- Although district leaders indicated strong desire to accelerate student learning during the 2021-22 school year after COVID-19 setbacks, barriers persisted in the form of staff and student absences, teacher shortages and limited time for professional development, according to a report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
- In interviews with CRPE researchers, district leaders said the unanticipated hurdles have led them to extend timelines for new instructional strategies and, in some cases, caused them to pare back on plans as they deal with continuing challenges.
- The CRPE report reiterates the struggle K-12 school systems are facing — despite ample resources of funding and best practice resources — as they emerge from the public health crisis.
The optimism administrators first showed for the rapid use of accelerated learning approaches — expressed when CRPE began its research into five unnamed school districts in winter 2021 — is fading as challenges remain, the report said.
“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 leader said when interviewed in spring 2022, according to the CRPE report. None of the senior leaders quoted in the report were identified.
Another administrator said accelerating learning relies on combining teacher supports, good curriculum and resources, and valid interventions. On some days, it was difficult to have all three of those components, the person said.
Waves of COVID-19 outbreaks in the 2021-22 school year derailed ambitions for stability in staff and student attendance, particularly for large urban districts. In some cases, attendance was low for other reasons, such as crime, or healthy labor markets that drew older students to the workforce rather than to classes.
“We’ve lost so many kids to violence this year. And there’s a lot going on in the neighborhoods that I think prevents kids from coming in," one administrator said.
Staff absences and shortages of teachers and substitutes made it hard to consistently measure student progress and pair interventions with student needs. One district administrator said it was difficult to determine if interventions were effective because of differing testing result methodologies and explanations from various external partners.
District leaders in all school systems studied by CRPE mentioned staff vacancy challenges, including the difficulty of recruiting for human resources and IT positions given competition with the private sector.
In addition to shortages, administrators expressed concern about teachers' capacity for the instructional skills, perspective and emotional bandwidth needed to maintain high expectations for students and accelerate learning. And with a dearth of substitute teachers, it was difficult for educators to find time for professional development, district leaders said. In some cases, central office staff covered classes so teachers could learn new skills.
The report was not all doom and gloom, however: Administrators also discussed efforts to overcome hurdles, as well as their continued work in planning and implementing innovative solutions during this complicated time.
One district made strides in creating an internal pipeline of teachers by promoting the profession to current students. "If we don’t, from a career standpoint, get to our high school students and share why they should consider this teaching profession, then we’re going to blow it," the human resources director said.
The five public charter and traditional school districts that CRPE is researching are in a variety of urban and suburban settings. The school systems range in size from fewer than 6,000 students to more than 40,000. This report was the third in a series based on interviews with these district leaders.
The project is part of the American School District Panel, a research partnership between CRPE and the RAND Corp., as well as other collaborators including the Council of the Great City Schools and Kitamba, a firm that provides customized services and products, such as data, instructional and finance tools.