Teach New Content or Review Familiar Material? A Tough Call During Coronavirus Closures

Terrell Bell, wearing a protective face mask, looks at a learning guide he picked up last month for his little sister at John H. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia. The school district is struggling to figure out how to keep students leaning during building closures.
Terrell Bell, wearing a protective face mask, looks at a learning guide he picked up last month for his little sister at John H. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia. The school district is struggling to figure out how to keep students leaning during building closures.
—AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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Tania Stoker, the assistant superintendent for the Northern Lehigh School District in Pennsylvania, remembers the moment when administrators realized they needed a new plan for distance learning.

Schools in the district had been shut down for about two weeks, sending out review packets by mail and posting enrichment activities to Google classroom. Administrators didn’t want to hold students responsible for new learning, because they couldn’t know what was going on at home. But the activities were only a stopgap measure, a way to keep kids “in the educational mindset,” Stoker said. And every day, the questions loomed larger: “What if this extends? What are we going to do?”

The turning point came at the end of March, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced schools would be closed indefinitely. Just over a week later, they would be closed for the academic year. “We said, OK—we need to kind of figure out what we’re doing here,” Stoker said. “We need something more structured.”

By now, more than half of all states have recommended or ordered schools closed through the academic year. Faced with the new reality that they won’t see students in classrooms again this year, many districts are having to make the same choice as Northern Lehigh: Should they reinforce the learning that students have already done this year, continuing to provide optional enrichment and review? Or should they try to forge ahead through the curriculum, continuing to cover new standards and content?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos weighed in on the question earlier this month, saying that learning should continue for all students. “We would hope that it would be an aspirational goal ... that the students would not only maintain their current level of learning, but continue to expand,” she said.

But states have issued conflicting guidance. A report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Teaching Systems Lab found that this decision—enrichment versus progressing through the curriculum—was one of the most common areas of policy divergence in states’ distance learning plans.

The decision often hinges on questions of equity. If students don’t have internet access, devices, or a quiet place to work at home, they might fall behind as teachers cover new concepts.

“If we charged forward and tried to say we’re covering a lot of new learning, we’re just going to exacerbate a lot of inequities,” said Jared Myracle, the chief academic officer for the Jackson-Madison County Schools in Tennessee. Between 60 percent to 70 percent of students in the district have internet access at home, he said.

But not moving forward comes with its own consequences, said Thomas Parker, the superintendent of the Allentown school district in Pennsylvania. The district plans to start its distance learning plan the week of April 20, after about a month of enrichment and review during closures.

Inequities in his students’ lives have already created a divide, between kids in his district and kids in wealthier districts. “We can’t afford not to push the envelope,” Parker said. “If their peers are progressing, they have to progress, too.”

Avoiding ‘Dogmatic’ Guidance

State level guidance on this question mostly consists of suggestions, with frequent caveats that districts—and even individual teachers—may make different decisions based on unique circumstances.

“No one is dogmatic about these things,” said Justin Reich, the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and one of the authors of the report on state remote learning guidance.

For instance, Massachusetts recommends that districts focus on “reinforcing skills already taught this school year as well as applying and deepening these skills,” but notes that teachers may wish to continue with new material. Tennessee suggests that remote learning materials be “duplicative of what students have mastered to allow for independent work at home.” But schools can include “bonus” material that covers new content if they want to.

Some states have changed their guidance, as closures have extended. In Pennsylvania, the department originally gave districts a choice between “planned instruction”—moving forward with new standards—or enrichment and review. Now, all districts are expected to submit a continuity of education plan, though the state suggests still making enrichment and review available.

Nebraska’s guidance from the department of education recommends a “layered approach,” where districts might start with “short-term enrichment opportunities” and then move to a long-term instructional plan for the rest of the closure. Nebraska’s schools are now closed through the end of the academic year.

An enrichment-only approach made sense back when Nebraska districts thought they might only be closed for two weeks, said Cory Epler, the academic officer in the state's office of teaching, learning, and assessment. But as closures extended further, “we wanted [districts] to be thinking about the different phases of the resources they would be providing students.”

‘What Do You Do With Kids in the Fall?’

As for most questions about distance learning during this pandemic, there’s little roadmap or precedent for which approach is best.

But the topic has courted controversy. When Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite announced that teachers couldn’t cover any new material until May 4—to give the district time to get devices and internet out to students without connectivity—he faced criticism that the decision disadvantaged students who had the access to start new lessons immediately.

“As long as Philadelphia denies its students online instruction, they will fall behind students from other districts. What’s equitable about that?” wrote Paul T. von Hippel, an associate professor of public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, in an article for Education Next.

But forging ahead through the curriculum, when only some students are logging on, creates other problems, Reich said.

“What do you do with kids in the fall, when half of the kids have progressed through the standards and half haven’t?” he asked. The question isn’t just hypothetical. In New York City, the mayor has said “there’s clearly an issue with attendance” in remote learning; in Los Angeles, thousands of students are missing from online classes.

And it’s not clear that one approach over the other would be best for students’ wellbeing during this time, said Isaiah B. Pickens, the assistant director of service systems at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

“The context for each kid experiencing this pandemic is different,” he said. Pushing forward through the curriculum could help children stay engaged in school—and keep them from getting too bored at home. But kids who are experiencing intense stress and trauma—maybe they have a family member who’s sick with the virus—might have limited ability to focus on new material. Enrichment could be more useful for them, Pickens said, as a tool to stay connected with familiar routines.

