s time in a very challenging year:
- Commit to rigorous learning for every student. 2020-21 was a year of compromises. But the one thing these leaders would not compromise on was rigor. For Jeanine Zitta, Network Superintendent in St. Louis Public Schools, this led to her laser like focus on strengthening teacher planning. They might have covered fewer topics, but they made sure the skills they developed were the most important for college and career readiness, and for those they were unwilling to sacrifice depth.
- Develop a sharp vision for what excellent teaching and leading looks like. Exceptional leaders understood the most supportive thing they could do for their teachers is to build a shared vision for instructional excellence. For Johnson, specifically, this meant crafting powerful tools that define instructional excellence and coaching her leadership team in how to build that shared vision.
- Put lots of eyes on instruction and student work. In contrast to what happened in many places, the leaders we shadowed doubled down on lesson observation when all teaching went online. Only by having their whole leadership team analyzing what was happening between teachers and students could they identify and address the most important gaps. And only by looking at student work could they know if the teaching was effective. Heather Haines, Regional Instructional Superintendent in Denver Public Schools, exemplifies this practice by establishing a narrow set of priorities, benchmarks, and practices with her team.
- Tighten the cycles of formative assessment, analysis, and response. Leaders understood that with remote learning came increased risk that gaps in teaching and learning might not be detected soon enough to address before students fell further behind. Hence they increased the amount of data they tracked, and the frequency with which they did so. They tracked student engagement and work completion along with mastery. And they responded to red flags as often as daily.
- Do all of the above while taking care of your people. The social-emotional needs of students and adults have been tremendous this past year, as they will be in the year ahead. Despite the physical isolation, these leaders made sure they attended to people’s overall wellbeing. They tracked students’ emotional states and built structures to forge meaningful relationships. They gave constant shout outs and were attuned to the fact that people can only take on so much. We see examples of this care as Laura Garza and Aaron Aguirre-Castillo from the Dallas Independent School District share their approach to building a shared vision for racial equity.
Principal Brandi Chin, School Director at Noel Campus, Denver School of Science and Technology told us recently she’s looking at planning for next school year like planning to open an entirely new school.
That’s how all school, district, and network leaders should be thinking right now.
As we reimagine what needs to be done to give all students the learning experiences they deserve, we must think first and foremost how to make the most of their time.
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