Remote Learning: What Helped A Network Of Progressive Schools

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Ann Cook, executive director and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium and formerly the co-founder and co-director of the Urban Academy Laboratory High School, a New York City public school. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

On Sunday, March 15, 2020, New York State and City officials announced the closure of all schools. By the end of that week, most NYC city public schools had moved to educate their students remotely. By the end of May, in city council hearings called to assess the effect of remote learning on the 1.1 million New York City school children, Education chair, Mark Treyger, was expressing concern.  

Across the nation there were dire reports of the impact of ‘missed time,’ of a widening achievement gap, the inequities of the digital divide, concerns about privacy and the emotional fallout of screen time. Students weighed in. In a letter to the Times, one NYC student commented:

Today, I am not in a classroom with students my age, having clever discussions about The Wanderers by Richard Price or heated ones about Puerto Rico’s racist history or even engaging in the usual gossip. Instead, I am required to learn in a house that is far from being a classroom. I don’t know what remote learning looks like for an only child, but I have 3 younger brothers who are also learning remotely. There isn’t a quiet place or even a quiet moment in our home, since our living room is where we all complete our classes, which makes focusing on my work a challenge. (…) Sticking teenagers in front of a computer for 6 hours a day is clearly not the answer. Remote learning has been a nightmare for me.  (New York Times 6/4/2020)

Ditto the national consensus. As the Wall Street Journal put it:

This spring, America took an involuntary crash course in remote learning. With the school year now winding down, the grade from students, teachers, parents and administrators is already in: It was a failure. (WSJ 6/5/20)

Perhaps the best indication that remote learning didn’t work can be seen in the number of New York City students needing summer school, which went from 44,000 in 2019 to 143,000 in 2020. These are students, from grades 3 to 12, whose schools are requiring them to “complete additional coursework after many struggled when buildings closed in March.”

What we know now — after nearly 12 weeks of on-line instruction — of Google classroom, Zoom meetings, and other remote learning platforms is this: What some might view as a Naomi Klein ‘shock-doctrine’ opportunity to further standardize instruction and trim down a work force is simply no substitute for in-person teaching and learning. Remote learning may be better than nothing…but it utterly failed thousands of children, particularly students in the most Covid-affected zip codes, and only partially served those who managed to show up enough to be counted. So, come September – as schools face the likely prospect of having to rely, at least partially, on remote learning – the questions are: 

  • What, if anything, have we learned that will help make the online learning experience a more positive one?
  • How can we overcome the shortcomings of computerized programs and online standardization of curriculum? 
  • What do we need to do more of to reach students who are clearly calling out for a return to relationships with their teachers and with their classroom peers?  

These questions clearly underscore the difficulties all schools faced — and will most likely continue to face — as teachers, parents and administrators try to make the best of the challenges. As we try to answer such questions, were there any positives?

Perhaps the experience of a one group of New York schools can provide some insight.   

The schools belong to the New York Performance Standards Consortium (Consortium), a group of public secondary schools that were coalesced around a commitment to a non-test-driven performance-based system of accountability. Consortium schools serve a diverse range of high school students, including a greater-than-city-wide proportion of student of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, youth living in temporary housing, and students in economic need.

Since the mid-1990’s, these schools have awarded diplomas to students who can demonstrate what they know and can do so across subject disciplines. Aside from the English Regents exam, which Consortium students take, the schools use a system of practitioner-developed, student-focused, and externally reviewed assessments that take the form of projects, papers, performances, experiments, and experiences known as Performance-based Assessment Tasks, or PBATs. This assessment system fosters an inquiry-based teaching and learning culture in which both students and teachers take ownership of the process and the products.  Learning is not pre-packaged or standardized. As one student put it:

I go to a school that implements ‘inquisitive’ learning. Our instructors encourage us to ask questions, develop arguments and stand by them throughout a discussion. We then back up our arguments with the many readings given to us… (…) My school pushes for criticism amongst peers. Constructive criticism is a part of our writing process, as well as our ability to do so without criticizing the actual person but rather, their ideas and arguments. I feel that my school is a community and one I’m proud to be a part of. (Student Essay, Urban Academy Laboratory High School.)

As the weeks under lockdown wore on, it became apparent that certain “pre-existing conditions” emerged as playing a significant role in how Consortium schools responded to the new remote learning environment. One distinctive characteristic was the importance of an already established community with a shared culture committed to common values and purposes. There was a set of expectations. This didn’t happen because of the pandemic. It had been nurtured and supported for some time.

Throughout the school year, Consortium schools participate in many shared activities and common experiences. Just as discussion is regarded as a central feature of inquiry-based teaching, collaboration within and between schools is a vital attribute that keeps schools dynamic and responsive. Within schools, faculty view collaboration as a feature of how they approach all work, not an ‘add on’ or separate activity. At the system level, there are a number of collaborative structures, such as bi-annual moderation studies to establish PBAT reliability (bringing together teams from each Consortium school), workshops for social workers and counsellors across the schools, sessions for college advisors, ELL teachers, and faculty working with special education students, principal meetings, and meetings for school liaisons. There are also working groups known as ‘exchanges’ that focus on particular disciplines and are cross-school collaborations that include entire departments from seven or eight schools. This professional culture and camaraderie took time to develop but proved invaluable as teachers met to plan approaches during distance learning.

