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Academic Spotlight: What We Didn’t Do in March, 2020

A year ago this week, families in our Harlem and Bronx schools began to experience the ravages of the virus that hit our neighborhoods hard and early. Our schools had just sent students home with five days of independent learning material—buying just enough time, but not a day more, to get our schools up and running virtually. And while our schools went to work readying online classrooms, our academic team and school instructional leaders faced the same question that educators across the country grappled with: What do we do about student learning now?

At the time, we were keenly aware of a few pressing truths:

  • Our approach to classroom instruction, deliberately low-tech and content forward, needed to change to be delivered remotely.
  • To stem learning loss, that change had to happen fast, and it had to accommodate families without lots of tech at home.
  • The online educational ecosystem is flush with learning tools and new, open source resources—even whole curricula and tutoring programs—that we could access to manage the change.
  • No matter how tech savvy our teachers might be, they were going to be managing a lot of change in their craft at once—and doing so while they themselves were experiencing the impact of the pandemic on their lives and families.
  • Our approach needed to have integrity, one of our network’s core values. That is, new practices needed to align with what we believe about children, learning, and community.

In order to navigate those realities, we identified a small set of principles we determined to steer by—such as “remote learning isn’t always online” and “quality over quantity.”

A year later, we’re looking back at those understandings with which we began to navigate through this odyssey—particularly through the lens of how most of our students are progressing academically now.

What strikes us most is the impact of one big decision we didn’t expressly name in our principles last March: we chose not to blow up our curriculum.

This wasn’t necessarily a straightforward decision, given the avalanche of resources that were suddenly available, that would have been quick to turnkey, and that could have outsourced more teacher instruction and decision-making. Sometimes, when everything seems like it’s changing, it can feel risky to keep moving in the same direction. But we felt strongly that persisting with our core content and curriculum would result in the most meaningful learning for our students, and there is no replacement for a strong teacher at the helm of classroom culture and instruction. In hindsight, it seems that doubling down in particular on our rigorous, knowledge-based literacy curricula—Core Knowledge Language Arts and Reading Reconsidered—was even more helpful than we had anticipated.

Said differently, we shrunk the change. By continuing to teach familiar content, using routines students knew from in-person classrooms adapted to both synchronous and asynchronous learning, we achieved two outcomes whose importance we appreciate even more a year later than we did when we began pivoting for the pandemic. First, our students continued to grow against content-rich, grade-level material—which ample research demonstrates has an outsized impact on literacy development. And second, at a time when how our teachers taught needed to change to accommodate remote learning, keeping what they taught familiar gave our hard-working teachers and leaders needed oxygen to focus on aligning methodology and adapting to a virtual settings.

To be sure, we marshaled resources at the network level to ensure teachers had the support necessary to keep grade-level content front and center—including curating and producing daily instructional videos that students could study asynchronously, to provide a high-quality entree into the lesson content and to maximize opportunities for teachers to focus on checks for understanding during practice and feedback, both of which can be more time-consuming in remote learning.

We believe our consistent commitment to core curriculum has driven enduring reading gains, ones that appear to have weathered the pandemic well. In fact, given New York’s reluctance to administer the state test for a second year in a row, we decided to adopt and administer the NWEA MAP test in our New York schools this year, and the early data show that students in our New York City schools have beaten pre-pandemic national averages in every grade from Kindergarten through eighth as measured by NWEA’s widely administered MAP Growth assessment.

We relied on explicit, expert knowledge in making our decisions last spring; we knew that our curriculum decisions have long been deeply considered and informed by research and science, and we brought that same frame to bear in the crucial early decision-making months of the pandemic. But as a leadership group, we have also sought to study and embrace the notion of practical wisdom, defined by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi as “tacit knowledge acquired from experience that enables people to make prudent judgments and take actions based on the actual situation, guided by values and morals.”

It is the judgments we made informed by context and guided by our values—and definitely not shaped by any narrow expertise on how to sustain student learning in a pandemic—that guided us last spring. And as we move forward from this moment, looking to return all students to in-person learning as soon as possible and continuing the growth that is both their due and our imperative—it is this embrace of practical wisdom to inform decision making, rather than any curricular specific strategy, that we hope to continue long into the future.