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Teaching recovery? Three years in, school system leaders report that the pandemic weakened instruction

In this report, we conclude our research on five school systems to reveal the academic, social, and political challenges posed by the pandemic and what leaders and their staff are doing to address student learning loss. This report provides a possible explanation for why we continue to see lackluster student test scores (see for example, recent NAEP and NWEA scores) and why school systems struggle to implement and scale targeted student supports.

The report is part of the American School District Panel, a research partnership between the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Researchers granted participants – including the systems they manage – anonymity in order to elicit candid responses. Throughout this series, the narrative that emerged is one of plan after plan thwarted by unexpected circumstances and challenges, requiring systems to abandon once-ambitious student recovery plans to address, among other things, a crisis in classroom teaching quality. These most recent findings are the result of conversations with leaders in the Spring of 2023.

"I think in many ways we are just starting to be able to assess the impact [of the pandemic]."

Among the significant findings in this report are:

  • A crisis in the quality of classroom teaching is, leaders say, diverting time and resources away from targeted supports for students and toward improving classroom instruction.
  • Leaders report less day-to-day chaos, but unexpected challenges in staffing and teacher development have curtailed recovery efforts. As a result, their Covid recovery plans have been difficult, if not impossible, to carry out.
  • Plans for tutoring and other customized help have been undone by leaders’ need to build (or rebuild) teachers’ core skills.
  • Millions of dollars and the best of intentions and efforts notwithstanding, leaders are struggling to overcome challenges to providing baseline services to students.

This report, with its unguarded feedback from dozens of system leaders across the United States, is an important peek into systemic challenges that force us to evaluate our shared expectations for what kind of student recovery may – or may not – be possible.

When paired with recent NAEP and NWEA results, uncomfortable but critical questions emerge: Is a teaching recovery necessary before a student recovery can begin in earnest? Is it too much to expect school systems to rebuild teaching and support students’ academic recovery? 

District strategies are likely not enough to reverse pandemic learning loss in the near term; this is an “all hands on deck” moment to simultaneously improve classroom teaching and catch up students. Click here to read the full report and complete recommendations.

“If you get stuck on one unit and [the students] don't get it, you can't really move to the next unit because they kind of follow each other... We do need extra hands. All hands on deck.”

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