The plan was solid, but its execution began as a “dumpster fire.”
That’s how Stefan Troutman, an instructional coach at Moses Lake School District, described it: plagued by tech glitches, his effort to host daily online check-ins for district staff went south quickly.
But in the weeks since schools closed statewide and at this rural school district 180 miles east of Seattle, Troutman and his colleagues began to figure it out. Every weekday morning, roughly 100 educators get online for a new ritual: to swap online learning tips and motivate each other to keep experimenting and finding new ways to serve their 8,700 students.
As school districts grapple with the fact that education won’t resume in person this school year, Moses Lake and others across Washington are taking seriously their mandate to find creative virtual solutions. Getting students laptops and internet access were the first — and easiest — steps many made since school buildings have closed, though it’s unclear how many students still lack devices.
What districts do next to transform their curriculum will dictate whether children slide backward. Students already behind because of systemic inequities may slide the most.
While Washington requires school districts to teach remotely, districts aren’t mandated to track student attendance or individual teachers’ instructional plans — so it’s hard to say, definitively, how it’s going. Some districts immediately distributed laptops and began online instruction, but others, such as Seattle Public Schools, first delivered devices weeks into the state’s mandated closure.
Students in low-income families and those who are homeless are less likely to have an internet connection, let alone basic needs such as food and shelter. And children who need extra attention, because they’re learning English or have a disability, for example, are fighting for the services schools promised them.
Online schooling has a mixed reputation. It’s marked by the failures of several for-profit virtual schools and credit recovery programs. But experts say online education is now at an inflection point. Going online is no longer a choice, and schools have been thrust into a grand experiment that could transform forever how learning virtually is done.
In Moses Lake, the daily online meeting is an important part of that. At 9 a.m. on Monday, teachers and staff were getting pumped up.
No thumping music. No jumping jacks. Just pure, earnest praise to get hyped for the week. “We are doing it, and we’re rocking it,” a district instructional coach said. Troutman is the master of ceremonies. From his living room at home, Troutman casts to YouTube a livestream of these impromptu professional development sessions. “The goal up until now has been survival,” Troutman said. “But the conversations we’re about to start having are, how do you redefine your lesson?”
Teachers in Moses Lake and beyond are learning by trial and error: Many are teaching over video platforms, while others are sending students recorded lessons. Some are printing out materials to drop off at students’ homes.
“Teachers are all being thrown into this,” said Gary Miron, professor of education at Western Michigan University. “It doesn’t mean they are all going to act responsible and be totally prepared to switch and start testing ideas. … But it gives us an opportunity right now with this crisis, if we can, to start considering new models for instruction.”
Existing research on best practices in online learning will only get educators so far. “When you are being asked to implement online learning in the way our research suggests you should, but you are being asked to do that in a 12-day period, that’s nearly impossible,” said Annalee Good, co-director of the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
There is no single set of practices that will fit every school district, she added. What matters most, she said, is each district’s context and preparedness.
‘The evidence machine’
It’s been a decade since anyone took a hard look at online education. Back then, researcher Barbara Means and her colleagues compiled studies from 1996 to 2008 at the request of the federal government, and compared how people fare when taught face-to-face, online only, or some combination of the two. A blended form of learning won out — a model that can’t work now. But perhaps more interestingly, Means found, very few studies looked at online K-12 education. Most focused on college.
A decade later, federal officials are launching a follow-up. And they’re in a big hurry.
“This is one of the rare occasions where there has been a simultaneous crisis of this type where rigorous evidence is needed by everyone, all at once,” said Matthew Soldner, commissioner at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. “What is something we could do to fire up the evidence machine really, really quickly and see what can be done?”
The answer: a meta-analysis similar to Means’ study. This time, officials are crowd-sourcing the studies they include. They’re hoping to reduce the time it takes — from the typical 18 months to roughly 2.5 — to winnow and analyze research that meets a rigorous set of criteria. They hope outside research teams will be enticed to do a deeper dive into the studies and glean sets of best practices.
