3 must-haves for school improvement plans following COVID-19

We all need something—anything—to make the last impossibly difficult year of COVID-19 learning worth it. What if one of the big rewards at the end of all of this is a bolder, more effective approach to school improvement?

I have been part of the school improvement process in several districts for over 20 years. I have been surprised at the number of changes that have been halted because leadership was concerned about opposition. It seems that the one thing that has been consistent in every school improvement effort I’ve been a part of is the clash between research on best practices and the “sacred cows.” Our ability to pivot quickly during COVID-19 may have made the sacred cows less sacred.

A frustrating example

A few years ago, a best practice we were attempting to implement in a district in Missouri, where I live, was research-based school start times. Like in many districts, high school started first, at 7:30 a.m., and elementary schools started last, at 9 a.m. As part of our school improvement process, we created a subcommittee to research school start times with the hope of possibly pushing high school start times out to 9 a.m. We even had committee members attend the Adolescent Sleep, Health, and School Start Times National Conference.

With irrefutable evidence about what was best for student health, we began working to address critical roadblocks: sports, childcare, and transportation. After almost two years of work, we were ready to bring our solution to the board. But even though we had had parents, administrators, and community members as part of the planning process, and even though we had shared our progress with the board and community members frequently every step of the way, as we prepared to present our changes to the board, we were stopped. Some principals and board members were fearful that we were attacking too many sacred cows at once.

When schools closed due to COVID in March 2020, schools and districts made huge changes overnight. Schools went remote, districts purchased technology and trained teachers in remote instruction, and districts mobilized departments to provide food and technology support for students. The very district I was working with on that start times project went remote and mostly asynchronous for its high school students. I don’t think anyone used a formal school improvement process because there just wasn’t time; needs had to be addressed immediately.

After schools reopen in the fall (we hope!), we need to reinvigorate the school improvement process. We need to remind all stakeholders that the process should be guided by research, best practices, and student needs. These three goals tell us that our focus should be on equity, flexible learning time, and grading reform.

1. Equity

Lack of equity has been simmering below the surface for years. Many schools and districts began taking steps to ensure more equitable practices long before school closures. Though COVID-19 brought to the surface the lack of equity in technology and food availability, we continue to see diverse aspects of history and literacy isolated to Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and other narrow time frames that provide slivers of the breadth of individuals who have impacted our country.

Districts have been working to include more voices in materials, but it is time we go beyond that. We need to ensure that every curriculum and resource provides windows and mirrors for our students. As such, we need to review all of the “must-reads” written by dead, white, European males and choose literature that is interesting and relevant to our students. As we adopt textbooks, we should choose materials that are inclusive of the contributions of all and do not relegate women and people of color to small boxes in each chapter.

As we review our content, we should also review our processes. We must constantly second guess our methods and challenge ourselves to embrace anti-racist practices. In two of my districts, we had testing gatekeepers for students to take advanced classes, for example. When we removed them, we saw more diverse enrollment. Although many teachers thought our students of color were not ready for the advanced track, that proved to be false. Similarly, many of the processes in school are learned generationally. We need to provide explicit instruction to all students about post-secondary options that include college as well as trade schools. It is critical that systems make access explicit.

I encourage you to read “Anti-racism in the classroom: A primer” by Boston educator Casey Andrews as you take on this important work.

2. Flexible learning time

COVID-19 forced schools to rethink time. Many initially tried to provide the same amount of instructional hours remotely as they had offered in person. And then we learned about Zoom fatigue. Many schools then shifted to complement time in live remote learning with office hours, small group time, independent work time, and asynchronous learning. In a typical classroom, instruction moves from whole group to small group to independent time frequently, so this change wasn’t as unconventional as it might have seemed. As we continue to rethink learning time in the future, we should reconsider how students use small group or independent time. Schools could consider cross-grade enrichment or support times as well.

At the high school level in particular, many schools continue to award credits based on the Carnegie Unit, which was created in 1906 to provide a common method for awarding credit. Now that we have educational standards, we should move beyond seat time. Credit should be awarded when students have shown mastery of standards. Students who need more time to master standards should be given the scaffolds they need to meet grade-level standards, and students who master standards quickly should be permitted to move on to different courses.

Many parents and teachers applauded the slowdown of student schedules during COVID-19. It would be a shame to jump back to overscheduling them just because we can. We have shown the ability to flex to meet needs during COVID, and we can continue to use these structures to better meet individual student needs moving forward.

3. Grading reform

When schools went remote, some educators were frustrated with how to assign grades. Some of their complaints were related to antiquated assessment practices that are still in place.

Most educators, families, and students would agree that grades should communicate student progress. However, as my colleague Lindsay Prendergast explains in her post “3 ways to make the switch to grading for learning,” the A–F grading system, which has been used for over one hundred years, fails to communicate progress relative to standards, and it can be impacted by non-academic behaviors including attendance, behavior, and effort.

Prior to the pandemic, some elementary systems had transitioned to standards-based grading, in which students are assigned a mark based on their mastery of standards. Schools with standards-based grading practices in place seem to have had greater success in the transition to remote learning.

Changing grading practices has been slower for secondary grades. In the past, high school teachers I supervised argued that if students were not “rewarded” with points for completing assignments, they wouldn’t do them. I always argued that if we didn’t use points as a carrot, we would not need to reward them! Instead, we used Ken O’Connor’s “15 fixes for broken grades” to begin to analyze our grading practices.

Long term, schools should be reviewing their grading practices as part of their larger school improvement efforts. They should consider how to transition their grading practices to communicate academic progress, and they should remove attendance, behavior, and effort to separate reporting systems.

Keep your eye on the prize

School improvement can be an incredibly difficult process. There are countless stakeholders to consider, and objections to change can be intimidating and stop us in our tracks. It can also be hard to find focus, as there are so many “shiny objects” that can catch our attention during the school improvement process. I encourage you to take the silver lining of lessons learned from this COVID-19 year and put it to good use. As you and your teams transition from reacting to COVID to planning long-term improvement, keep the focus on equity, time, and grading. That will have the greatest impact on all your students.

To learn more about support available from NWEA, visit nwea.org/school-improvement.

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