At this early point in a normal school year, teachers and administrators are assessing the student population to identify those who are most “at risk.” Today, with the threat of Covid-19, the uncertainty of the school year, and the multiple educational venues like virtual, hybrid classrooms, learning centers, etc., I would say that everyone is at risk this year – not just students in your schools, but everyone. Let’s take a moment to look at the various federal and state mandates for education, virtual schools, independent study centers, hybrid schedules, etc. and how they all can create problems for every stakeholder in a school.
Let’s start with administrators. Generally, they are responsible for maintaining a safe and secure environment; leading all students to academic success; monitoring staff, attendance, behavior, and student progress and/or fulfilling obligations to students who have monitored support plans. Virtual school and the various hybrid models create problems in all of these areas. We are forced to ask ourselves many questions:
- What constitutes attendance?
- How do we monitor and report the teacher “workdays?”
- How do we monitor student progress?
- How do we ensure and document delivery of services to, and monitor and report the progress of special needs students?
- How do we provide the prerequisite safe, stable, and welcoming environment that encourages learners to learn?
- How do we build plans that can stand up to a virtual classroom setting?
Administrators are at risk because of their charge to manage systems while providing academic leadership. This is difficult in the best of times in a high performing, stable school. In a year with multiple locations, multiple configurations, and daily changes in guidance, doing all the things that are required of principals becomes a daunting task.
Teachers are at risk because they have legal and professional expectations, no matter what model, venue, or schedule they are forced to deal with. Some of these include:
- How do you build a positive climate and rapport with all students when students are learning in different locations?
- How do you provide a safe and stable learning environment for students in different locations?
- What do you do when the “best practice” that you were taught and have developed as your classroom “style” are not best in a virtual setting?
- How and what do you monitor to track learning?
- How do you provide IEP support for special needs students and document progress?
- How do you keep accurate records (e.g., attendance) when students aren’t physically present in class?
- How do you deal with planning when so little is certain? (When we come back to school? Will we have accountability testing? When will a semester or the school year end? Can I use the technology the school is using? Does the technology work as advertised? Can I make it work as advertised?)
Teachers are at risk because they have regulatory and educational responsibilities that their experience may not prepare them to deal with proficiently when students are at different locations or when instruction other than teacher-directed instruction is required.
It goes without saying that in today’s climate, students are the most at risk. Some students come to the year with “at risk” characteristics already in place:
- Attendance issues
- Behavior issues
- Lack of prior success in school
- Lack of prior success on assessments
- Lack of success or reduced performance during the spring virtual learning
- Documented IEP disability or condition
In addition, if students are put into a virtual setting or into an independent distance-learning setting, there are other variables that can act as barriers to success:
- Lack of adult supervision
- Lack of an optimum working area
- Lack of their adult’s expertise in extrication or technology
- Neighborhood or peer group attractions
- A loss of social and emotional competencies developed for a classroom setting
- Unnoticed learning or performing loss
The unsettled nature of the year and the lack of certainties about schedule, teachers, accountability, etc. can undermine student performance even when teachers have adequate plans and do a good job of extending teaching and learning work into multiple venues.
So, yes. Everyone is at risk in the current school environment. But what can we do about it?
Planning for Risk, When Everyone is at Risk
Administrators need to acknowledge the risk faced by the different stakeholders and help them find solutions for resolving the risks. This means that they must attend to the compliance and management issues because they have legal and policy ramifications, but they must spend time providing academic leadership.
· They must coordinate leadership/teacher teams to identify “at risk” concerns and provide flexible yet targeted strategies for reducing the risk. This includes working with teachers to ensure that all technologies are working as advertised and that all teachers are working with technologies as advertised, making sure that all support systems work, etc.
· Administrators must provide visible support for teachers and students during the Formative Period and provide shaping feedback to both groups when situations that need change are observed.
· Administrators need to be active participants in planning courses, units, and lessons; in assessing data in PLC discussions; and providing informed decisions about lessons and student needs.
· Administrators must attend to the Rhythm of the Learner Year (ROLY), evaluating the successes and concerns of the previous period, and actively participating in current academic leadership in planning the next phase of the learner year (the Calibrating Period).
· Above all, administrators need to keep all eyes on the goals of the Formative Period. The Formative Period isn’t about covering the content or implementing a strategy or fidelity to a program. It is about student growth as learner and building student potential as performer. If leadership allows stakeholders to lose sight of that, everyone will be at risk.
- Teachers can reduce their risk and, more importantly, avoid putting students at risk by rethinking what they consider “best practice.” When our Ed Directions coaches go into a school, they say our first rule is that if you don’t “have” them, you can’t teach them. Our second rule is that once you have them, they have to feel safe and welcomed. Only after these two things happen can we begin the educational process.
