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Partnership Schools’ Approach This Fall: Back to Basics

Beginning this week, students at all nine Partnership Schools are now back in class in person. And while we’re proud of what we accomplished last year—safe in-person learning from day 1 for all families who sought it, and academic performance that beat pre-pandemic national averages—we know that our students, families, and teachers have been impacted by the pandemic in many ways, and those impacts may linger long after the virus is no longer the same threat. Thus we are beginning this year with two strategic focuses in our classrooms—both anchored in our belief that strong attention to a few basic elements of instruction are crucial for our students not just to recover from COVID’s impact, but to thrive.


Back to Basics: Classroom Culture


We estimate that, between returning remote learners and new students, as many as 40% of our New York students and 50% of our Cleveland students will have not stepped into a physical classroom for almost eighteen months. So no matter how strong classroom culture, habits, and expectations were before COVID, we should take nothing for granted this fall.

In thriving classrooms, systems and routines appear to operate invisibly, because there is a high degree of student buy-in and ownership and marginal adult prompting. But it takes intentional pre-planning and teaching expectations explicitly to students—along with the why behind those expectations—to help young people turn these routines into habits of learning they eventually internalize. That is why we included a “back-to-basics” push  in our summer and fall teacher and leader development that gives each member of the community the space to rebuild culture from the ground up.

For us, that means focusing as we always do on “purpose over power” and on creating the values- and beliefs-driven procedures and systems that foster healthy classroom environments for teachers and students. As other education leaders have put it, we want our students to believe, and not simply behave. For this to happen, teachers must reinforce expectations with consistency, purpose, and emotional constancy. And this year may be harder than in years past for a few reasons.

We expect that many students will have diminished stamina for full-length lessons and extended school days and will need to recoup their attention capacity. Some, having enjoyed far more independence this past year, may bristle a bit at returning to the structure of formal classroom instruction. And teachers will need to do far more active classroom management with full class sizes.

We’ve been priming teachers to anticipate these normal classroom dynamics, and we’ve been revisiting three key classroom management principles they know, and for which we are grateful to our Teach Like a Champion partners:

  • Using “What to Do” directions—that is, directions that describe what students should do, as opposed to what they are not doing, and then praising follow-through.
  • Relying on “Firm, Calm Finesse” as a general rule for interacting with students to show that normal interactions are not emotionally charged.
  • Always using the “Least Invasive Form of Intervention” to avoid disrupting the thread of instruction and to preserve students’ dignity.

It will take more than the first day or week, but we’ve seen students form great habits over time in the past, and we know that with teachers functioning from these basic principles, they can do so again.


Back to Basics: Academic Acceleration and “Just-in-time” Remediation


While building a strong school culture is a significant focus for us now, the purpose of that culture building is to pave the way for the rigorous, curriculum-driven instruction that will need to happen throughout the year to ensure our students are on the path to academic growth and success.

One of the most heated debates in the school reform movement is over how best to “catch students up” once they have fallen behind. Research demonstrates that supplanting grade-level content in an effort to remediate content or skills from a previous grade can have detrimental impacts on learning gains long-term, especially for our most struggling students. It also shows that students stand to learn the most from challenging, grade-level content and strategic supports or scaffolding that facilitates meaningful engagement.

We know that  classrooms where significant numbers of students have not had the opportunity to master grade-level skills, teachers will need to make modifications to set children up for success. To that end, as we prepare for the knowledge and skills gaps we expect many of our students may bring with them in the fall, we will focus our efforts on what researchers call “just in time” remediation.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, we’ve consistently kept grade-level content front and center as a first defense against learning loss, and it is now the official recommendation of the United States Department of Education for COVID-19 recovery. The main idea is that gaps in prerequisite skills and knowledge should be addressed when they are associated with the acquisition of new knowledge in a particular lesson.

Our teachers know the importance of this, but the scale of student struggle may be greater than they have ever experienced before—and they may be more tempted than ever to supplant grade-level curriculum to prevent student frustration. To support strong instruction, we will work toward a clear picture of excellence for instructional scaffolding and support—or “just in time remediation”—one that is grounded in preserving core curriculum and rigorous grade-level instruction.




No doubt, launching the 2021-22 school year feels different from any other time in our recent history. But we know we were built for this—and we will lean on a thoughtful and disciplined set of priorities in the months to come, and our network team will provide leaders and teachers what we have promised schools since the Partnership’s inception: “focus, excellence, and support.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics for Partnership Schools.