Research And Evidence Can Help Guide Teachers During The Pandemic

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 guests today are Sara Kerr, Vice President of Education Policy Implementation at Results for America, and Nate Schwartz, Professor of Practice at Brown Universitys Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

Teachers are used to playing many different roles, but this year they are facing the most complex challenges of their careers. They are being asked to be public health experts. Tech support specialists. Social workers to families reeling from the effects of layoffs and illness. Masters of distance learning and trauma-responsive educational practices. And they are being asked to take on these new responsibilities against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country, looming budget cuts for many school districts, and a hyper-polarized political debate over the return to school.

To make any of this possible, educators need to be armed with the best available science, data, and evidence, not only about the operational challenges of reopening that have dominated the news cycle but also about how to to meet the increasingly complex social-emotional and academic needs of students and their families. They dont have time to sift through decades of academic papers for answers. Fortunately, the nations education researchers are eager and ready to help.

This summer, our two organizations – the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and Results for America – joined with researchers from top academic institutions across the country to launch the EdResearch for Recovery Project. Our goal: To provide short, accessible, rapid-turnaround briefs full of actionable, evidence-based insights to help guide educators and other decision-makers as they respond to and recover from COVID-related challenges.

We began this spring by crowdsourcing a list of the most urgent questions from state and local education officials, teachers, parents and other advocates. We then asked leading experts in these specific topics to quickly but rigorously synthesize the research, and identify strategies to consider (or avoid) to best support students, teachers, families and communities during this ongoing crisis.

While some of the challenges educators face today are unprecedented, we can learn lessons from research, including evidence generated after previous crises that disrupted school. Here are just a few examples:

Learning loss can be reduced - with the right supports: Evidence suggests that high-dosage tutoring closely tied to classroom contentacceleration” academies aimed at struggling students, double-dose math classesstrong systems to spot early student warning signs and well-conducted school-based social-emotional interventions can significantly help students who have fallen farthest behind catch up. Targeted support strategies for families of younger students, including the right set of take-home books and text messages focused on high-leverage literacy practices, can meaningfully supplement school curricula.

For online instruction to be successful, teachers need time and resources to build out a different kind of pedagogy than exists for in-person learning: The quality of distance learning depends on the extent to which schools and teachers can shift to new modes of instruction; remote plans will likely be unsuccessful if they require students to watch expository instruction for multiple hours each day. Flipped classroom interventions offer a potential model for the kinds of shifts that are likely to be necessary. In such models, synchronous class time is built around small-group peer interactions and direct teacher-to-student feedback. Because the social aspects of learning are so crucial, students need reserved time in the schedule to connect socially in ways that build community and engagement. And teachers need additional room in their schedules to allow for ongoing professional development and increased instructional planning responsibilities.

Special educators can ensure students with disabilities receive the support and services they need - even remotely: Evidence suggests that focusing special educators’ time on small-group or one-to-one interventions three to five times per week, coupled with regular progress monitoring, can help students with disabilities build their reading and math skills. If implemented effectively, these academic and behavioral interventions can be successfully delivered in a distance learning setting. Co-teaching strategies are unlikely to sufficiently meet students with disabilities' current needs.

The pandemic has increased needs among some of our most vulnerable student groups and schools need to take purposeful action to address the shifting landscape: For the growing population of students in immigrant families, new modes of schooling create new concerns and exacerbate existing challenges around privacy and immigration status. In addition to ensuring students’ privacy protection online, some school systems are taking proactive steps to affirmatively demonstrate their commitment to inclusion and support in ways that encourage student engagement and learning. Student homelessness was increasing even pre-pandemic. Following the most recent economic downturn, which has disproportionately affected students of color, schools will need to prioritize proactive identification of students who are eligible for supports under the McKinney-Vento act, offering frequent opportunities to update housing forms and identifying networks of trusted adults who can work with students in ways that incorporate their own expertise and lived experiences.

You can find more insights in our briefs on improving the quality of distance and blended learningsupports for immigrant-origin studentsresponsibly reducing school budgets, addressing learning loss, providing broad-based academic supports for all students, supporting students experiencing homelessness, supporting students with disabilities, helping high school students transition to college and career, and sustaining teacher training during COVID-19. Upcoming briefs will highlight what research tells us about social and emotional learning, rebuilding a positive school climate, reducing the dropout rate, adapting data systems to meet current needs, supporting teachers and staff facing challenges outside the classroom, and assisting students in juvenile detention systems and students in foster care. 

Taken together, we hope these briefs can serve as conversation starters, providing practitioners and policymakers with useful, relevant evidence to inform debates and decisions about how to best support teachers, students, and their families during the 2020-21 school year and beyond. We dont pretend that these briefs hold the all the answers to the myriad questions and challenges schools face in this moment, but we do believe that if data and evidence have a place at the tables where decisions are made, and are centered alongside teacher, student, and family voice, students are more likely to have the academic and social-emotional support they need to manage and even thrive during this unusual school year. 

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