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Hindsight is 2024: A premortem on districts’ return to school

Imagine that it is spring 2024: Three years have passed since schools were thrust into remote learning under COVID. School systems have returned to in-person options for all students. Districts have spent $123 billion on student recovery and advancement. And…it has spectacularly failed. Schools have not implemented substantive improvement in student or staff well-being, meaningfully corrected widening opportunity gaps, or put any lasting changes in place.

What happened? What prevented billions in spending and countless hours of educator sweat from improving outcomes for students?

This thought experiment is what we call a premortem, used by leadership to predict forward to the end of a project and imagine all the ways that it could go wrong. This analysis helps give leaders pushing for change the foresight they need to overcome the barriers that threaten the lifespan of ambitious work.

We believe there are at least four reasons the $123 billion American Rescue Plan (ARP) stimulus funding could go wildly awry. Our conclusions are based on conversations with district and community-based leaders working to drive sustainable change in their cities and our previous year’s research on COVID-related impacts to districts and state systems. The reasons are not new, but they remind us how racial and structural inequity is likely to persist in our children’s educational experience beyond the pandemic — and they can be used as a guide for how systems leaders can use a combination of strategy and risk to find success in this moment, and set the stage for future success.

Reason One: Union priorities that run counter to students’ and communities’ interests

Teachers’ unions have fought hard against reopening schools this year, and in many communities they have faced off against parents at a new and fevered pitch.

While they represent the critical voice of millions of employees, they do not always represent the needs and wishes of families. In many communities, teachers are considerably more white than the student population they serve: about 79 percent of teachers nationally identify as white, compared to about 48 percent of students. The union not only runs the risk of advancing policies that put teachers’ needs over students’, but privileging a white dominant point of view. This can eschew preferences that parents and students of color feel are critical to their wellbeing and progress. Given COVID’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, now is an especially important time to advance non-white perspectives on educational priorities.

Teachers unions could thwart progress if they fight against changes to staffing or schedules necessary for districts to fundamentally transform how they educate students. Such a position could pit them against students’ preference for more scheduling flexibility coming out of the pandemic. Unions have already shown signs of obstructing such change: In one Minnesota community, they clashed in court with the district over thirty minutes’ prep time and in a New Jersey community, they delayed reopening plans until representatives can physically inspect school buildings.

Reason Two: Lack of district vision clarity and alignment of resources

Districts have had to maneuver through remarkable, complex, and unprecedented challenges this year. Most districts prioritized operational challenges over academic ones as they rolled out sometimes costly safety initiatives, and worked to bridge technology gaps.

In theory, this greater technology access and improved safety measures could be used to help forge a brave new path for districts. But we’re concerned that many districts—still reeling from the challenges of the past year and flooded with unprecedented funds—may lack the internal vision or coherence to mobilize and deploy their new assets effectively.

District and school leaders have been stretched thin this year, scrambling to address waves of school closures and constantly changing local conditions. The multiple, quick infusions of federal stimulus funds require that leaders pivot to a proactive stance and quickly align their investments under a broader vision. It asks them to reimagine and reassemble roles to deploy services, and to dismantle structural barriers at all levels that could prevent them from achieving this vision.

To achieve this, districts must head off potentially crippling principal and superintendent turnover, and work toward organizational coherence by engaging stakeholders in collective decision-making structures and effectively communicating information.

One district to watch is North Carolina’s Guilford County Public Schools, which plans to redesign its high school experience with its most marginalized students at the center. It is launching high school learning hubs that will pilot flexible schedules for students, including afternoon and evening schooling so students can accommodate internships and jobs during the traditional school day, as well as new approaches to enrichment and credit attainment. These hubs will place principals in the driver’s seat, allowing each school to design flexible learning environments and curriculum that accommodate the needs of their students most at risk of disengaging or dropping out.

History has taught us that matching underprepared districts with a large infusion of short-term funding often does not translate into lasting results for students and communities. And spending without planning risks districts spreading resources thin rather than making sizeable investments in priorities that get measurable results.

CRPE will be looking in the coming months and years to learn from districts that defy history—and the norm—to the long-term benefit of students.

Reason Three: Unclear pathways to long-term sustainability

While federal stimulus funds will stretch well into 2024, they are ultimately a one-time investment. When stimulus dollars dried up after the 2008 recession, schools had to make substantial cuts.

Districts are inclined to triage, investing funds into immediate strategies to address the last year’s impact on student well-being and academic attainment. However, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that just 5 percent of the ARP K-12 funds will be spent this year.

Districts, then, are likely to have a remarkable amount of funds to spend down over a short time period, ending in fall 2024. In order to spend resources wisely, they will want to invest in forward-looking strategies aimed at building internal capacity. This could include building more diverse talent pipelines, teacher coaching and mentoring corps, and entirely new structures to integrate parent and community voice into school and district decision-making.

We heard from six districts—each of which has a vision for disrupting inequitable systems and driving durable change—that a lack of long-term funding could derail their plans. These leaders will thus use the short term funding to pilot desired long-term efforts and consider how they might reallocate title, state, and local funding to permanently support such efforts.

At the same time, philanthropic institutions should invest now in school systems with a strong vision to test and improve their ideas, and later, bridge funding cliffs for those who demonstrate real successes.

A lot is at stake here. Should districts not show improvements in capacity and student outcomes in three years, they risk jeopardizing future funding and support.

Reason Four: Lack of family, student, and community buy-in to change

We know that trust in schooling is at an all-time low this year for many families—especially families of color. If districts invest in initiatives that feel heavy-handed or inconsequential to students, families and communities, they risk losing their buy-in and partnership in achieving common goals. We do see some districts asking students and families how they should be spending these funds. We have not yet seen districts asking them about new visions for long-term change.

