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Be flexible: Have multiple plans for Back-to-School

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs on using your assessment data to address learning gaps during the 2020–2021 school year. To access the complete series, click here.

“Flexibility is nothing new for educators. It’s a way of life.”

This statement is from one of our Renaissance colleagues, a former district administrator who used to keep a green Gumby figure on her desk (a familiar and oh-so-flexible figure). But in our current environment, conversations about “being flexible” feel very different. As we look ahead to fall, we see a lot of unknowns—but we can be sure that the new school year will look very different from the “back to schools” we’ve experienced in the past.

Who had any idea how much change 2019–2020 would bring, and how quickly? In a matter of weeks, the academic year was transformed from something fairly typical into something we’ve never seen before. As schools suddenly closed, we all had to become very flexible very quickly—and with that flexibility, we became increasingly responsive.

To be sure, Back-to-School (BTS) 2020 won’t involve “business as usual.” Reopening schools will require flexibility in day-to-day operations, and responsiveness to student and teacher needs in a still-evolving learning environment. But with the right planning, we can establish reasonable expectations for accelerating student learning—which, in turn, will reassure both families and the community.

Planning for the unknown

With flexibility and responsiveness in mind, school and district leaders across the country are planning for multiple scenarios. In fact, many have a Plan A, a Plan B, and even a Plan C. For example, Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, has suggested options including staggered school days or extended hours to reduce class size. Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, is looking toward a hybrid model where students participate in both distance and face-to-face learning. Just as a hybrid car switches between equally powerful fuel sources based on driving conditions, so instruction, assessment, and engagement would be equally powered by face-to-face and distance learning, as the content demands.

A responsive plan for BTS 2020 must also consider that the upcoming academic year—while challenging—will not necessarily be characterized by learning loss and educational despair, as some commentators have suggested. Eric Gordon, the Cleveland schools chief, recently noted that “just because a student would’ve learned something in eighth grade in a normal year doesn’t mean they can’t learn it in ninth grade in this new world.”

“New things will come out of this. We’re optimistic,” he added.

Answering critical questions

New practices and procedures will clearly be necessary for BTS 2020. Educational technology companies, like school and district leaders, must also focus on flexibility and responsiveness. As our Renaissance colleague Din Heiman writes, there has never been a time when educators and learners relied so heavily on technology. And at Renaissance, we’re responding.

How so?

The one absolute in all of this is the need—now more than ever—to quickly and efficiently ascertain where students are in terms of learning and achievement. While we can anticipate an appreciable amount of “learning loss” and larger gaps in performance due to recent school closures, we know what we need: Definitive answers about where students are and how we can move them forward in their learning.

While summative assessments have been cancelled and the use of interim assessment has dropped drastically this spring, when we face the challenges of BTS 2020, we will be anxious for and will desperately need the information that interim assessments provide.

The first step is familiar: Screen all students. In the fall of 2019, we called this “what we do at the beginning of every school year.” For BTS 2020, we now know to label this “screen-students-at-school” protocol “Plan A.” BTS 2020 also requires a “Plan B”—an option to administer Star Assessments remotely in order to understand where students are and where they need to grow.

In other words, you need a definitive starting point from which to design a reasonable plan to accelerate learning. We understand this, and we’re here to help.

Administering Star Assessments remotely

Beginning in March 2020, Renaissance initiated support for school and district leaders in the remote administration of Star. This support included guidelines and best practices to establish test fidelity, and resources for administrators and faculty. In addition, we provided districts with resources to share with families to ensure they understand why and how we are assessing their children—and guidelines for those who may be proctoring the remote test administration. Our best practices include video monitoring of students as they test (as modeled in the video below) and narrow test windows for each student.

We have updated these resources to ensure they remain relevant for summer and BTS 2020.

Video monitoring during a remote testing session

Staying strong in uncertain times

Flexibility requires great strength, but—as we noted in our previous blog—you already have tools and resources to accomplish this. Be flexible in planning, yet strong in purpose: To ascertain as quickly and efficiently as possible where your students are and how best to move them forward.

In physical endeavors, the greater your strength, the more you can relax your muscles while still maintaining force. This builds even greater flexibility, especially when working among extreme ranges of motion. Even though “relaxing” seems out of the question for BTS 2020, “maintaining force” is very much on point.

