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Topics / Improving Schools & Systems

7 Fundamentals for Educating Students Amid Uncertainty and Unrest

A new Corporation publication identifies core conditions for delivering high-quality teaching and learning at scale, particularly for the most vulnerable students

The closing of schools due to COVID-19 and the national reckoning with systemic racism following the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, presented school systems with an unprecedented challenge in 2020: How to educate students amid continued uncertainty and unrest?

Decision-Making amid Uncertainty: District Responses to COVID and Systemic Racism, a vision paper by Carnegie Corporation of New York, reports findings from interviews conducted with 17 experts about school districts and charter networks that made a relatively successful transition to remote teaching and learning, particularly for low-income students and students of color.

Few empirical attempts have been made to identify school systems that made a smooth transition to remote learning. Carnegie Corporation of New York is working to help collect detailed and consistent data so that we can learn from this experience and better prepare for potential future crises, and just as importantly identify lessons and opportunities that can improve how our school systems operate as we move forward under more normal circumstances.

This paper identifies seven core capacities that allowed certain schools to successfully pivot under 2020’s disruptive conditions.

1. Prior Experience with Technology
As one expert explained: “Honestly, if you didn’t have devices that kids could take home, you were dead in the water.” Having a technology infrastructure already in place was a key factor.

2. A Clear Vision
Districts that had a clear vision, along with the structures, resources, and ways of working that supported that vision, fared better.

3. Strong Leadership
Strong, decisive, and resilient leaders who could speak with moral authority and execute an equitable vision for teaching and learning was vital. For many school system leaders, responding to racialized violence and civic unrest was as important as responding to the pandemic.

4. Clarity around Decision-Making, Communications, and Curricula
Successful school systems were clear about the roles, decisions, processes, and routines used to solve problems, shift resources and practices, and examine whether changes were working. Districts that had structures to support these activities did well. A coherent approach to curriculum and instruction across schools was particularly beneficial.

5. Trusting and Collaborative School Cultures
Systems that had built team-oriented, trusting relationships between teachers and administrators, and that encouraged teachers to take risks, were better positioned to address the challenges posed by COVID.

6. Strong Relationships with Students and Families
Systems that focused on supporting students’ social-emotional well-being and developing strong, trusting relationships between adults and students were able to carry a sense of student belonging, connectedness, and safety into the digital environment.

7. Surveys and Feedback Loops
Another feature of successful systems was their ability to learn based on data. “One of the things that was really important was frequent feedback cycles on all different levels — parent, student, teacher surveys,” according to one expert. “The schools doing well were taking this almost weekly pulse and tweaking and acting on feedback. The feedback cycles were huge.”

Top: A 13-year-old girl takes part in remote learning with the help of her mother on October 28, 2020. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Image)