The comments below by Consortium principals reflect how shared values and sense of mission have created an environment in which colleagues express trust and a collaborative connection with one another, and the professional relationships that kept them going during the upheavals of Covid-19. This feedback was obtained through a Consotium administered end-of-year survey completed by all Consortium principals in the New York City cluster in late June.

The communication and support among the Consortium principals is invaluable at a time like this. Having a common purpose and common understanding of schools is powerful and has felt supportive as we figure out what remote learning and blended learning will look like. It is good to know there is a group that have similar core values to learn from and with.

Having access to experienced Consortium principals has been transformational. At the beginning of remote learning, before they even had a chance to try their plans out themselves, people shared their ideas and communication.

I have also appreciated the collaboration among principals and with the Consortium leadership. We share the same values and beliefs about education. This has laid the foundation for us to learn from each other and advocate as a group.

Principals agreed that PBAT’s also contributed to a school culture that emphasizes critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and revision – and helped keep the focus on a strong sense of community.  

As one principal put it:

Being part of the Consortium has been huge during this time. Our pedagogical model - inquiry, projects, PBATs - has allowed us to sustain engagement and learning during this time.

Another principal commented: “Our PBATs TOTALLY grounded our work. Many teachers threw other work aside completely and focused only on PBATs for the rest of the year in their classes." Importantly, students demanded this kind of move; PBATs were a familiar frame but also pushed students “to think deeply about questions and topics.” As another principal highlighted, in PBATs “tasks and assessments are authentic providing student choice, voice and connections.”

The following remarks by another principal suggests that the drive to work on PBATs stems from the culture/norms of Consortium schools as well as the internal motivation in students.

Because the PBATs are an expected rite of passage, students knew they had to work on them. (…) A large number of seniors completed and presented PBATs during remote learning - and I would imagine had we been a Regents school, we might not have had that commitment or engagement once it was known that the Regents was cancelled.

Finally, principals credit their involvement with the Consortium as helping to create a tolerance for flexibility – an attitude of trying something else if what you were doing seemed ineffective. Schools regarded this as essential as curriculum had to be adapted frequently. Being willing to move away from a business-as-usual standardized approach to respond to what is happening in your neighborhood, your city, or your country requires a level of confidence and concern that is often not encouraged by educational bureaucracies and certainly not by computerized programs. Consortium faculties showed a willingness to listen carefully to what students were saying and tried to create learning opportunities more appropriate to the moment. 

One principal drew attention to the willingness of staff to adjust to changing events outside of school:

Our teachers were amazing – they stepped up, adjusted their curriculum and made a number of agreements around schedule, grading, communication without me ever having to give a direction.

The adaptation and flexibility that are built into the Consortium’s pedagogical model served students well during uncertain Covid-19 times:

Simply put, being part of the Consortium allows us to be creative in any environment which helps to keep students engaged. It was natural for us to create our social studies curriculum based upon what was happening in our lives. We created 3 week cycles of topics, initially related to the pandemic, since that's what was on everyone's mind. (E.g. Should there be an essential workers draft to even out the inequality in who was an "essential" worker and who was allowed to work from home) When students requested topics unrelated to the pandemic, we were able to shift - studying how to create more gender equality in American politics (should the major parties agree to only run a female candidate for president in 2024?), and then, during the last few weeks, studying race and racism in America, with a focus on the manner of protest and change (What is the most effective form of protest?).

The 3 week cycle, which was derived from Looking for an Argument?, a class taught across Consortium schools before the shut-down, was helpful, in that it allowed students to rejoin the class if they'd had to drop out for a while based on family circumstances (usually related to COVID).That we have been able to create our courses around student interest made much of the remote learning easier and more successful.

As we move into a unsettled future, Consortium schools can, as they have so far, rely on certain unique strengths: a reservoir of connections to students, a collaborative culture, and a nimble response. However, remote learning will continue to pose many daunting challenges, well beyond the acquisition of devices and access to the internet.   

As Consortium teachers will tell you: even the most progressive adaption of remote learning falls far short of replacing engaged and vibrant live teaching and learning. One teacher summed it up this way:

I want school to be a place where students’ voices are heard, their interests explored, their skills developed and their horizons expanded. A technology that reduces community, restricts discussion and minimizes collaboration can only make a bad situation worse. Downgrading person to person contact will have serious consequences for our democracy.

And finally, we must also be prepared to resist pressure from those anxious to promote a centrally-managed computerized instruction as a justifiable response to Covid-19 and fiscal austerity.


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