Three Steps States Could Take to Make Sure Learning Is More Equitable Should Schools Close Again in the Fall


Jun 30, 2020

Teenage girl studying with video online lesson at home, photo by valentinrussanov/Getty Images

Photo by valentinrussanov/Getty Images

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has just released guidance (PDF) for the “Phased Reopening of Pre-K to 12 Public Schools,” as have many states. The guidance includes a requirement for schools to submit a health and safety plan, and outlines conditions necessary to resume in-person instruction. After months of processing advice from education stakeholders, the plan is not a done deal; even PDE admits that the guidance “will evolve as further research, data, and resources become available.”

While PDE acknowledges that it is putting together the plane while flying, they do not address the elephant in the overhead compartment: a second outbreak of COVID-19 next year could push schools back to remote instruction, and, inevitably, some schools will be ready to deliver far superior remote instruction compared to others. In Pennsylvania, as in many states, school districts are being provided with very little guidance or requirements to prepare for the possibility of remote instruction. For example, Pennsylvania requires that “all instruction must be provided via remote learning” should the state be placed in the “red” reopening phase, but they provide no models or requirements for that remote learning. What this means is that the most vulnerable children will lose out unless states take more drastic measures to provide them with the resources they need.

The quality of remote instruction depends on whether students are able to connect and interact with educators online. But poverty is a major driver of who gets high-quality online instruction and who does not. A recent American Enterprise Institute investigation found that high-poverty districts were less likely to offer live instruction through platforms like Zoom and less likely to expect one-on-one contact between educators and students. RAND's newest research confirms these disparities: in May, 38 percent of school principals in high-poverty schools indicated a “major” or “very major” need for technology that allowed students to access online materials, and 17 percent indicated a need for the same technology for teachers. These percentages were roughly double the percentages of school principals in lower-poverty schools indicating a need for that technology. In addition, teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely than other teachers to indicate that instruction they offered during school closures was “all or almost all review.”

What can states do in this new reality where high-quality instruction in remote environments will depend on students (and teachers) having online access and a device?

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So, what can states do in this new reality where high-quality instruction in remote environments will depend on students (and teachers) having online access and a device? Here are three ways states might support schools, teachers, and students over the next year:

Make a Concrete Contingency Plan

PDE's required health and safety plan for school districts is certainly critical for the coming year, but so are concrete plans for the likely probability of remote instruction. The state could require school systems to provide data on student and teachers' access to the internet and computers at home and share that data publicly, as well as more concrete models and guidance. Knowing the numbers of Pennsylvania students, families, and teachers who cannot get online from their homes is especially crucial right now as this information can provide a catalyst for more rigorous pursuit of funding. Next, states could provide school systems with a range of concrete models and alternatives for providing remote instruction, should they have to do so, and require them to commit to one of those plans for the coming year. Tennessee Department of Education and Arizona Department of Education provide at least some examples of guidance that could ideally be provided at the federal level, as well as in specific states. Third, the state could require school systems to provide a plan for how they will assess student learning in the fall so that schools can understand who has fallen behind and by how much.

Provide High-Quality Professional Learning Opportunities and Minimum Professional Learning Requirements That Better Prepare Teachers for Distance Learning

School systems have enough to worry about without also having to develop the learning opportunities teachers will need to deliver remote instruction during this turbulent time. A centralized method for delivering at least some critical professional learning through the state would be helpful.

Consider Building a Tutoring Workforce

Even in the best of times, teachers are challenged to “do it all,” but working directly with students who are struggling with classwork is especially difficult across digital platforms that may only provide opportunities for students to practice concepts they do not understand. States could mobilize a remote tutoring workforce to provide direct communication and interaction with such students, which reflects policy recommendations in some other countries. States might consider directly funding remote tutor training and connecting with school systems and families to provide those tutors either on a volunteer or paid basis. They could also work with higher education institutions to allow for students to fulfill internships and teacher preparation requirements through tutoring, or offer credit to high school students to receive training and then provide tutoring over the course of the year.

These may all sound like big steps to take in the midst of such an uncertain time. We don't know if schools will be asked to deliver remote instruction again, and we don't know what additional federal resources might be provided. At the same time, if Pennsylvania and other states take these steps, they will have the foundation set to provide all students with better learning opportunities this year and in years to come.

Julia Kaufman is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.