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Perspective | High-growth learning potential during COVID-19: Where North Carolina stands

As Public Impact’s co-presidents, we’re pleased to have our organization collaborate with EdNC on the 1.0 version of the NC District Response to COVID-19 School Closures Database, based on CRPE’s national database.

What do the data tell us so far? We took a close look to summarize districts’ readiness to serve students and teachers at home, compare that readiness to research about what works, and suggest steps for leaders to help North Carolina teachers and students succeed in these conditions. 

Our finding in a nutshell: Very few of the state’s 115 districts are ready to provide high-growth student learning with students and teachers at home. How could they be? None of the districts expected this situation, but now that it may be here to stay for a while, it’s time to address some missing elements: technology to connect all students with teachers, protocols for using technology well, and the support teachers need to ensure high-growth learning—especially for our most vulnerable students.

We started analyzing the data with a belief that has guided us through two decades of work: All students can make high learning growth, despite enormous challenges—if they and their educators have the right guidance and resources. Both research and the stories of educators who have made it happen in the most difficult of circumstances tell us this.

Let’s start with research about what works, and what doesn’t.

Decades of research on effective schools found a handful of factors that distinguish the schools—including high-poverty schools—where students learn more: a clear mission focused on student learning, high expectations that all students can learn, frequent monitoring of student progress, rapid adjustment of instruction when students are stalled or ready to leap ahead, a safe and orderly environment, and a strong home-school connection.

In addition, research has repeatedly shown that teacher effectiveness and principal effectiveness are the two in-school factors most correlated with learning growth. While that effectiveness tends to fall on a classic “bell curve,” rigorous third-party research of Opportunity Culture (a Public Impact initiative) shows that having a teacher who achieved prior high student learning growth lead a small team disrupts that bell curve and, on average, helps all teachers produce student learning growth more like the best.

Research about online learning is less uplifting: While some highly self-directed or well-supported students thrive online, overall, online-only learning (with little or no face-to-face contact with teachers) has failed students. Using a massive national data set, Stanford researchers found that in a single year, online students, on average, lost 80 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math compared with students in traditional schools. Vulnerable students fared even more poorly: English language learners lost 230 days in math. Low-income students lost 266. Students in special education lost 288 days.

When we studied schools successfully blending digital and in-person learning with the Christensen Institute in 2018, personal interaction between students and teachers, in small groups or one on one, and personal interaction among the adults serving each student were the most common practices in the data set. Student work told teachers what students knew. But only these personal interactions told teachers why a student was stalled or excelling.

What are the lessons for North Carolina? Districts with students and teachers at home should aim to replicate the elements of effective in-person schools and avoid the pitfalls of online-only learning. They should try to replicate the face-to-face teacher-student connection that in-person learning provides as closely as possible. And they should rapidly adopt small-team leadership by high-growth teachers who can help colleagues excel in challenging circumstances.

State leaders must provide the guidance, resources and support to help districts:

  1. Provide a laptop, high-speed internet, and technical support for every student and teacher, using federal stimulus money, repurposed state funds, and the power of business and community leaders—as is happening now in Indianapolis, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
  2. Set clear expectations for the frequency, duration, and nature of videoconference learning. That should include daily face-to-face connections between the teacher and each student, for age-appropriate times in groups small enough to engage emotionally (for example, one teacher with up to 15 students). Guidelines for when technical challenges arise are essential, as are videoconference safety rules. (See our starting recommendations here.)
  3. Expand small-team leadership by high-growth teachers, or “multi-classroom leaders,” rapidly, so that all teachers are part of a team getting strong instructional guidance and support and frequent collaboration. Team teachers can also back one another up when one teacher is sick or taking care of a loved one.

As of late April, how close are districts to meeting these goals?  The database tells us:

  • Devices: 34% of district plans include distributing devices to all students. Another 30% are getting devices to some students. That leaves 36% of districts with no stated plan to equip students.
  • Internet access: 57% of districts are providing some kind of internet access to students. But only 16% of those are ensuring access in students’ homes. Another 41% are setting up hot spots somewhere in the community. Fully 43% have no stated plan to provide access.
  • Synchronous teaching: Almost 60% of district plans don’t require any “synchronous” instruction for students—that is, real-time, face-to-face teaching, as opposed to recorded lessons or worksheets—and only 15% require it for all grades.

Equity gaps are significant. Among districts with the highest percentages of students of color, for example, only 7% require synchronous learning for all grades—less than half the statewide percentage. The largest districts are at least four times more likely than the smallest ones to distribute devices to all students (46% versus 11%).  And the highest-wealth districts are five times more likely than the lowest-wealth districts to ensure in-home internet access (26% versus 5%).

In addition, while numbers are growing, far too few North Carolina districts have the small-team instructional leadership needed to help all teachers succeed.

There’s still a lot to learn about how to make school-at-home as effective as possible. We’ve begun to examine how Opportunity Culture schools with multi-classroom leaders are responding, and we’re very excited to work with EdNC to document what’s happening statewide.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the highest-wealth districts are more than five times more likely than the lowest-wealth districts to ensure in-home internet access (46% versus 5%). This sentence has been corrected to say that the highest-wealth districts are five times more likely than the lowest-wealth districts to ensure in-home internet access (26% versus 5%).

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel are the co-directors of Public Impact and founders of the Opportunity Culture initiative.