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Whack-A-Mole: School Systems Respond to Disrupted Learning in 2021

In this report, we complement our latest fall 2021 survey research from the American School District Panel with in-depth interviews of leaders on the ground in five school systems.

Our goal with these interviews was to learn from system leaders about the academic needs of children as they return to school, how districts and charter schools are addressing those needs, and how the pandemic has affected schools.

In Brief:

  • Education leaders across the country recognize that students are falling behind academically during the pandemic. Some districts are responding by emphasizing grade-level instruction and just-in-time supports rather than remediation. We interviewed top leaders in five school systems committed to this approach to learn more about its implementation.
  • We found that implementing acceleration required school systems to work with schools in new ways, but the strategy was complicated by a host of factors that made getting to instruction difficult: challenging student behaviors, staffing shortages, and the politicization of health, safety, and education. All these pressures have made leading school districts in 2021–22 like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole.
  • School districts across the country are working hard to catch students up. But the Whack-A-Mole experience of leading during the pandemic raises questions about how these pressures will affect system leaders and leadership and whether, in the future, schools alone will be able to do enough to help all students get the help they need to recover.

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