The Pandemic, Students’ Academic Performance, and Preparing for the Rest of the School Year: Helping Teachers Prioritize Their Efforts, Emotions, and Efficacy

pandemic

Dear Colleagues,

Introduction

   This week, I participated in a series of Zoom calls with classroom teachers around the country. While we focused on the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral goals of our five-year federal School Climate Transformation Grants, we spent most of our time—not surprisingly—talking  about ways to teach students for the rest of the school year.

   Critically, during the 2020-2021 academic year, these teachers’ schools have varied from on-site to hybrid to all-virtual instruction, respectively. And all of them also allowed parents to choose between virtual and on-site instruction even when their schools were physically “fully open for business.”

   [Parenthetically, I tend to avoid the term “remote learning,” because it sounds like we’ve isolated our students when their instruction is at home.]

   To complicate matters further, some students moved from virtual to on-site instruction after the first semester in January. And, many fully on-site schools still experienced some periods of required virtual instruction when COVID-19 outbreaks occurred at school, or when weather events required them—for example, during our record-setting snow and freezing temperatures this past week.

   The point is that virtually no students, staff, or schools in the United States have experienced a “normal school year” this year.

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   As noted, the teachers on my calls this week were most concerned about how to best teach their students for the remainder of the school year—especially as some states will still be administering their Benchmark or State Proficiency Exams come April or May.

   For the teachers providing on-site instruction, they felt that their students were so happy to be in school with their peers and teachers that discipline and behavior management issues were minimal—except for students who had pre-pandemic concerns. Instead, most students were frustrated with the expectations and pace of the “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic” instruction, and with their too-apparent skill gaps.

   For the teachers still providing virtual instruction, they voiced their continued concerns with student attendance, engagement, organization, and motivation; and their ongoing challenges with the transfer of virtual instruction into student learning, mastery, and proficiency.

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But. . . What About the Students?

   While I was happy to hear my teachers’ perspectives regarding their students’ on-site and virtual behavior, frustrations, and interactions, I would have been more comfortable regarding their accuracy with more objective data.

   These data can be collected when teachers periodically give their students developmentally-appropriate opportunities to share and discuss their feelings and experiences—both “in the moment,” and as they reflect on the pandemic’s impact over time.

   In this way, teachers can “reality check” their assumptions about their students’ status and readiness, while also giving students a forum to express their successes, concerns, needs, and “lessons learned.” All of this will hopefully result in stronger teacher-student and student-student relationships, and students who are better prepared to listen, engage, learn, and master their academic work.

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   These teacher “reality checks” are similarly important for me.

   There are far too many educational pundits making generalized statements and conclusions, in the absence of any (or enough) data—about how they think teachers and students are responding to the current pandemic and its effects on the school and schooling process.

   And, too often, these generalizations do not reflect the many realities that are present, and their conclusions are too narrowly focused on one (or a small handful) of interpretations.

   As the pronouncements of these pundits are read or listened to, and then shared, this sometimes results in teachers and students feeling that they have been marginalized, or that their responses to the pandemic are “abnormal” because they were not referenced in a pundit’s article, podcast, or media report.

   At other times, the pundits’ conclusions or recommendations are overly simplistic and/or downright inappropriate for some of the realities that they have not recognized, entertained, or acknowledged.

   For example: This week, I read a widely distributed on-line article that discussed teachers’ concerns about their students’ pandemic-related “learning loss” in the classroom and then, circularly, how their students were reacting to these teacher concerns.

   While not negating either the teachers or the students in the article, I was struck by the remarkable differences between the article’s teachers and the teachers with whom I talked this week.

   Once again. . . different teachers and different realities. Neither set of teachers was “right” or “wrong”—they were just different.

   What was most on-target in the article, was a specific teacher who stated:

"One important lesson I’ve learned from my students is that everything I plan with them goes much better than anything I plan without them.

In the context of pandemic schooling, this has proven particularly true. No adult alive right now fully understands what it means to be a student in school at this moment. What’s worse is that the people in charge of making policy decisions are so far removed from the experience of pandemic schooling that their decisions don’t even seem to reflect the lived realities of young people.

Since the spring, I’ve created opportunities at least twice a month during class where students have space to share how they are feeling, how school is going, and what they want adults to know in that moment.

Each time we have one of these circles, I leave with 10 new ideas for how I can be a better educator to my students and how our school can adjust its practices to better support their well-being and their learning.

I decided recently to have my students respond directly to this notion of learning loss. To see if it weighs on them in the same ways that it does for adults and to see how the solutions adults are proposing (extended school days and years, use of standardized testing to assess loss, academic intervention courses, etc.) land with young people.

I created a circle with three questions:

During the pandemic, what are things that you feel like you’ve lost?

During the pandemic, what are the ways that you have seen yourself grow or learn new things?

Many adults in education right now are very focused on the idea of 'learning loss.' They think that kids are falling behind academically during the pandemic. What do you want those adults to know about you and your experience during the pandemic?"

   This is a perfect way to collect the data that I wished my teachers had, while giving the students opportunities to share, suggest, and self-determine what they need during these challenging times.