Districts must go the extra mile in accommodating diverse needs for diverse families, like extending in-person learning enrollment deadlines, over-communicating about school safety and health measures, and planning for novel ways to meet students’ needs who have not been in school for the past year due to COVID.

Those who do not bring parents along face parent-initiated lawsuits and long-term enrollment losses as parents exit their children to other school options. As a cautionary tale to districts, this fall the proportion of households identifying as Black or African-American increased their participation in homeschooling by five times since spring 2021.

Students and families are districts’ ultimate consumers. If they do not want what the district offers, they will disengage. That could mean leaving the system or, possibly worse, staying on paper but disengaging from their school. Even districts with a vision and aligned team cannot achieve their goals if their end consumer isn’t on board with where they want to go.

What to do?

While a macabre activity, a premortem prompts leaders to examine how they can learn from examination of a bleak future—and then, hopefully, change mindsets and behaviors to prevent its existence. These are just a few steps that school systems should consider now in order to truly architect a new future.

  • Align to a framework. Choose an overarching framework to guide all resource input, allocations and investments, and to maintain coherence across strategies. This could be the district’s strategic plan, which is then linked to individual school plans. Denver Public Schools, for instance, uses a framework of four “priority crisis areas” that it regularly surveys families on. The district then reports out next steps.
  • Increase transparency and over-communicate. Communicate frequently about how newly-funded initiatives connect to the strategic plan and school plans, and how stimulus funds are being allocated. Boston Public Schools provides a good starting example for reporting out budgetary goals. Washoe County School District in Reno, NV is starting by surveying families to inform a two-year strategic plan and budget for stimulus funds. Stakeholders provide preferences for budget priorities, academic recovery supports, strategies for recruiting, retaining, and developing staff, and student social emotional wellness and safety measures, among other things. Districts should also strive to communicate how they make decisions, especially for their most divisive ones.
  • Formalize engagement and decision-making structures for students and families from systemically underserved communities. Teacher and parent input tends to be oversubscribed by white participants. Districts and schools can’t expect to receive demographically representative input from surveys alone, and labor contracts often impede student-centered decision-making. In order to equalize the playing field, districts need to formalize two-way communication structures with students and families of color, those with learning or health disabilities, and families who are bi- or multilingual. Such formal structures are still nascent in school systems, but districts would start with inviting marginalized students and families into specific practices. Examples could include invitation to a Superintendent student advisory committee, adjusting board membership policy to allow student or parent representation, inviting parent and community leaders to co-lead strategic plan initiatives alongside district leaders, and working toward more transparency in labor negotiations.
  • Balance triage with long-term capacity building. Make a short- and long-term plan for use of funds, using stakeholder input. What short-term investments must be made immediately to support students’ well-being and academic recovery? How much control will be given to parents to direct short-term funds? Some states used GEER stimulus funds to set up education scholarship accounts, which allocate funds directly to parents to choose from a menu of service options. Districts should treat the next two years’ additional funding as a research and development lab, piloting human capital capacity-building strategies to strengthen talent pipeline diversity, staff development, and staff retention. Districts with significant percentages of students opting to stay in remote learning will also want to test more effective blended and virtual learning programs.
  • Anchor this moment in removing racial and structural inequities. The pandemic first highlighted just how deeply-baked racial and structural inequities are in our education system, then exacerbated them as children of color were less likely to receive comparable access to quality instruction, mental supports, and healthcare. Just 32 percent of 106 large and urban districts that CRPE tracked mentioned racial equity in their fall reopening plans, and only 16 communicated what actions they were taking to address racial inequities in their new school year. Leaders have to explicitly communicate their commitment to earn back the trust of families and students. Districts that neglect to do this can appear implicit in perpetuating the systemic and racial inequalities that parents expect them to overcome, and run the risk of further alienating families and students of color. Examples include adopting antiracist curriculum and culturally responsive pedagogy, holding more parent and student focus groups to inform an updated district vision, launching more diverse talent pipelines, and investing in learning hubs and community-based partnerships that focus on racial affirmation and social justice.
  • Consider and promote alternative measures of student success. This year reminds us of the enormous role that schools play in students’ lives, well beyond academic learning. While districts’ main responsibility is to deliver quality teaching and learning, they also provide student socialization, counseling and guidance, mental health support, and access to housing, health, and other services. Our state assessment and accountability systems’ focus on academic indicators as complete measures of student progress looks outdated after this year, and districts should use this moment to begin tracking and sharing other types of student success outcomes— ultimately redefining what we expect of our schools. Districts should begin the next school year with an assessment of student welfare and needs and then annually report out to the community their outcomes and progress.
  • Leverage sources of power outside your own organization. High-functioning organizations tend to be really good at a handful of priorities—not everything. Consider allocating resources to agencies that are great at other things your students also need. Use this moment to determine how successful your partners are. Indianapolis Public Schools, for instance, is using its open-source Summer Learning Initiative to partner with dozens of community partners to provide summer school. It will measure their efficacy on a common rubric to determine which partnerships to continue in the fall.
  • Do your own premortem. Perhaps most useful would be for district and school teams to do their own thought experiment of what could get in the way of their success. Invite diverse voices, and allow the conversation to surface proactive approaches to hindsight learned through foresight. Identify what matters most to the system’s most marginalized students, articulate a new vision, determine what is most likely to impede change, and build inclusive strategies to overcome resistance with students at the center.
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