Category Archives: Education Innovation

5 Recommendations to Make “Learning Pods” More Equitable

Born out of desperation, families across the country are looking outside the school system for safe educational options for their children this fall, often partnering with other families to privately finance small-group learning. These “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods,” have fomented concerns about equity, since only a fraction of Americans can afford to pay a teacher out-of-pocket. 

But “learning pods” need not be inequitable. With the right blend of volunteerism, leadership, and innovation, learning pods can be a tool for increasing equity while traditional school campuses remain closed to students.

Here’s how:

Ask community spaces to donate meeting facilities

The requirements of social distancing demand more space if all students are to get a full education. Meanwhile, there are churches, temples, community centers, office buildings, and storefronts across the country currently sitting empty, as large gatherings are discouraged, adults work from home, and retailers close up shop. Many of those entities would probably be willing to donate their space to small learning communities at no cost, or in exchange for financial relief on their rent or mortgage payments. 

Expand the pool of potential teachers to enable lower student-teacher ratios

Student-to-teacher ratios are lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but still higher than the number of students we might want to share a learning pod in order to minimize public health risks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students per teacher in 2017 was 16. Including the total number of instructional staff brings that ratio down significantly to 11.7. Add in teachers who have retired or left the profession, substitute teachers, students studying to become teachers, Americorps volunteers, and others and there may just be enough to create learning pods of 10 students or fewer. This could create the conditions for personalized instruction on a scale that’s often been dreamed of but never fully realized.

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Adapting Schools to a New Normal With Decentralized Power

The scale, speed, and severity of the coronavirus crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen in our nation’s history. In a matter of a few weeks, schools across the country shut down and most won’t reopen their physical campuses this academic year. No school system was completely prepared for what seemed like a near-impossible challenge: shifting to a fully remote model of education while simultaneously coordinating key student support services and adapting to evolving public health guidelines amidst a global pandemic. 

We won’t know the full impact of the choices school leaders are making for quite some time, but some school systems may be better positioned than others to navigate the challenges posed by the current pandemic. School systems that already embrace more decentralized decision-making, either by supporting more autonomous district schools or charter schools, seem to be better adapting to the complex challenge of educating kids in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

empty office boardroom with laptop on meeting table

Image by Jo_Johnston from Pixabay

We’re starting to see educators take action – often without clear guidance from central offices – to use whatever tools they can to reach their students. We know that there are vast inequities in students’ access to education during this crisis, so some teachers have been handing out Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots. In other communities, teachers are using print packets, telephones, and television broadcasts to reach students without access to technology. There are countless stories of individual teachers moving faster than their districts’ central offices, meeting with their classes on Zoom, offering supplemental instruction from a student’s porch, or leaving math problems in chalk on students’ driveways

While it would be impossible and unreasonable to expect every teacher to figure out how to meet the needs of every student during this crisis, we’re also seeing how top-down decision-making by districts can go terribly wrong for teachers and students. One need look no further than affluent Fairfax County (VA), which had a disastrous roll-out of their virtual learning platform. Marred by poor planning, testing, and vendor management, it’s clear that whatever process Fairfax used to develop their plan, it wasn’t driven and tested by teachers.  Continue reading

Major Conference Going Virtual? My Lessons From Co-Hosting #AEFP2020

Nine days before a conference for which 750 people had already registered, an education organization I’m on the board of decided to switch to virtual because of coronavirus. This was, as you can imagine, a pretty hectic choice, but one we’re proud of as we prioritized the health and safety of our members.

The Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) is a nonprofit professional and academic association. At the annual meeting, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers share research and lessons learned about efforts to enhance student learning. Initially, my role was to chair a session and moderate a policy talk. The switch to virtual meant that I also served as host for seven sessions. 

Three computer monitors showing different concurrent sessions of @aefpweb virtual conference

Photo via @aefpweb on Twitter

Since many other conferences will be going virtual in the coming months, here are lessons I learned about the transition — as well as some unexpected upsides to going remote: 

Organize your team and provide clear instructions.

AEFP’s executive director, Lydia Ross, and IT contractor, Hiep Ho, arranged for all 126 sessions, four featured policy talks, the skills sessions, and the general session to be held via Zoom webinars. (Zoom has provided a helpful list of tips for setting things up in a way that minimizes party-crashers and other unwanted behavior.) In addition to the usual chair and presenters, each session had a host. Hosts were provided instructions on how to log into the designated Zoom room to start the webinar and enable panelists to share their screens during presentations. AEFP used Zoom’s branding capabilities to tailor the conference look by uploading the group logo and creating a custom URL. AEFP also created a Zoom page on the conference website with instructions and troubleshooting tips. Having this information accessible made it easier to support attendees. 

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Five Themes, Plus Video, From Bellwether’s Webinar on #COVIDandSchools

Yesterday we hosted a robust webinar conversation about what’s been happening on the ground in American schools and what school leaders need to think about as they meet the remarkable challenges posed by COVID-19.

Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham shared the virtual stage with four pivotal sector leaders — Dan Domenech, American Association of School Administrators; Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools; Nina Rees, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools*; and Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools — each of whom candidly talked about the challenges they’ve faced as school founders, district leaders, and organizational heads. While the conversation sometimes traced a grim reality, there were also shared stories of hopefulness, innovation, and success.

If you missed the webinar, a complete video recording with captions is available here and below: 

Here are five key themes that came up in the conversation (quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity):

Students’ humanity comes first.

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Media: “District Schools? Charter Schools? There’s a Third Way — Autonomous Schools That Work Like In-District Charters” in The 74

Alejandra Barraza was working as a school principal when San Antonio Unified School District identified her as a strong leader who could impact more students. Now she runs two schools that enjoy freedom over their curriculum, professional development, and a portion of their funding.

Autonomous schools like the ones Barraza runs are cropping up across the country. Whether they will live up to their promise depends on whether they’re given enough autonomy over resources and time to customize their approach to meet their students’ specific needs.

Read more in my op-ed published over at The 74 today:

With many teaching and learning responsibilities moved away from the district level, central office staff can focus on operational functions like human resources, transportation, food service, maintenance and school facilities. Mohammed Choudhury, the district’s chief innovation officer, explains: “We want to ensure our schools have autonomy around the use of talent, time and resources. We don’t want our principals in autonomous schools to worry about janitors, procurement processes or air-conditioning service providers.”

You can also read a recent resource on autonomous schools I co-authored with Tresha Ward here.