BTS 2020 holds the potential for extreme ranges in learning gains or losses, in day-to-day schedules, in equitable access to distance-learning tools, and to ongoing professional learning. In each case, we must remain flexible to the point that we can relax while still maintaining the force required to address each of these issues.

To support greater strength and flexibility, we’ll close with a list of six points to ponder as you plan for BTS 2020.

  • We’ll need to navigate a new normal: hybrid learning. What challenges does this model present? Training teachers, staggering schedules, and designing instruction are just a few. The first step is to envision multiple hybrid scenarios when developing your plans. The key to providing education in the new normal is reliable internet connectivity; equity and access are non-negotiable and must be part of every plan. What resources are available to your school or district to support expansion and accountability for hybrid learning?
  • We’ll need to rethink the “typical” school day. Supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) and developing health protocols will be coordinated with state and local health officials as part of a unified public-health strategy. Social distancing is a complex challenge. Hybrid learning can be utilized, but the entire community will be involved in daily life changes. Solicit input from all groups for support. Bus transportation, meal provision and delivery, and extracurricular activities will likely need to be restructured.
  • We’ll need to group students in new and different ways. As you assess students upon return, think of innovative ways to group them. Perhaps low-scoring third graders could be grouped with high-scoring second graders. How would this play out in secondary schools? This could be your initial step to implementing a mastery model, and Renaissance is here with mastery data for you.
  • We’ll need to be ready for curriculum challenges throughout the school year. Meeting students where they are requires intervention and enrichment activities, but this is what you do every day, in every school year. Renaissance provides focus skills to help you narrow instruction by grade level and domain, so students acquire foundational knowledge to move forward. Request teacher input on cross-curricular instruction. Is it possible to blend math with science? Social studies with ELA? We offer ideas for cross-curricular connections in the 2020 edition of the What Kids Are Reading report.
  • We’ll need to prepare for periodic school closures. One of your scenarios should address seamless transfer of instruction from classroom to online learning. Depending on the length of these closures, consider remote administration of Star Assessments, with uninterrupted progress monitoring.
  • We’ll need—more than ever—to inspire confidence in our learners. Regardless of whether school buildings reopen, begin the new school year by checking each student’s “vital signs.” Offer reassurance and confidence that educators are ready to support each learner as you assess what each one needs for academic success—and for social and emotional well-being.

In our next blog, we’ll continue the discussion by addressing the next key step: getting each student’s baseline for BTS 2020. Once you’ve established your starting point and identified students’ instructional needs, you can move more quickly into planning high-impact daily instruction.

Which metrics are critical for establishing a baseline? Read the next blog in this series for the answer, along with helpful insights on key Star reports.

References

Ayala, E. (2020). What will school look like in August? Not business as usual, Dallas superintendent says. Retrieved from: https://www.dallasnews.com/news/education/2020/05/04/what-will-school-look-like-in-august-not-business-as-usual-dallas-superintendent-says/
Bailey, J., & Hess, F. (2020). A blueprint for reopening this fall: What will it take to get schools ready? Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/05/01/a-blueprint-for-reopening-this-fall-what.html
Chappuis, J. (2015). Seven strategies of assessment for learning. 2nd ed. New York, Pearson.
Gonser, S. (2020). School leaders debate solutions for an uncertain 2020-21. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/school-leaders-debate-solutions-uncertain-2020-21
Heiman, D. (2020). Nobody designed edtech tools for this crisis. Here’s why yours must evolve. Retrieved from: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-05-05-nobody-designed-edtech-tools-for-this-crisis-here-s-why-yours-must-evolve
Krouse, P. (2020). What might your child’s school look like when it reopens? Retrieved from: https://www.cleveland.com/news/2020/04/what-might-your-childs-school-look-like-when-it-reopens.html
Ralph, M. (2020). Teaching strategies of award-winning online instructors. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/teaching-strategies-award-winning-online-instructors
Zalaznick, M. (2020). Online? In-person? How fall 2020 is taking shape for schools. Retrieved from: https://districtadministration.com/online-in-person-how-fall-2020-is-taking-shape-for-schools

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