April 23, 2020

3 Steps a Leader Can Take To Make Remote Learning Better

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

10th Amendment

Our Decentralized K12 System

We can thank the 10th Amendment for the challenges we’re facing today in providing school at home. The patchwork of responses to the pandemic starkly shows us how decentralized our education system is. The president and governors as well as governors and mayors are battling over control, and the lack of clarity from the school districts and states is unnerving to parents. As titans clash, parents wonder, “Will the classes be graded? Pass|Fail? Something else?” Some places are still “not grading work” (and saying it “doesn’t count”). The overarching fear is that we will not return to full-time “in-person” schooling in the fall, and that we’ll start a new school year without summative data on how students performed this year.

Based on interviews I’ve conducted with parents, with educators in district and charter schools as well as in higher education, and with education technology innovators, I’ve discovered that the economic fall-out we’re witnessing is quietly correlating with declines in student growth and widening our entrenched equity issues. Clearly some of the most critical issues for many students and families are very fundamental: access to food, shelter, and medical care; homes free from violence; the fact that siblings of essential workers are having to care for each other. There are also remote learning challenges cut across all student and family backgrounds. Through my many conversations, I’ve identified 3 current pain points caused by our education system’s decentralization. I’ll follow those pain points with 3 steps leaders can take to remediate the problems.


3 Pain Points

1. Parent Communication

The first pain point is communications to parents and families are not consistent across a school, let alone a school district or charter network. A parent from Seattle sent me an email describing the predicament at his school.

On the Facebook page for my son’s Middle School I’m seeing a lot of frustrated parents: Teachers are trying, but the messages are inconsistent. Some parents are trying to track down different emails, from some teachers, not from others, arriving throughout the week, some are just hello, some are about a video call, and lots in between. Some schools are organizing things so that every Sunday there is a push onto the online platform of expected assignments that week—no two schools in the District are the same.

2. Content: What Students Are Being Asked to Do

The second pain point is the volume and quality of content. We see that teachers are working harder than ever. Yet, some teachers are pushing out lots of content—and they’re getting the attention of the students—while other teachers are listing items and expecting students to figure it out. Parents are frustrated by lack of accountability. While a principal says,“don’t spend more than 90-120 minutes of school work a day,” some teachers are “piling on hours of work” while kids are unclear when their materials have been accepted for grading or review. And not to be forgotten: there are lots of other interface issues. Some parents complain the online systems are available if you have previously registered, but difficult to get to if you have not.

The lack of consistent communication from teacher to teacher in a school, and from school to school in a district, is frustrating parents who are not experienced with helping their children. Technology adoption by teachers is really hard; most are not digital natives, though a few are. Heather, a library media specialist in Connecticut says, “[This] leads to lots of uneven experiences. Parents are understanding and calm in many cases, but have started ‘to lose it’ in some instances because they are… frustrated by lack of support and worried about what will happen in the fall.” In some districts there are dashboards for assignments (“student dashboards”) while in others there is no dashboard that tells a parent where to go and what to do.

3. Clarity and Coherence

The final pain point is coherence. Given that many states are closing schools through the end of the year, it’s up to the district superintendent and head of an independent or charter school to set expectations for remote learning and design a coherent plan to execute the strategy. Present across the United States is a continuum of distance learning: from virtual school day, 9am-2pm, attendance taken, direct instruction, new material and an accessible teacher—to plans tantamount to early summer vacation—and anywhere in between. What a district superintendent asks of their principals and teachers informs their approach. What districts are seeing is parents struggling—whether due to a lost job or challenges understanding the technology to which their children are accustomed. And teachers, who are now teaching to the audience of a family rather than a class of 10 year olds, are learning as they go.


3 Steps Leaders Can Take

Remote learning has revealed the cracks in our educational system, and it’s time to tighten up. The following are three recommendations for district and school leaders.

1. Walk

The first step is to walk, even crawl, in the digital footsteps of our students. Similar to “shadowing a student for the day,” we start by doing the work of a few students by grade, by classroom, and by school. This experience will allow us to extrapolate from the experiences of many. Ten years ago, Dr. Kevin Clark, a professor and children’s media consultant realized the images for African Americans in most video games sent negative messages to boys and girls of color. This led him to design for kids of color rather than wait for other designers to do that. Dr. Clark’s key message: you must understand who you are designing the content for; this means both actively experiencing what students are taking in and designing for what you want them to, rather than passively accepting the present.

2. Curate

The second step is for a district to curate what students, caregivers, and teachers are being asked to do. The decisions that the district leader must make are: 

(1) what resources are provided by district, whether content that is new to students or only review; 

(2) what instruction is provided by teachers, including synchronous or asynchronous teaching within defined instructional minutes; 

(3) supports for students with disabilities and English Language learners; 

(4) if/how teachers check in directly with students; 

(5) the method or whether attendance is tracked; and, 

(6) continued device distribution with reconfiguration for home use and access to WiFi.

Some high-performing northeast charter schools like Uncommon and Success Academy, for example, are both teaching new content and running virtual classrooms, as are the District of Columbia Public Schools

3. Accept and Connect

The final step is to do what Denver Public Schools did; accept variance by school and by classroom but make connections across district, schools, and grade levels so the burden doesn’t fall to a single teacher, parent or caregiver. School leaders must also recognize that parents are working hard to ensure kids are on-line, often sacrificing their devices for their kids to use. The library media specialist from Connecticut recommends to both district and charter leaders, “Be flexible. Work with the technology you’ve been working with already; encourage collaboration across the district and grade levels so families can reach out to each other (and not just teachers); and, stick to the calendar!” She adds, “My teachers are so smart. Our next writing unit is on journalism and we are reporting on the good news happening in our world.”

Finally, let’s say thank you. Denver is taking time to acknowledge the creativity and genius of our educators like elementary schoolteacher Joe Shoemaker and Creation LAB educator Reeves Macdonald, who are balancing both their home lives and work lives. I agree with Chi Tschang, Regional Superintendent at Achievement First, who asserts, “we can do almost anything we do virtually that we can do in person.” He and his team are keeping track of what AF is doing BETTER during this time including increased family engagement, more frequent assessment of student work, and teacher-led innovation. As we consider this new world of remote learning extending to and through the Fall, let’s consider what we are gaining in addition to what we have “lost.” This may just be the change we have been looking for to shake up our centuries’ stagnant education system. Our digital natives are navigating the new world faster than we are; our struggle is their progress. 


Erin McMahon is an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School who studies the impact of human capital on school reform. She recently moderated a panel on Ed Tech, Disrupted: the future of EdTech in the wake of the Coronavirus in which panelists asked and answered, “In what ways has COVID-19 changed education forever? Erin is the former CAO of the KIPP Foundation and Associate Chief of Academics for Denver Public Schools.

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