Two months after schools across the country began to shut down in-person instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic, almost every state has directed its schools to provide some kind of remote instruction, and asked millions of students to engage in distance learning. But how much instruction are states recommending, and in what form?
Education Week scanned all 50 states’ publicly available continuous learning directives and guidance documents, tracking trends and identifying points of divergence. Though most states had few requirements for how districts should structure remote learning, some common recommendations emerged around instruction and assessment practices.
“Nearly all states that are issuing guidance are focusing on flexibility, given that these times are so odd,” said Joseph Hedger, an associate editor at the National Association of State Boards of Education, who analyzed states’ continuous learning plans in a brief for the organization.
States’ suggested guidance documents are still constantly evolving, as districts request further direction.
Several research teams, including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Teaching Systems Lab and at Michigan State’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, analyzed states’ plans in March and April. Even in the few weeks that have followed, more states have added policies for grading, promotion, and instruction, and have issued new guidance for teaching special education students and English-language learners.
Emphasis on recommendations, not requirements
As the school year draws to a close, it’s still difficult to know how this guidance has shaped how districts have chosen to conduct remote learning.
Only about half of the states require districts to submit their continuous learning plans for review–documents that outline what platforms and resources districts are using, how they’ll serve special populations, how they will monitor engagement or attendance, and how they’ll conduct assessments.
“There are still a number of states where districts are being recommended, but not required, to develop plans. If you think about that with respect to on-the-ground implications, you could have pretty enormous variation,” said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, and one of the authors of the IPPSR report.
In Michigan, for example, many districts didn’t have a continuous learning plan until the governor required it by executive order, on April 2, Reckhow said.
And there’s some evidence that detailed guidance has influenced districts, even when a plan is not required, said Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.
The organization has tracked district responses to school closures. Florida school systems generally have well-developed plans, Heyward said, even though the state only encouraged–not required–that districts create them. “Districts knew that they needed to comply,” Heyward said. “It’s kind of like an effective use of soft power.”
‘Seat-time’ rules loosened
Almost every state has addressed what “seat time” will look like in a virtual setting. During the regular school year, most require students to receive 180 days of instruction.
During remote learning, 32 states as of early May had taken steps to release districts from day or hour requirements for instruction. These range from allowing districts to apply for waivers, issuing blanket waivers or suspensions of these rules, or saying that districts will continue to receive funding for days when schools were closed and won’t have to make up these days.
Of these, 16 states have made this waiver conditional, requiring that districts submit plans for approval, attestations that they’re providing remote learning, or summary reports of remote learning provided during the closures.
Other states have taken a different approach, saying that distance learning can count toward these instructional time requirements, or providing assurances that districts will continue to receive full funding while they do distance learning.
Asking districts to submit a plan is one of the “levers that states can pull,” said Heyward. “A state could then use that plan to monitor for quality, or to provide some kind of differentiated support,” she said. This is the case in Wyoming, where the state plans to monitor districts’ implementation. Only districts that have carried out their plans can receive a waiver for instructional days.
“Those [states] that didn’t set any expectation, they were basically saying, ‘It’s up to the district. Whatever they decide, we’re good with that,'” Heyward said.
Aside from the states that require districts to submit plans, there aren’t many other requirements for what instruction should look like, said Reckhow. “It’s mostly guidance,” she said.
“I think the harder decisions are definitely ahead of us rather than behind us.” – Sarah Reckhow, Associate Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University
Only 17 states recommend the specific minimum and maximum number of hours that students should be engaged in remote learning. These guidelines vary, but generally are progressive through the grade levels, starting with about 30 minutes a day for preschoolers and going up to 3-4 hours a day for high school students.
Kansas was one of the first states to list hour-by-hour time recommendations, and the same schedule has been adopted by at least a handful other states. The state released its continuous learning plan early on during the closures, in mid-March. Kansas’ department of education saw schools across the country starting to close, and assembled a team of teachers, principals, and administrators before Gov. Laura Kelly made the decision to shut down for the rest of the academic year, said Brad Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner of the division of learning services for the Kansas State Department of Education.
This group, led by two teachers and an assistant superintendent, developed guidelines for hours of instruction with access concerns in mind. “Imagine you are a family of four and you have limited internet, and you only have one device. What would this look like? And that’s what we went from, common sense,” said Cindy Couchman, the assistant superintendent for Buhler Unified School District 313, and one of the group’s leaders.
They also developed the plan’s guiding priorities and philosophy, which emphasize a “less is more” approach: focus on essential learning, emphasize relationships, be flexible, and “extend grace” to students and teachers as they may struggle to adapt to a new environment.
In general, states’ guidance encourages districts to focus on students’ emotional well-being and immediate needs–like school meals–and to plan instruction with equity at the center. The MIT Teaching Systems Lab’s early analysis noted this trend in late March, and such language has remained even as states update their guidance.
Most states recommend frequent teacher-student interaction, with regular check-ins. A few specify what that means: In Arkansas, Delaware, and Michigan, for example, students should be contacted at least once a week; in Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont, it’s every day. Almost half of all states, 22, suggest that teachers set regular office hours so they can be available for student and parent questions.
