Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

6 Steps Leaders Should Take to Prepare for Students’ Return

Money matters. Leadership matters more. What educators must do now
By Joshua P. Starr — July 27, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of diverse leaders working through problems over the shadow of a coronavirus.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The recently released NWEA results, coupled with this year’s National Assessment of Education Progress scores, once again tell a daunting story about what our educators are facing as they try to help students stay on track while overcoming losses stemming from the COVID crisis. You can sense the collective panic in our news headlines and in the national conversation around what’s next. Yet, I fear too many of the solutions proffered will be the same. Buy stuff! Hire more teachers! Get tutors! Summer school! After-school programs! It all reminds me of the common infomercial phrase, “But wait, there’s more!”

Certainly, there is value in these strategies and there are more resources that can be applied to help students recover. Too many schools have been underfunded, and too many educators have been underpaid for too long. Money certainly matters, and schools need more of it.

But leadership matters more.

Having spent years as a superintendent of schools in both Montgomery County, Md., and Stamford, Conn., and now working to help school and system leaders improve teaching, learning, and engagement, I believe there are some necessary leadership moves that educators can make as they prepare to welcome students back to school.

System and school leaders must ensure that every school has a rich curriculum aligned to standards. Sounds pretty basic, I know. But too often, curriculum is a compendium of assignments and content that isn’t thoughtfully aligned to what students must know and be able to do. Leaders should organize expert teachers to go through a curriculum-alignment process to ensure that only the most essential material is taught. They can ask the best teachers in every school to work with district curriculum leaders to assure that there are clear learning outcomes with matching assessments, engaging and relevant learning experiences, and high-effect-size instructional strategies. And, yes, teachers will have to be compensated for this work.

Every school needs a series of interventions—academic and social-emotional—to address the needs of children when they first present a problematic behavior. These behaviors may include absenteeism, failing grades, or behavioral issues. Off-the-shelf programs can be purchased, but the best intervention practice is when educators can sense an emerging challenge and act early to change course. Given the significant challenges many children face, it’s essential to know the true issue students may be facing prior to interceding so that school personnel or community partners can provide the appropriate intervention. Which leads to the third strategy.

Having good data and acting on it. Leaders need to schedule teachers to regularly review student data and act accordingly. Daily exit tickets and teacher quizzes, student work, common assessments, and standardized growth measures are all leading indicators of student learning that can be used to adjust instruction. Data teams, professional learning communities, or whatever one chooses to call them, are proven techniques that allow teachers to collaborate and act on what they’re seeing with their students. Leaders need to get training for teachers, schedule them accordingly, and support their efforts.

Now is the time to double-down on what we know works rather than chase silver bullets and brass rings.

Leaders also must encourage and allow teachers to lead. In the best schools, teachers are leading, supporting each other, and holding each other accountable. Those who are closest to our students should be empowered to make the decisions—within a framework, of course.

When teachers are collaborating with each other and leading the work, are well-trained, and have access to great curricula and multiple measures of student learning, they’re able to adjust instruction and make better decisions. There will be no change to student achievement without good first instruction. No tutoring program will ever replace it. Leaders must invest in that before layering on additional programs.

Leaders must have the courage to put their best teachers with the kids who need them the most. We know who these teachers are, we’re just sometimes afraid to name them. If we want our most vulnerable students to make the kinds of academic and social-emotional-learning leaps they’ll need to overcome the ravages of the last few years, they must have the absolute best teachers in front of them every day. Nothing is more important.

We need to pay educators more, ensure they’re in safe and supportive environments, and do everything we can to keep them engaged and inspired. Yes, we’re still in a crisis. Yes, the strategic use of money matters if we’re going to get out of it. But we also know what makes a great school and how adults can help all students not only recover but thrive. Ensuring that our educators are well taken care of, properly compensated, and motivated and supported to do their best work is essential if we want a path out of our current state. Happy adults means happy kids.

Now is the time to double down on what we know works rather than chase silver bullets and brass rings.

A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as Steps Leaders Should Take to Prepare for Students’ Return

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management From Our Research Center Here's What Superintendents Think They Should Be Paid
A new survey asks school district leaders whether they're paid fairly.
3 min read
Illustration of a ladder on a blue background reaching the shape of a puzzle piece peeled back and revealing a Benjamin Franklin bank note behind it.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Q&A How K-12 Leaders Can Better Manage Divisive Curriculum and Culture War Debates
The leader of an effort to equip K-12 leaders with conflict resolution skills urges relationship-building—and knowing when to disengage.
7 min read
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024.
Katy Anthes, who served as commissioner of education in Colorado from 2016-2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024. Anthes specializes in helping school district leaders successfully manage politically charged conflicts.
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week
School & District Management Virginia School Board Restores Confederate Names to 2 Schools
The vote reverses a decision made in 2020 as dozens of schools nationwide dropped Confederate figures from their names.
2 min read
A statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson is removed on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Shenandoah County, Virginia's school board voted 5-1 early Friday, May 10, 2024, to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary four years after the names had been removed.
A statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson is removed on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Shenandoah County, Virginia's school board voted 5-1 early Friday, May 10, 2024, to rename Mountain View High School as Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary as Ashby Lee Elementary four years after the names had been removed.
Steve Helber/AP
School & District Management Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About the School District Technology Leader?
The tech director at school districts is a key player when it comes to purchasing. Test your knowledge of this key buyer persona and see how your results stack up with your peers.