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Evidence-Based Practices for Post-Pandemic Schools

Robert Pondiscio is a veteran educator, Fordham Institute big wheel, and author of the terrific How the Other Half Learns. Readers will recall him from the finely crafted guest letters he's penned for RHSU (see here and here) or his popular guest stint last fall. In 2002, after two decades in journalism, Robert left a senior position at Business Week to teach in the Bronx. Today, he writes about school improvement with a practical bent.

—Rick Hess

As my week here comes to a close, I want to thank Rick for once again giving me the keys to his blog and the attention of its influential readers. If there's one theme I like to return to time and again whenever I get these kinds of opportunities, it's the general lack of curiosity among policymakers and reformers about classroom practice—curriculum, instruction, and school culture. I'm a staunch supporter of charters and choice and the broad, idealistic impulses of the ed reform movement (is there still a movement?), but I will always be the guy who asks, "Yes, but what are the children doing all day?" Practice questions have moved nearer to the center of policy circles, but there's still a long way to go.

Building on that theme, and since Rick has been so generous sharing his megaphone, I'm going to pay it forward by handing it to Eric Kalenze, a full-time educator in Minnesota and the American ambassador for ResearchEd, a grassroots practitioner-led movement that's massive in the U.K. and internationally but still a bit of a cult item stateside. It deserves to be bigger. Through social media and conferences, it's connecting a community of educators in every flavor of school—public, charter, private, and faith-based—dedicated to evidence-based practice. The American Enterprise Institute just published a paper he wrote on evidence-based decisionmaking in schools that's worth your time.

Eric largely agreed with the assessment I offered in Wednesday's post about how post-COVID restart plans are being driven by public-health concerns, not problems of practice. Since I depressed myself, and probably most readers, with that dire assessment of impending doom, I asked him for his thoughts on what teachers can and should be doing in the weeks between now and when school—in whatever form it takes—resumes in the fall.  Eric offered three strong ideas, in his words, edited for length and clarity:

  1. "Resist the temptation to order up standardized benchmarking instruments (like FastBridge, ANet, NWEA MAP assessments, etc.) to check students' starting points and building up instructional plans. While these tests have their place, they may not give the most useful information for this moment. Instead, use this opportunity to improve your formative-assessment game. Ask most teachers and principals, and I'd bet they'd tell you the term 'formative assessment' denotes a type of assessment and not much more. As originally defined by the researchers who found so much promise in it, formative assessment is a process that emphasizes designing the right arc of learning, 'dipsticking' kids at strategic points along the way, planning the right feedback, etc. We'll need the best means possible to see where kids actually are so we can shift our lesson planning. For an entry point, see the work of Dylan Wiliam as described by teacher Tom Sherrington in this blog post from early 2019.
  2. "Invest in building practices based on how people best learn and gain expertise. Based on our field's history with this, that may sound like an impossibly tall order. It doesn't have to mean acquiring a whole new curriculum or program. I'm talking about day-to-day strategies every teacher can build into their instruction. A guide like Rosenshine's Principles can be very helpful. They draw on the lessons of cognitive science, observational studies of master teachers, and findings from studies that taught learning strategies to students. It's fairly basic stuff, like making sure daily review is built in, providing students with exemplars and models of envisioned products, checking for understanding, and—again—formative assessment. I've found Rosenshine to be quite useful planning my own online instruction over the past few months. When I assigned essays, for example, I knew I'd have to devise some way to provide models to substitute for what I would have done in class. It was part of my checklist of instructional must-dos; I just had to rework them for remote learning.
  3. "Make time for teacher teams to discuss 'handoffs' of kids and content. To shorten next year's on ramp into the usual class content and standards, explicit efforts should be made to connect feeder grades to the ones above them. In my small charter school, this will be a breeze. In larger school districts and CMOs, it may take some more effort, but it's worth the time: Facilitated discussions of key units that were axed when the pandemic struck, students who ran the spectrum from missing-in-action to thriving over the spring, and so on, would be very helpful to receiving teachers—and to administrators who must consider various interventions for the students who were most adversely impacted by school shutdowns. The devil is in the details, of course, but it would be good for school leaders to block off some time now to make sure that happens sometime in the vacation months—or, at the very least, dedicate an entire half day to such vertical handoff conversations during next fall's preservice sessions."

Sound advice, and admirably not top-down, overly ambitious, or au courant. Indeed, Kalenze had some sharply worded advice for principals: This is the worst time to take the cool-sounding advice of ed gurus. "And by the way," he added, "the gurus out there saying, 'Do this, because your kids need this' should be especially ashamed of themselves. It may sell, but it's presumptuous bordering on disrespectful."

Thanks again to Rick for this bulliest pulpit.  See you next time.

—Robert Pondiscio

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