Moving from review to teaching new material
For the most part, what content to prioritize is left up to districts. But about a third of states, 18, ask districts to focus on covering “critical” standards, or note that districts can prioritize teaching “essential” knowledge and skills. While most states do not specify in their guidance which standards fall into this category, a few do. Alabama and Massachusetts have listed essential standards in English/language arts, math, science, and social studies.
When schools first shut down, the Teaching Systems Lab report noted, some states recommended that districts only focus on enrichment and review during the closures, rather than try to continue to progress through the curriculum. But as it’s become clear that most schools will be closed through the end of the school year, some states–including Massachusetts and Pennsylvania–have changed course, asking districts to teach new material for the rest of the school year.
But even though more states may suggest moving on to new material, students still struggle to access online learning.
“The states can play a role, and some have, in bridging the digital divide for districts,” said Heyward. Five states and the Virgin Islands have allocated funds to help extend districts’ capacity to offer devices, she said.
More generally, states encourage districts to find ways to get tech to students, while acknowledging that they should be providing both online and offline options to tailor their schools’ approach to student needs.
Every state provides a list of links to, or a curated selection of, online resources that districts can choose to use. And in at least 37 states, public broadcasting networks are providing some or all students with distance learning.
By now, every state has issued some guidance on how to provide instruction for students in special education. Still, as noted in the IPPSR report, many of these documents are vague.
Fewer states, 37, have provided guidance and/or specific educational resources for English-language learners.
‘Do no harm’ approach for grading
States have also had to plan for the eventual end of the 2019-20 school year, offering guidance as to how students should be graded and whether they should be promoted.
Most states have eased graduation requirements for seniors. But promotion has received less attention. Most states don’t address it or they simply say it’s a local decision. Eleven states include policies that encourage advancing students to the next grade.
Both North Carolina and Delaware suggest that if students were on track for promotion before the shutdowns, students should be promoted. Oregon’s guidance is even broader, ordering districts not to make any decision that negatively affects course placement, acceptance to honor societies or other future opportunities.
When it comes to grading–another flashpoint in conversations about what remote learning should look like–states are somewhat more unified in their recommendations.
While most still note that grading is a local decision, many encourage schools to take into account the challenges and inequities students may be experiencing before formally evaluating work.
And some go farther. By Education Week’s analysis, at least 16 states have suggested or mandated a “do no harm” approach to grading, recommending that, given the pandemic, grades shouldn’t negatively affect a student’s academic standing.
Nine states suggest that districts use pass/fail or credit/no credit grading, instead of an A-F or a numerical scale. Some acknowledge that whatever decision districts make on grading, it has the potential to have a long-lasting impact on students’ transcripts, especially at the high school level.
But for Oklahoma, this assessment of long-term impact is a reason to give grades, rather than a reason to institute a pass/fail system. “Due to the long-term negative implications on grade point averages (GPAs), Oklahoma’s Promise, NCAA eligibility and other scholarship opportunities, districts are strongly encouraged to continue to issue traditional letter grades in lieu of Pass/Fail (P/F) grading,” the guidance reads.
Other states–including Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Maine–have also recommended against or prohibited pass/fail grading.
What if remote learning continues?
Still, many of these recommendations–from instructional minutes, to grading policies, to which standards to cover–may change next academic year, if school buildings remain closed.
Carmen Ayala, the Illinois superintendent of education, said that the state plans to revise its guidance if remote learning continues into the fall, reshaping stopgap measures into a long-term strategy.
This means that the state’s policies on grading, which currently states that students’ grades can’t be lowered, may change in the coming school year, she said, in an interview. “Initially our position was under an emergency, very difficult, very shocking situation,” she said. “As we have evolved and we have learned more … we do need to think about what [grading] will look like.”
And the recommendations for time spent learning may be extended, she said, especially if instruction is going to count for a grade. “The minimum was really, really, really a minimum. I think we had barely an hour for kindergarten, for example, which I think we do need to … begin to adjust,” Ayala said.
In Kansas, the state department has pulled together a new team of educators to work on an updated guidance document, for next school year. “Our hope is we’ll be back in school [in] August, but what if there’s a second round?” Neuenswander asked. The document should be ready by early July, he said.
This time, the group is focused on long-term curriculum planning. Subject-specific experts are identifying the essential standards at different grade levels, and figuring out how to teach and assess those in a competency-based framework, rather than one that requires a certain amount of seat time.
Other states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, have already asked for districts to create plans for the 2020-21 academic year that consider continued distance learning as a possibility.
What that will look like–and how schools plan to address the equity issues that will still exist in the fall–is an open question, said Reckhow.
“It became very clear that states needed to close schools at some point, and the only situation on the table was distance learning. And it is what it is–we’ll get through the rest of the school year,” she said. “But the reopening process, and the resources that are going to be required in what may be a very resource-constrained future … I think the harder decisions are definitely ahead of us rather than behind us.”
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