What Can Districts Learn From Top Public Charters on Remote Instruction? Highlights From a New Report.

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Yesterday I posted a letter (read it here) from the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association to the Democratic National Committee. The 65 signatories express grave disappointment at the DNC’s anti-charter  stance, which the signatories call “especially egregious” in light of powerful support from Black and Latino parents. Today the Fordham Institute published a report called “Schooling Covid-19: Lessons from Leading Charter networks from Their Transition to Remote Learning.” Here, Gregg Vanourek examines the successful approach of eight charter management organizations (CMO’s) during pandemic-induced remote instruction and what traditional districts can learn from them.

Sometimes timing is everything. 

There’s just so much at stake. McKinsey projects that by the time school starts back up, whether in-person, remotely, or some kind of hybrid, low-income students will have fallen by over a year, Black students by 10.3 months and Hispanic students by 9.2 months. Public charters (both nationwide and in NJ) disproportionately enroll these high-risk students. So what can traditional districts learn from them? What can we do differently in these challenging circumstances so that all students stay on track given the constraints of zoom and Google Classroom? (And why isn’t the DNC celebrating the succcesses of public schools that get it right instead of promising anti-charter lobbyists they’ll stifle their growth?)

For this study, Fordham selected Achievement First, DSST Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, KIPP DC, Noble Network of Charter Schools, Rocketship Public Schools, Success Academy, and Uncommon Schools. (Uncommon has 4 schools in Camden serving 800 students and 14 schools in Newark serving over 5,500 students. The other CMO’s don’t have Jersey locations so I’ll feature Uncommon because that’s the way we roll.) Here, Mike Petrilli explains how these schools made the cut:

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have long admired these networks, given their breakthrough results for low-income students and children of color—not just on academic tests but also in terms of long-term outcomes such as college completion. They are known as highly effective, well-run “learning organizations,” with gobs of talent, enviable autonomy from the many rules and strictures that can make life difficult for educators in the district sector, and the mission, resources, and incentives to keep innovating. Because they tend to have a culture of continuous improvement, we surmised that if anyone had met the coronavirus challenge, it would be these schools. And they did not disappoint.

The report itself is highly readable but here are a few highlights: 

An analysis from the Center for Reforming Public Education found that by June, three months after schools closed,  “only one-third of districts expect[ed] all of their teachers to continue to engage and interact with all of their students around the curriculum content…. Just one in three districts expect[ed] teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement, or monitor academic progress for all students…. Only 27 percent of rural and small-town school districts expect[ed] teachers to provide instruction…. Far too many districts are leaving learning to chance during the coronavirus closures.”

In other words, remote learning was a disaster.

But not for everyone.

Vanourek identifies five “key actions” those 8 CMO’s  took to keep their kids learning:

1. Meet their students’ social, emotional, and nutritional needs;

2. Place technology in the hands of each of their students and educators quickly;

3. Re-create the structure of the regular school day and regular grading practices;

4. Reach out to individual students and families on a regular basis; and

5. Embrace a team approach to teaching and instruction, centered around a common curriculum.

Here’s an example of how these CMO’s responded to meeting students’ non-academic needs:

The KIPP DC network distributed 58,000 meals to families during the crisis and disbursed at least $150 to any family requesting emergency assistance. One teacher in KIPP NC rode the bus ninety- three miles over six hours to deliver meals and education packets to her rural students. The Noble Network distributed 106,000 meals to families as of May 20, including 65,000 bags of healthy snacks donated by a company…Uncommon  relaunched their extracurricular programming to ensure students had healthy outlets (for example, online cooking, hip hop at home, and wellness offerings).

Of course, the “rapid deployment of devices” was a key action item for all schools. Here’s what happened in Newark and Camden in March:

When closures commenced, Uncommon Schools promptly surveyed students on their technology needs and found that more than a third did not have what they needed. The network distributed more than 5,000 newly purchased Chromebooks (total U.S. Uncommon Schools enrollment is 20,300) over the spring. The devices came first to the network, where staff configured them with the necessary software and settings (for example, manually setting up Zoom accounts for each student), and then distributed them to families. Uncommon Schools arranged about a hundred hotspots for students who needed them.

To give students a sense of routine and recreate what felt like a school day, these CMO’s blended synchronous and asynchronous learning, depending on the age of the students. Over time, most of the networks started stressing live teaching because it created a “classroom community that many students (and teachers) said they missed.” Uncommon Schools also employed a blend of live and asynchronous instruction but, over time shifted more to non-live teaching “as it learned that family circumstances warranted more instruction that was flexible in timing.” 

Here is a sense of the school day for Uncommon high school students in Newark and Camden:

Each day at Uncommon Schools, high school students joined their teachers online for a live lesson or accessed a twenty-minute instructional video from Google Classroom for one of their core academic classes, viewed during its scheduled one-hour class period. During the remaining forty minutes, they accessed the classwork handout from Google Classroom and completed it using guidance from the video and other resources provided to them or from the teacher who stayed online for questions. They submitted their completed work by the end of the one-hour class period. This counted as their attendance and was graded for completion and accuracy. Teachers were available via Zoom during the forty minutes following the video (office hours). Advanced Placement teachers could decide whether to assign additional work outside of the hour period. Grades were based on classwork and assessments. 

The 8 CMO’s used different methods to keep parents informed and gauge how well outreach was working. For example,

Uncommon Schools employed attendance and engagement tracking systems and monitored online behavior in great detail. For example, between March 30 and May 22, there were 107,641 web users of its K–8 remote learning, with 571,492 unique page views and visitors from forty-seven states and sixty-three countries (because they provided the world with free access to their remote school)…The most popular video lesson was its “Grade One Week Four Read-Aloud Task Two.”

The final key action, embracing a team approach to teaching, resulted in this innovation from Uncommon:

At Uncommon Schools, master teachers with the highest student-achievement results recorded video lessons that were used across the whole network in grades K–8, freeing other teachers to focus on small-group facilitation via Zoom, reteaching when necessary, grading assignments, providing feedback, conducting student and family outreach, and holding office hours.

(Why can’t traditional districts do this? Why can’t “master teachers with the highest student-achievement results” in the whole district, county, or, heck, the whole state, “record video lessons” so all students, regardless of ZIP code, have access not only to masterful teaching but additional time in small groups and one-on-one instruction from their home district teachers?)

There is more to the report than I’ve covered here. Vanourek addresses whether these CMO’s successes can be replicated and focuses on the primary importance of close student-teacher relationships: According to Uncommon high school principal Sean Healey, “Our kids are incredible and very resilient. They said, ‘Let me dive in and embrace this.’ That was grounded in relationships where the students know the teachers and staff really love them.” Tameka Royal, principal of Uncommon Schools’ North Star Fairmount Elementary School, noted, “During the crisis, we saw beautiful acts of teacher commitment to their students and schools.”

Can we replicate these successes in the traditional school sector? 

If we can’t, they’ll be a whole generation of students paying the price.

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1 Comment

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    […] I can’t help wishing that Biden’s education platform spent a little less time on “teacher pay and dignity” (the very first bullet point on his platform, one that dominates his whole agenda) and a little more time on how America can scale up schools that work (even during a pandemic) like our best public charter schools. […]

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