- The Formative Period is about student growth as learner and performer. Teachers must find a way to engage students in work that builds their knowledge of content with “critical concepts in critical vocabulary” and tasks, but also makes them more proficient learners (attending, acquiring, organizing, and creating meaning) and increases their potential as performers.
- Teachers have to understand that student engagement isn’t just compliance with teacher instructions for an activity. For students to show growth during the Formative Period, they must be highly engaged in quality learning work that enables them to become independent learners.
- To build proficiency as performers and improve students’ scores on tests, much of the work provided – no matter what the venue – has to be “rigorous” (cognitively demanding and requiring long-term engagement).
- Teachers will have to work in teacher/administrator teams to comply with responsibilities required by law, regulation, or policy. It will be important that teachers demonstrate implementation of special needs plans, adequate data collection, and records of student growth. In addition, teachers will have to work with the administrative teams to ensure that their students have access to adult mentors, to adequate technology, and to the Internet.
- Teachers will have to research “best practice” teacher and learner work for a variety of teaching/learning venues (e.g., virtual school at home, independent learning centers at school, alternate or hybrid schedules for in-school classes, and regular in-school configurations). This will have to include research into establishing rapport with offsite students, building venue-appropriate rituals and routines, building transition rituals and routines as the configuration patterns change through the year, addressing identified learning needs and at-risk conditions, and providing intentional support when students are offsite.
- Teachers need to re-examine their data collection, organization, and evaluation strategies to determine how they can collect and use data when students are distributed among different sites and schedules. The nature and purpose of PLC discussions needs to be rethought and redesigned to meet the needs of teachers and their students in a variety of venue configurations.
- During the Formative Period, culture, climate, and rapport are critical elements. Teachers are going to have to intentionally create flexible cultures and climates that can cross different venues and identify strategies for building rapport with students who are offsite. A toxic culture, climate, or rapport can make it impossible for large number of students to learn or perform to their potential for the rest of the year.
- One of the goals for students in the Formative Period is the creation of a core set of competencies supported by confidence in all students that will enable them to become proficient, independent learners and begin developing as proficient, independent performers. The set of competencies and the confidence that goes with them probably will need to be developed through directed learning activities and shaping performance assessments.
- It will be important for teachers to document that they have monitored student growth and provided support when needed. This will mean that teachers will have to embed checks for understanding, formative assessments, shaping assessments, diagnostic assessments, and summative assessments and student work in all venues. This may require that teachers work as grade level or discipline teams to ensure that all of the learning and performing competencies are developed and that students become confident practitioners
For students to have a “best practice” Formative Period, it is critical that students work in a safe, stable, and welcoming environment. When students are offsite this can become an at-risk issue.
- Teachers will have to develop teacher/student teams that can design and share designs for offsite workspaces. Students need to be a partner in the process because in home school and independent learning centers, they will be largely responsible for the maintenance of the learning environment.
- Variables like parent educational level and expertise, availability and support for home school, technology expertise, etc. can create wide gaps in the learning environment that students work in. The teacher/student teams need to include in their planning rituals and routines that help students overcome problems related to adult support, physical environment, or community stability. This will be an important step in reducing performance gaps on accountability assessments
- It will be critical for students to attend learning sessions, arrive prepared and on time for learning sessions, highly engage in the work given, monitor their intention and behavior, and accept corrective and shaping feedback. This has to be reinforced in the climate and culture of the learning site. When adults are going to be present, teacher/adult teams can work together to create student perceptions of a best practice virtual or independent learning situation.
- There is some research that when students are learning offsite or in an independent distance learning center, it is beneficial to make them a partner in monitoring their own understanding and growth as a learner and performer. The research indicates that a variety of strategies can be used from student developed annotated portfolios to student rubric checklists and student standards mastery timelines. If teachers are committed to developing independent learners and performers, they have to accept that a part of that process includes self-assessment and revision to proficiency; this can be developed with any or all of the strategies.
- Students must develop a rapport with the teacher that will enable student-teacher dialogue about student progress and about teacher- or student-identified barriers to that progress. This is an important part of a best practice “regular” classroom, but it is critical when students are offsite or in an independent setting.
Because of the unsettled nature of the “school” during the pandemic, it is difficult to remove all risks. Academic leaders, teachers, and students are going to have to be flexible and willing to adjust to ever-changing situations. They must be willing to communicate with candor and accept questions, suggestions, and criticisms, and they have to be willing to work with vertical and horizontal collaborative groups.
During the pandemic, getting them to “school” and covering content is not sufficient. In fact, it will leave all stakeholder groups at risk. To reduce risk, we must get the students to school, whether virtual or classroom, get them highly engaged in quality work, and make sure they develop as learners and performers. Failure to do that will increase the number of students who “fall through the cracks” and increased performance gaps between and among students, teachers, and schools – and ensure that everybody remains at risk.