Over the past five years, we’ve had a front row seat to K-12 writing instruction in the U.S.. As a fast-growing education company focused on student writing, we’ve had the unique opportunity to directly work with, speak with, and observe thousands of English departments. We’ve seen what student writing instruction looks like across an expansive range of school settings and types having worked with urban charter school networks across New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and DC, large metro and suburban public school districts from California to Georgia and Texas to North Dakota, and single K-12 schools in rural Arkansas, Maine, and Wyoming.
Sadly, for the last few weeks, we have also seen schools across the country being impacted by COVID-19. Since mid-March, over 124,000 public and private schools have closed in the U.S., affecting approximately 55.1 million students. Schools and school districts have transitioned to distance learning through a variety of different technological platforms designed to aid remote instruction. In addition, school leaders have debated whether or not their students should receive grades and in what form they should come. K-12 education continues to face unprecedented challenges every day.
Priorities before school-closures:
Pandemic aside, parents, teachers, and school district administrators agree that teaching students how to write is a core responsibility of K-12 education. According to a recent RealClear Opinion Research poll about what Americans want most from K-12 public schools, “reading and writing” took the top spot. Similarly, surveys of K-12 leaders show that student mastery of reading and writing is highest on their list of instructional priorities and areas for improvement.
Yet, the latest nation’s report card released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 37% of seniors in high school are proficient in reading and just 27% are proficient in writing. There has been little to no growth in these attainment numbers over the past 20 years. Parents, teachers, and school leaders agree that writing is a foundational and critically important skill — so why is no progress being made?
The 4 main barriers:
Regardless of school setting, size, type, or demographics, there are four primary barriers to effective writing instruction that almost every school struggles with:
Lack of teacher time
Missing roadmap (or lack of alignment)
The extended school closures as a result of the global health crisis are kicking these structural challenges into overdrive and exposing an urgent need for a new way forward in the 20-21 school year and beyond.
1. Teacher Time
Today, teachers are working from home and juggling the dual responsibilities of supporting their own families and teaching remotely. This means rewriting their curriculum and lesson plans for the remainder of the school year, adopting new tools and learning new technologies to move their classrooms online, and working to support students who may or may not have access to devices and wifi at home. And that’s the easy part. Teachers are also struggling to address the social and emotional toll this global health crisis has on their students as parents lose jobs, miss rent payments, and struggle to put food on the table. They’re trying to find time in the day to support their own children with homeschooling and homework and ensure their families stay physically and mentally healthy.
We see celebrities half-joking online: “Teachers should make a million dollars a year. Or a week.” The job of a teacher is impossibly demanding, always. According to the annual PDK International survey, which polled teachers, parents, and members of the public, 60 percent of teachers believe they are underpaid. Even more disheartening is that when asked “how much value they feel by their communities,” almost 50 percent of teachers said “‘just some’ or even less.’” In the Teaching and Learning International Survey, researchers found no other education system of the 48 countries polled had teachers who “report teaching for more hours than U.S. teachers.” This global health crisis is helping us to see just how unreasonable those demands are.
We provide individualized learning plans for students to ensure every learner is successful, why not for teachers? A recent national survey by Instructure found that 60 percent of teachers are “at best ‘sometimes’ getting professional development that is actionable in their classroom or changes their teaching practice.” In addition, 71 percent of teachers believe that school districts don’t offer enough opportunities for professional development that positively affects their students’ success.
Observing master teachers and attending conferences/workshops with teachers from around the region/nation are traditional and popular methods of professional development. Learning by example and collaborating with others are key to improvement, right? Active, in-person professional development opportunities are virtually impossible while more extreme social distancing measures are in place. However, many websites offer informational videos and online workshops on topics ranging from solving classroom discipline problems to teaching students with disabilities.
When we get through the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that districts find a new approach to teacher support and capacity. It is time for a paradigm shift and to realize that teachers cannot, and should not, be solely responsible for providing feedback to students and supporting them in their learning journey.
As, Simon Rodberg, a former charter school principal, and author, said during an EdSurge podcast interview: “I would also be putting a lot of energy toward planning for various scenarios when school restarts and how you're going to deal with the missed learning, with the differences in what kids will have learned. Thinking about those long term things and how can you plan in advance for a very different future than the one you might've expected before coronavirus hit.”
