The hopes school leaders had for more rapid academic acceleration are dimming somewhat as they cope with challenges lingering from several years of disruption. Academic acceleration initiatives to catch students back up to grade level have been hindered by ongoing student and teacher absences, chronic staff shortages, and data struggles that have interfered with teachers’ ability to track academic performance and quickly intervene when students need help, new research finds.
“Districts haven’t given up on restoring lost learning or improving classroom instruction,” researchers write in “Back to School, but Not Caught Up,” an analysis of the beginning of the 2022-23 school year by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “But to help students who spent months out of school, they’re applying high-dosage tutoring, project-based learning and career-infused education in a piecemeal fashion, rather than pursuing academic acceleration as a comprehensive approach.”
The researchers acknowledge that district leaders are focused on rebuilding teacher capacity and collecting better data even as some are relying on pre-pandemic instructional approaches. But the challenges noted above have blocked many districts from implementing tutoring, project-based learning and other recovery strategies at scale at a time when many leaders were expecting a more rapid rebound.
Action on academic acceleration
The continued challenges that are putting a drag on academic acceleration are varied and complex but leaders highlighted by the analysis are working to tackle the lingering crises while also embarking on ambitious plans for the future:
1. Retaining top teachers, filling immediate vacancies and rebuilding teacher pipelines: District leaders are deploying short- and long-term strategies to keep their classrooms covered. While paying hiring bonuses is helping districts fill vacancies more quickly, leaders are also forecasting what their staffing needs will be over the coming years and designing pipelines to fill the positions of the future.
2. Supporting principals and staff: To reduce the burden on principals, central office teams are tightening instructional priorities by focusing on the highest priorities, limiting new initiatives and holding fewer meetings (or holding more of their meetings virtually.) Districts using these strategies are reporting higher principal retention rates. To reduce stress on all staff, districts are extending Thanksgiving break to a full week and giving employees more time off for “wellness days,” among other benefits.
3. Mixing old and new instructional strategies: After long periods of remote learning, several districts recommitted to face-to-face instruction by, for instance, codifying a framework for “deeply and highly engaging learning.” Other leaders are bringing in more instructional coaches to guide teachers in using the most effective approaches to engaging students.
Leaders are also emphasizing project-based learning that challenges students to use core academic skills to solve real-world problems and then present their findings at a public demonstration of learning. Some districts are also deemphasizing year-end test results and shifting their focus to setting monthly targets that, when achieved, provide more opportunities to boost student and teacher confidence.
4. Supporting teachers while pressing ahead: “Districts continued to struggle to find a balance between minimizing stress on exhausted teachers and expecting them to do more,” the report says. In one district, innovative new strategies adopted by teachers were exempt from high-stakes evaluations to encourage educators to experiment. This broke down resistance to change that had become deeply rooted in some schools.
5. Better data of all kinds: Leaders in one district developed a “dipstick” tool to quickly assess the effectiveness of instructional innovations and how students were responding. The same district also adopted budget-tracking systems to link spending to district goals and measure the use of those funds. School leaders also hosted focus groups to get better perspectives on parents’ priorities.
6. Increased collaboration to address complex problems: Many central office leaders collaborated in new ways and around new responsibilities to cover shortages in their districts. Some who served as temporary principals in understaffed high schools reported gaining a new understanding of classroom management challenges in those buildings. Working with leaders from other departments also eliminated turf battles and enabled administrators to better understand each other’s top issues.
Ultimately, the pace of academic recovery will hinge on several factors—including the pace of academic recovery itself. The analysis warns that a lack of progress in catching students up to grade level could drive families to switch districts or transfer to charter or private schools. And if the labor market remains tight, district leaders will continue to struggle to retain and recruit staff. Finally, continued disruptions could further discourage educators, leading to exhaustion and lowered academic standards.