Staffing shortages, disengaged students, and a lack of data have made it difficult for school districts to carry out the ambitious academic plans meant to drive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s the key finding of a new report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University, which found administrators retooling efforts to address those challenges.
Throughout the pandemic, CRPE has tracked five unnamed districts that predominantly serve students of color and have enrollments ranging from 6,000-40,000 students, seeking insights about their response and recovery efforts. The latest report, released this month, draws on findings from interviews with 25 administrators conducted between May and July 2022.
“I think there were some of us, myself included, who thought this year was going to be back to normal, whatever that is, but we were quickly reminded that actually it’s probably the hardest year yet,” one leader told CRPE.
Here are a few key issues researchers uncovered in their interviews.
Poor student attendance hampers recovery efforts
High rates of chronic absenteeism made it difficult to build momentum for many students, district leaders told CRPE. Beyond disengagement that grew during remote learning, leaders identified community violence and stress as factors that hamper attendance.
A competitive labor market has also drawn some older students away from completing their educations. When retail distribution centers opened near one district, high school students got hired to work overnight shifts for $20 an hour, leading to lower graduation rates in schools near that employer, one leader said.
Attendance is a problem at schools nationwide. Attendance Works, an organization that promotes measuring and responding to poor attendance, estimates that rates of chronic absenteeism have as much as doubled during the pandemic. Generally, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days, whether or not those absences are excused.
Staffing shortages challenge acceleration plans
Unfilled staff vacancies, teacher absences, and a shortage of substitute teachers made it difficult to consistently carry out academic acceleration plans, leaders said.
In one school system, about 1 in 6 teachers were absent on a typical day, an administrator said. Because the school system was only able to fill 61 percent of its substitute teaching openings, “on the worst days, this district could have over 90 classrooms without a substitute,” the report said.
Even leaders of districts that offered hiring bonuses said they struggled to fill open full-time positions in a tight labor market—a consistent struggle across all school systems.
That caused some school systems to scale back their ambitious academic recovery plans, replacing comprehensive acceleration efforts with more piecemeal tutoring and smaller interventions.
“[Because] we weren’t fully staffed everywhere, [it was] harder to do pull-outs or small groups,” one leader said.
District administrators said they are tackling the problem long-term by teaming up with local universities on training programs and promoting the teacher profession to their own students.
Teachers need more training to help students catch up
Administrators said some teachers needed more professional development to carry out accelerated learning plans. That was particularly a concern in hard-to-staff subjects like math.
But a lack of substitute teachers has made it difficult to pull teachers from classrooms for additional training. Central office staff, who often fill in as substitutes, have also strained to find time to coordinate and carry out teacher professional development, researchers found.
School leaders want more student data
State testing was cancelled in many places during the first year of the pandemic, and participation has been spotty since, administrators said. That has resulted in a lack of consistent student data to help guide acceleration efforts.
While some districts relied on internal assessment data for information on students’ learning needs, others struggled to do so, citing inconsistencies in how it is collected and reported.
Leaders also said they have started to draw more heavily on parent and staff surveys and data about issues like school climate.
Districts have shifted timelines and approaches
To address staff burnout, some administrators said they have tacked a few extra days onto holiday breaks or converted in-person principal meetings to virtual events, reducing the time commitment involved.
School systems also reported an increased focus on celebrating and responding to intermediate results, rather than relying largely on end-of-year test scores to gauge success. That let teachers feel some “micro successes” along the way, one administrator told CRPE.
Some school systems also sought to give teachers more support and autonomy by letting them select what strategies they wanted to carry out.
“When you tell people that they have to do whatever, and everybody needs to do X, that’s when we have found a lot more resistance versus … giving people … permission to try something else to engage the kids in a different way,” one chief academic officer said.