Techniques used by online-only schools might be appealing, but experts urge caution: Taking up the methods of such schools likely won’t work for most public school districts. Online schools often employ too few teachers (sometimes 1 for several hundred students) and pay them poorly, Miron said. Students often don’t get to know their teachers, and vice versa. “It’s failing because it’s geared toward profiteering,” he said.
Many online schools have a poor track record. Kevin Huffman, former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education who tried to take down a virtual school run by a controversial company called K12 Inc., said that school had a high attrition rate. For those who stuck with it, their first-year results were abysmal compared to their typical public school peers, he said. “There’s a massive learning curve, which we don’t have time for right now,” Huffman said.
Public school districts, in contrast, have a lot going for them. They typically have lower student-teacher ratios, and relationships between children and their teachers are already formed, Miron said.
While federal officials continue their research, experts such as Miron and Means suggest researchers and school districts collect data now.
“If we knew some schools did ‘A’ in the spring and some schools did ‘B’ in the spring, then we could look at the aggregated data and try to tease out what were some of the more effective practices,” said Means, who is now part of Digital Promise, an education nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “We don’t want to punish students or teachers because of what happened this spring. But we do want to learn from this experience.”
Absent hard data on what works — and what doesn’t — solutions are beginning to bubble up from inside online classrooms.
More than a device
Every weekday morning, Kathleen Claymore, a culinary teacher at Moses Lake High School, launches a Zoom room for her students. She mutes herself, but leaves the video on. Students can come and go as they wish, hang out and work together, or request help. “It’s just for them to see your face,” she said.
Access to technology is an important first step, but it’s “not everything” Good said. “Even having a laptop won’t bridge the digital divide.” In communities where most families live in poverty and many are learning English, as is the case in Moses Lake, teachers will need to find unique ways to keep students in attendance and engaged.
The type of regular, quality interaction that Claymore offers is important, experts say.
Moses Lake is well positioned relative to others across Washington: School officials gave Chromebooks to all students as school closed, and many teachers have some facility with digital learning tools. But about 65% of the district’s students live in poverty. To acknowledge that many need extra help, administrators set up tech sites for students with broken or lost equipment. Staff deliver replacements to students without transportation. Teachers such as Claymore are finding ways to make lessons flexible.
Claymore’s assignments double as a way to ensure her students are eating regularly. If students need ingredients for a recipe, Claymore provides them. And instead of running her classes in real time, Claymore posts lessons to Google Classroom. Many students wouldn’t show up if she hosted lessons live: Several assist their parents in nearby fields or spend their days caring for younger siblings. But Claymore said she’s pleasantly surprised that about 65% of her 135 students have been handing in assignments.
Washington may also learn from other high-poverty districts that are further afield. In Milwaukee Public Schools, staff are considering how an online learning program they launched about five years ago, called Telepresence, could be used more broadly during coronavirus closures. High schools that can’t offer a whole suite of Advanced Placement classes let students take them virtually from teachers at other Milwaukee high schools. A 2019 study of the program suggests that boosting teachers’ professional development, and providing ample resources for students without technology at home, are critical for making such online programs work.
These takeaways are particularly important for districts as they consider how to serve students with few resources or support at home, or those in special education. A few major school districts, including Los Angeles Unified are trying district-wide online learning programs, though early reports suggest many students are failing to participate.
Many Washington families report their children are not receiving special education services they’re entitled to; as of April 10, state officials had received at least five formal complaints about special education services.
Officials here could take notes from schools such as Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, which serve about 4,000 students with disabilities and offer several forms of remote instruction. One lesson: not everything can be accomplished online, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.
Michael Berger, a teacher who works with visually impaired and blind students aged 3 to 5 there, filled green plastic bins with paper lesson plans and supplies for each of his students when he learned Utah’s schools would close. He regularly swings by his students’ homes — on a recent Friday, he donned a mask and spent three hours dropping off supplies on their porches. Batteries for one child whose assistive technology device went dead. For a student without internet at home, an iPad preloaded with videos of himself teaching new lessons.
Berger also teaches his students during brief, individual weekly online sessions.
His personal takeaway: Parent involvement is huge. “How are [the children] going to engage with me over a camera and my voice?” Parents have to be “very hands on with them during the lesson,” he said.