Regardless, Pickens said, predictability is important. Students should know what they’re doing and when, and what outcome they’re working toward.

“Anyone with a coherent, simple, communicative plan, is going to be better off than otherwise,” Reich said.

‘Figure Out Ways to Cover New Material’

In districts that don’t yet have plans to cover new material—or have waited several weeks into shutdowns to make the transition—leaders say they’re trying to get the system right before they start requiring kids to participate.

For Myracle, the chief academic officer in Tennessee, consistency is a key part of the plan. Right now, the district is focusing on enrichment, providing resources that are aligned with the universal curriculum that Jackson-Madison uses during the school year. Knowing that students will be doing enrichment activities in curricula that they’re already familiar with and use year-round can assist in “maintaining some momentum,” said Myracle.

Not every student has adults at home who can help with schoolwork, so his district took this approach to make sure that lessons could be completed independently, without adult supervision—as advised in Tennessee’s remote learning guidance.

“As we continue to get further into this, we’re going to try to figure out ways to cover new material, while keeping in mind that not every kid has a parent at home to help,” Myracle said. For now, the district is still trying to make contact with all of their students, some of whom they haven’t heard from. “Their learning is still unaccounted for during this time,” he said.

In Allentown, devices and internet connectivity are the limiting factor, said Parker, the superintendent. The district plans to start its long-term distance learning plan the week of April 20, a month after schools first shut down.

The 17,000-student district started with an enrichment approach so as not to disadvantage students without internet access, and give schools time to plan for how they would serve English-language learners and students with disabilities, Parker said. Preliminary results from a survey of families found that 83 percent of students had internet at home, and a little over half have access to a computer.

The district is planning to purchase additional devices and transition to Edgenuity and Odysseyware, online learning platforms that the state has provided access to. Allentown has also applied for the state department of education’s new equity grant program, which will allocate up to $5 million in grants for devices and hotspots in districts, and to pay for delivery of paper materials.

“There’s an almost unseen, untalked about issue with districts that are fiscally distressed,” Parker said. “This has been an extra burden and an extra challenge, because we just didn’t have the capacity internally to turn around as quickly as some of our peers.”

‘Overwhelming’ Gaps to Fill

In some ways, the Northern Lehigh district—less than an hour away from Allentown—seemed poised to make an easier transition out of review work and into new learning.

Schools there have 1-to-1 computing environments at all grade levels, and many teachers had already uploaded their classes onto Google Classroom or Canvas in the year before the pandemic. Northern Lehigh is also a tenth of the size of Allentown, at about 1,700 students. Staff were able to search for individual students’ Chromebooks in school buildings, and hand-deliver them out to kids whose families drove to pick them up.

For some teachers, this infrastructure made for a mostly seamless shift. But for others, progressing through the curriculum online still won’t come close to what they could have done in the classroom.

Kim Filipovits, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher at Northern Lehigh Middle School, said she’s had to rework some lessons, but can still cover most of her curriculum remotely.

She’s assigning about 30 minutes of work a day—per district guidelines—which works out to about the same amount of time she would have gotten with students in a 45-minute class period. Her students are familiar with Google Classroom, having used it this past year.

“There will definitely be review and catch-up [next year], but I don’t know if it’s going to be as much as people think,” Filipovits said.

But even when students have technology access, some teachers have had to radically redesign their instructional plan for the rest of the year. Tony Tulio, a 5th grade math and science teacher at Slatington Elementary in the district, has students for an hour and half in math class each day during the regular school year. Online, he only has 30 minutes.

“One day of assignments is now split over three days,” Tulio said. “That’s the tough part.”

As soon as he and his colleagues heard that the district would be moving to a longer-term distance learning plan, they got to work on a month-long calendar, outlining the standards and essential content that they would cover. Some things had to go.

Practice opportunities were slashed—instead of 10 word problems, for instance, students would only do one or two. The entire last module of the year, in which 5th graders learn about graphing, plotting points, reading charts, had to be cut. The 5th and 6th grade math teams worked on the distance learning calendar together, Tulio said, so next year’s teachers will know what students still need to cover. Still, he’s worried.

It makes sense to try for new learning, Tulio thinks. “It’s going to be easier to bridge gaps than it’s going to be to teach something brand new,” he said. But there’s going to be a lot of gaps to fill. “We’re trying not to think about it now, because it’s a little bit overwhelming,” Tulio said.

Northern Lehigh is already planning to address learning gaps in the fall, said Stoker, the assistant superintendent. “I’d love to say that we’re going to be at the same point, but probably, we won’t,” she said, noting that there was likely learning lost in the first few weeks of the closures.

Making plans for fall should be a priority for everyone, regardless of which approach—review or new content districts take, said Reich, from MIT.

If districts decide to move forward through their curriculum, some students won’t be able to complete assignments from home. But if districts stick with enrichment and review, families with more time and resources will make sure that their kids are progressing—also widening gaps, Reich said.

“I think there are very few ways of imagining what happens that don’t expand inequality,” he said. “There may be more to be gained in investing resources in the fall than in investing resources in trying to make remote learning work.”

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