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Some Other Teacher Reflections

   As I listened and collaborated with my teachers on Zoom this week, some additional reflections emerged:

  • State Proficiency Tests. The reactions of teachers who were facing State Proficiency Exams at the end of the year ranged from “high anxiety” to “quiet confidence.”

I reminded the former group that research has shown that teachers who project their anxiety about “the Test” in their classrooms, can inadvertently transmit this emotionality to their students—resulting in underperformance.

The latter group reminded me that they were so confident in their teaching skills, and they knew the academic functioning of their students so well, that “the Test” was simply an opportunity for their students to get feedback on their accomplishments.

Critically, a good amount of the anxiety around State Proficiency Tests—nationally—relates to their contribution to teachers’ evaluations.

From my perspective, this relationship needs to change, because “history” and “reality” have changed.

To a large degree, the “test-teacher” relationship was part of a political movement during the No Child Left Behind years that simplistically posited that student achievement would increase with “more effective” teaching, and more effective teaching would occur when teachers were held responsible for their students’ proficiency test performance.

Quite frankly, the data never demonstrated this causal relationship.

But more important is that—right now, and for the next generation(s) of students—learning, achievement, and proficiency will clearly be impacted by the pandemic and how schools choose to educate students as a result of the pandemic.

Thus, the tenuous test-teacher relationship has become even more tenuous and, therefore, teacher evaluation policies and practices in this area need to be re-thought and rolled-back.

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  • Less is More. The teachers on my Zoom calls all agreed that they needed to adopt a “less is more” instructional approach for the remainder of the school year.

As we have discussed in previous Blogs, teachers need—especially now—to focus their instruction on the core academic information and skills (the “power standards”) that provide the strongest, cumulative foundation for students’ learning and success as they progress from grade-to-grade in their scaffolded curricula.

Moreover, teachers will need to flexibly “go backwards to go forward” when students have not learned and mastered the prerequisite skills for the content currently being taught.

And finally, teachers will need (with their principals’ full support) to modify their pacing charts and put their pre-pandemic expectations and instructional timelines aside because the academic standards are no longer standard, the norms no longer apply, and curve can no longer be predicted.

In order to focus on student success, we need to ensure that students are successful.

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  • Students’ Year-End Functional Skill Levels. Finally, by the end of this school year, the teachers all asserted the importance of knowing the current functional skill level of every student—especially in literacy, math, and writing/language arts, as well as each students’ academic progress during the two years before the pandemic began (i.e., the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years) in contrast to their progress during the past two pandemic school years.

Here, they recognized the need to integrate data from (a) the instructional interactions and curriculum-based learning and mastery assessments of students in their classrooms with (b) objective, formative evaluations from periodic interim assessments like iReady, Acadience, MAP, NWEA, or STAAR.

In the latter area, some teachers expressed concerns that parents were “coaching” students when their interim assessments were conducted virtually. Recognizing the invalidity of these results, we noted that many districts are requiring even virtually-educated students to take such tests in secure and supervised settings, and under standard testing conditions.

But the primary importance of knowing every students’ year-end functional skill level in literacy, math, and writing/language arts is so that students can be effectively clustered into courses, classrooms, differentiated instructional groups, and intervention support groups in late April and May so that they can receive the most effective skill- and mastery-sensitive instruction on Day 1 of the new school year.

Completing this task this Spring means that different student grouping options or models can be prepared. One model, for example, may assume the continued presence of COVID-19, and the need to maintain this year’s different instructional options (e.g., virtual, hybrid, or on-site). A separate model might assume a “more normal” 2021-2022 school year, organizing students into the most-effective instructional clusters needed to off-set the nearly two-year impact of the pandemic.

Critically, by knowing that they will need to identify every students’ functional academic skill levels at year-end, the teachers discussed what they need to do now to have the best data available for these importance decisions.

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Summary

   The importance of discussing with teachers and students how the pandemic has impacted and is impacting the school and schooling process cannot be understated.

   Rather than assume that we know what is going on, we must provide ongoing opportunities to hear what is actually going on.

   And we must recognize (and plan for) the multiple “realities” that reflect different people’s experiences, perceptions, and perspectives.

   These pieces of information and data are essential for teachers to maximize the learning process from now to the end of this school year, so that we know what students have truly learned and mastered during this school year, so that we can plan the best instructional clusters and class programs right from the beginning of the next school year.

   The focus must largely be on the mastery of knowledge and skills.

   If this mastery shows up on a State Proficiency Test. . . great. But we should not be “teaching to the test.” It simply is not going to work, and it is a disservice to our students.

   Instead of teaching, our teachers need permission to focus on educating.

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   As always, we hope that our experiences, perceptions, and perspectives are useful to you, and that they motivate you to reflect on what you are doing—at the student, staff, school, and/or system levels—to educate everyone through this pandemic.

   Please feel free to contact me with your questions or reactions at any time. And please remember my standing offer for a free, one-hour consultation to discuss these or related issues with you and your team.

Best,

Howie

About the Author

Dr. Howie Knoff
Dr. Howard Marc Knoff is President of Project ACHIEVE Incorporated. He is also a national consultant, author, and lecturer, as well as being a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Psychologist.
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