As the 2020-21 school year begins, state and district leaders are working closely with teachers, families and other stakeholders to map out a plan that meets the needs of all learners. They are taking lessons learned from the abrupt and often messy transition to remote and blended learning this spring and are asking themselves what it will take to make remote learning a viable and affordable educational option for every student.
The United States Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models Discretionary Grant Program gave states an incentive to accelerate their plans to scale up flexible and remote learning options, plan out professional development modules and create a new system—either virtual or in person—designed to best meet everyone’s needs. A total of 39 states applied and award announcements are expected to be released sometime this week. Our team at Education First was pleased to work with nine of those states to support the development of their grant application. We were interested to see both the innovations and the similarities in their thinking, and we are excited to share our full analysis and observations in our latest publication Opportunities in the Midst of COVID-19: Innovative Ways States are Using this Moment to Rethink Education.
HOW STATES ARE RETHINKING EDUCATION
Each state approached the challenge of shifting to a remote and/or hybrid learning model in a unique way. Here are just some of the innovative strategies states are proposing in their applications:
- Several states focused on establishing systems to address equity challenges, particularly in the midst of a shift to remote and/or blended learning by creating access to high-quality instructional materials in K12 mathematics and English. Massachusetts plans to partner with curriculum publishers who are rated highly by either EdReports or the state, provide core instructional materials in ELA, math and science, and have a delivery platform for both remote and in-person instruction. Additionally, Massachusetts plans to support its strongest teachers in creating a resource bank of Deeper Learning Tasks that would be available to educators statewide. Texas is developing Texas Home Learning 3.0, a high-quality virtual course program that will be accessible to all students in the state. The Texas Education Agency is working to make available optional, free tools for every school system in Texas to support grade level remote instruction in PK-12th grade in English, math, science and social studies.
- Building on their assets and taking promising ideas to scale. Florida, for example, framed its plan around the development of an innovation incubator focused on studying the Florida Virtual School and local innovative school models—especially digital platforms—to identify and expand exemplar blended learning and online learning models.
- Focusing on basic inequities that could otherwise hold students back from success in a system made reliant on technology. New Mexico, for example, built its plan around the development of a statewide Learning Management System pre-loaded with high quality instructional content to ensure that educators across the state have consistent and ready access to quality content and data.
- Maintaining and accelerating a consistent focus on early literacy and young learners. Arkansas emphasized the need to provide students, families and educators with statewide access to an online and televised high-quality reading curriculum with a focus on word recognition, phonics and phonemic recognition. Educators and content experts plan to develop a K8 scope and sequence that addresses phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension appropriate for each grade level.
Nearly all of the state proposals reflected the reality that the shift to remote learning was particularly difficult for students with learning differences, English learners and other special populations. Several states, including Arkansas, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Texas developed strategies to address these inequities through investments in technology and training, and mapped out strategies to establish pathways to strengthen tools, coaching, and support for parents.
Deeply ingrained in all of these state strategies is professional development, which many states prioritized as a key lever. State teams agreed that both experienced and new-to-the-profession teachers will need ongoing support and guidance to implement shifts in strategy and curriculum and to learn to use new tools and technology. New York, for example, plans to develop and launch the Teaching in Remote/Hybrid Learning Environments program, which would build the capacity of teachers and educational leaders to facilitate blended/remote instruction when needed. Florida plans to include a non-college-credit credential online professional development program for educators meant to address key issues in teaching and learning in the post-pandemic era, including topics in distance and blended learning ecosystems and robust online and digital learning models.
The process of developing these plans has prompted insightful, thoughtful discussions among state leaders about how a new system more reliant on technology could evolve to effectively meet the needs of every learner, particularly those most vulnerable. We encourage other states to leverage the good thinking to inform their own state-level conversations about system redesign, and how, when, and if to adopt a remote learning model.
Through support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, Education First supported nine states in developing their K-12 Rethink Grant application over a six-week span between mid-May and July 2020. States participated in a workshop with field experts to generate ideas, worked with a dedicated coach to outline and draft their application, and had access to technical reviews and other grant writing support. We found it inspiring to be part of teams who were doing nimble and insightful work on a short timeline. We feel honored to have been a part of the process for these nine states and we look forward to seeing what states will do next.