As I have watched building and district administrators pivot to support students during COVID-19, I have often thought about my time as a district administrator. I worked as a director and assistant superintendent in three districts with very different boards of education. Annually, I was responsible for reporting academic achievement to the board. If I had to do that now, I’d have to rethink a lot of what had become rote for me.
COVID has changed the way we teach, interact with families, and measure academics. Therefore, we have to change the way we report to our board. Here are a few tips I hope you’ll find useful this January.
1. Provide a context for the data
Pre-COVID, I used the state assessment as a common comparison metric for my board presentation. I would show our achievement scores on the state test compared to the state average, and I would show growth comparisons as well. But, as you know, state testing was cancelled in 2020 and many states are currently making decisions about 2021. If I were presenting to a board this January, I would need to use national data as my comparison metric.
In addition to using national data, it’s important to include COVID vulnerabilities in your narrative, particularly in the section of your report on subgroups, so your board gets a more accurate picture of how pandemic learning has affected students. Research about student learning during COVID has shown that students in grades 3–8 are performing about as well as they normally do in reading, but our early learners are at risk of learning loss, or of not learning the skills they need in the first place. In math, we have seen a loss of 5–10 percentile points. Furthermore, our most vulnerable students are more likely to be missing from fall 2020 data nationally.
2. Revisit the timeline for interrupted learning
Board of education members may be familiar with summer learning loss, and a smaller number might be familiar with learning loss caused by significant weather events, including tornadoes, hurricanes, or snow. However, learning loss in the spring and fall has been exacerbated by a variety of factors: school closures; transitions from on-site to remote and/or hybrid models; technology inequities; trauma; and financial insecurity. We may not fully understand the interruptions and their impact for years.
When I was a district administrator, we had a grade level across the district that was “that class.” They had increased behavior issues and struggled academically. We first noticed this across elementary schools, but once the students came together in our two middle schools, their academic and behavioral difficulties were alarming. As we worked to identify necessary interventions for these students, I was also trying to understand why these issues were present in the first place.
I analyzed data including reading assessments, state assessments, and behavior and attendance data. The concerns with the class had been present since the fall of their kindergarten year. In 2001. That’s when we had our aha moment. This was the kindergarten class that started school right before September 11th. Although my district was in Missouri, our schools were located close to Lambert International Airport. Parents and staff had family members working for the airlines, and the skies were eerily quiet after 9/11. Although school wasn’t cancelled, our children had been impacted by 9/11. There was a level of fear for everyone with loved ones who worked for the airport and airlines. We saw the results of 9/11 clearly in this kindergarten class. These students were just beginning their formal school journey, so the traumatic events disrupted their learning, and we continued to see the results in both academics and behaviors throughout their time with us.
I shared this story because I think it’s important to communicate about COVID disruptions quantitatively and concretely. Reiterate that your district is making decisions in the best interest of your students and that all staff are working to support students, regardless of the educational context. If possible, track any changes in the context of the time decisions are made. Here’s an example.
We know there’s an increased impact on marginalized populations, so consider tracking attendance and enrollment data during each COVID transition by race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and special services, like for students with IEPs and English language learners.
3. Emphasize fall as a restart benchmark
Comparing any data from 2019–2020 or 2020–2021 to previous years should be done cautiously. Be sure to frame fall 2020 as a data restart for tracking longitudinal data. That said, it’s important to know your board of education. I had a board of education that would have agreed that a fall restart was logical, and with this board, I would have shown the data for fall 2020 as a new benchmark. I also had a board that would have thought this strategy was “hiding” the real data. For them, I would have included historical data, but I would have been sure to reinforce the COVID context. Knowing the expectations of your board of education is critical.
4. Emphasize growth
For the board of education that insists on a longitudinal review of data, there are a few options, depending on your data sources. If you have the ability to show projected proficiency, include that as a reference point. Most importantly, showcase the growth that students are making. Although school has been repeatedly disrupted, teachers have still been able to foster academic growth and that should be celebrated. Here’s an example.
In addition, if you’re able, break down achievement and growth by strands instead of overall subject. In math, for example, statistics and probability could be set as a strand. This approach is more powerful in terms of aligning student achievement to interrupted learning. In your report to the board, you can then frame learning loss in terms of the strands. For example, you might say something like this: “Although we are seeing an overall decrease in math scores, when we analyze the goal areas, we clearly see the loss is predominantly in statistics and probability. This is a strand that is taught in fourth quarter, so we know the transition to remote learning in the spring of 2020 had the greatest impact on this strand.”
5. Reiterate the importance of social-emotional and socioeconomic supports
Everyone’s roles have adjusted during COVID to better support students. Some transportation staff are now delivering food while food service workers have changed their menus to serve grab and go. Counselors have had to continuously change schedules and meet with students virtually. Social workers have had to supply kids with necessities, like winter coats. Principals have had to restructure school numerous times, and teachers have completely changed their modes of instruction repeatedly.
These social-emotional and socioeconomic supports aren’t just to ensure students are present, fed, and warm. They are critical to ensure that students can keep learning. Educators understand that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs requires students to have basic, psychological, and self-esteem needs fulfilled in order to support learning. If your board of education has not connected the support structures to academics, you should. Consider a chart or bulleted list that delineates the changes needed to adjust for the pandemic, like this.
6. Remember that the audience is broader than the board of education
The primary audience for a board report is the board of education, of course, but there are secondary audiences, including staff, community members, and the media. Since reports are done in an open session, statements made verbally and in the written reports may be shared with teachers. So be sure to celebrate the tremendous work that has been done. Include all necessary information, even if there is some data that’s unflattering or hard to share. It’s important to be truthful and prepared to answer difficult questions.
7. Present a plan to address COVID impacts
When my daughter’s college went remote in the spring, she asked me if COVID-19 was her generation’s 9/11. I responded that COVID will have a much greater impact; it is altering life for everyone and has resulted in many more deaths. Although districts may not know all the impacts that will need to be addressed, we need to begin planning now.
In the conclusion of your board report, include what is currently being done to mitigate learning loss and support students and how the district will continue to be responsive to student needs. Talk about your commitment to using formative assessment data to make informed decisions, and remind everyone not to jump to the conclusion that a student who isn’t engaged during on-site learning is disengaged when remote. Some students who struggle in traditional school have found success remotely, and some students who thrive in traditional school have struggled remotely. Therefore, make instructional and programmatic decisions based on data, not assumptions, and be responsive to student needs.
If you have the data, analyze learning loss and opportunity gaps at the goal level. In reading, you may realize that students have continued to make progress in literature and vocabulary, but they have lost ground in informational text. In math, students may have losses in statistics and data, but they may still be relatively on track in numbers and operation, algebraic thinking, and geometry. Review the scope and sequence of your curriculum and determine how you will catch up students who have learning loss. For severe learning loss, this may take more than one year. However, when addressing learning loss, do not simply reteach the curriculum that was taught during remote learning. Instead, provide scaffolding for students. Decreasing expectations could lead to learning loss for an entire generation. In the conclusion of the report, bullet or number the goals for the coming year. This provides a starting point for the report for the following year and creates a responsive planning cycle.
As a district administrator, you have done a tremendous amount of work to support your students, families, and staff. I always found that reports to the board of education, although daunting to prepare, gave me a sense of accomplishment for the prior year and provided a road map for the next. This year has felt like the longest year ever and although you may not have accomplished what was on your strategic plan, be sure to celebrate all that you have accomplished and done to continue the education of your students.