Doctors have nurses. Lawyers have paralegals. For decades, we have been adding more to teacher’s plates — social emotional wellbeing, behavior management, personalized learning, learning accommodations, extracurricular activity advising, and in more extreme situations, physical protection and economic support. We need to provide the right supports and tools so that teachers can effectively execute on all their important objectives and ensure each and every student is receiving rigorous instruction, high-quality feedback, and personalized support.
2. Unconscious Bias
We all have biases of some kind, and if we don’t examine them and learn how to combat them, they end up hurting students both emotionally and academically. The way bias manifests itself in the classroom (and now outside the classroom too!) and the long-lasting harmful effects are alarming.
This crisis opened our eyes to the stark digital divide — ask yourself: if your students didn’t have devices or wifi at home before COVID-19, was authentic learning happening at home? Were students set up to read, write, or complete homework? Do research? Practice skills they learned at school? Prepare themselves for higher education or other academic pursuits after graduation?
Students are getting different levels of learning while schools are closed due to a variety of factors — access to teachers, sufficient internet connection, family interruptions and responsibilities, personal disabilities, etc. These factors don’t just vary between different schools, but between students in the very same class. Even with aid from schools, such as providing laptops and tablets to students in need, distance learning has the unfortunate potential to expose socio-economic differences that would otherwise be masked in the physical classroom.
These factors are causing great divides that are difficult to fix on an administrative level and learning gaps that could place many students behind the eight ball come September. School leaders need to plan on how to deal with this fact when students return in the next school year and aren’t where they should be academically. There is an even greater need for objective data to see where students are when they come back from extended school closures and what supports are needed.
3. Missing roadmap
When it comes to writing — a hard skill to teach and learn — having a clear and well-articulated plan is crucial. It all starts with aligning teachers and administrators around a shared vision and common goals. There will be a greater need than ever before for alignment, consistency across schools, departments, grade levels.
Teachers should not be reinventing the wheel — that’s 2x as much work with half the impact. Teachers need to work together collaboratively and work towards clearly defined goals and objectives.
There is an evident need for clear expectations and frameworks with the right supports, so teachers don’t have to expend precious time and mental energy on all of the goal-setting and mapping themselves. They need to spend their time on how to best support their students on the learning journey.
Maps get you where you are going faster, safer, more effectively — put guardrails and guidance in place that will ensure every teacher is working towards the right end goals, on the right path.
The last step of a successful writing and feedback plan is execution. And with that, accountability can become a barrier. We’re talking not about penalizing or micro-managing your teachers and staff but to ensure everyone is on track and feel supported. It is important to have the right checks and resources in place to help teachers and administrators stay committed to the plan they made when the school year gets hectic, or in this case, when there’s an unexpected event.
It can be taxing to review student writing when you’re responsible for not only grading and providing feedback, but also for all the work to take action based on the results. And doing all of that while figuring out remote learning strategies can be even harder for your teachers! Looking at all of the data and deciding what to tackle first, how to group students, how to assign interventions based on the scores, how to adjust your instructional plan. It’s overwhelming.
Writing and feedback fall in a tricky bucket of important but not urgent things on a teacher’s plate. Teachers, like all of us, are often pressured to prioritize the urgent to do’s, even if some of them are less important. Moreover, avoiding the important but not urgent tasks means you never get ahead or prepare for a contingency plan, like many school leaders had to do during the last few weeks.
Getting through every day of this unprecedented situation is a learning experience. As an education community, we know that to learn best, we must listen, watch, examine, and internalize all that occurs around us. We take the collected observations and data and integrate it into practice. We continue practicing and practicing, making mistakes along the way. With more practice, we can receive valuable feedback, so we can adjust, adapt, improve, grow, develop, strengthen, build, and refine. But most importantly, we can continue learning and practicing and receiving feedback to get through this situation one day at a time.
Right now, K-12 administrators are tasked with a more challenging job than ever as they navigate the global health crisis and plan for what is sure to be a critically important rebuilding year. The Graide Network is ready to help school districts bounce back stronger.