Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Skills Took a Hit During the Pandemic, Too, Report Says

By Caitlynn Peetz — July 19, 2023 5 min read
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In the first “normal” year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders this past year were once again able to return to some tasks and priorities that had taken a backseat for more than two years, including classroom evaluations.

Observing teachers’ instruction and students’ learning offered “growing clarity around the enormity of the challenges ahead,” post-pandemic, according to a report released Wednesday by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank and research group housed at Arizona State University.

Teachers were falling back on “outdated and ineffective” instruction or using curriculum that was not on grade level and lacked rigor as they struggled to catch students up academically, even though research supports learning acceleration—moving students forward at a faster pace and addressing missed knowledge while also covering grade-level content.

District leaders said they noticed this in classrooms as teachers often lacked the coaching they had access to prior to the pandemic and districts struggled to keep teaching positions filled. As a result, they saw their teaching force grow less experienced overall. Districts also struggled to provide professional development in learning acceleration, either because they couldn’t find trainers or teachers were too burned out to participate.

The phenomenon could very well be contributing to many students’ inability to catch up on their academic skills after prolonged school closures, the report says.

The report is the fourth and final in a series following five unnamed districts over the past two years. The report’s conclusions are based on interviews with about 30 leaders from those districts, conducted in the spring.

“I think that what this report is helpful for is understanding why test scores are not bouncing back as quickly as we had hoped and as quickly as they need to,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “We all know, if we’ve been paying attention to the data, that student learning fell back during the pandemic, but our study is showing something I think no one has really fully realized or talked about, which is that … teaching also fell back. So those ambitious initial academic recovery goals have largely gone unrealized.”

When doing classroom visits, the district leaders saw what they described as “poor pre-pandemic instruction.” That included putting students to work without any direct instruction, having low expectations for students’ abilities, unnecessary screen usage, and “classroom management skills that lacked ‘sophistication,’ ” according to the report.

The leaders said they believed teachers were struggling because the avenues they relied on to receive feedback on their instruction—classroom observations and benchmark assessments to measure student progress—and coaching were often on pause during the pandemic. Complicating matters further, teachers and principals generally have had less time to collaborate because “systems had to divert all extra staff time to covering classrooms and keeping schools open,” the report says.

Some districts in the report also experienced churn among their teachers and have newer and less experienced educators in the classroom.

“I do think the first and foremost issue is, ‘Do we have enough high quality teachers in our schools to do this work?’ ” one anonymous district leader said in the report. “And the answer is no right now for us. And that’s a really hard thing to say, but I think that is the reality.”

The district leaders reported trouble in implementing learning acceleration, in part, because it was difficult to find high-quality professional development providers to train teachers. And, even if they did, teachers were busy reviewing “the basics” in their instructional practices and struggling so much with burnout that they didn’t want to do additional training, even if offered additional pay to do so.

Moving forward, the district leaders said they plan to focus on centralizing and standardizing instructional materials, rather than emphasizing teacher flexibility to meet students’ needs.

“When we’ve got so many new teachers and such varying student and teacher attendance, to be on the same page just in case someone else has to jump in there…. Sometimes you have to rely on additional support in order to execute the curriculum with fidelity,” one district leader said. “[I want a] normed experience and [then] allow for variance where we know people are capable of going off script and being successful.”

Lake said she understands districts’ decisions to bring more structure to their instructional materials, but it comes at the cost of meeting each individual student’s needs, and that’s a “decision they should not have to make.”

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Staffing challenges persist

The report found that districts struggled to implement their academic recovery plans in other ways, too. The biggest challenge was hiring and retaining staff, especially for tutoring programs.

One district invested heavily in tutoring, contracting with outside vendors to staff the programs. The district found the quality of the tutors “varied tremendously” and plans to scale back tutoring in the coming school year because the cost was not worth the “minimal impact” on student learning, the report says.

Other districts said they used some of their federal relief funds to offer teachers signing and retention bonuses, but the efforts often didn’t work.

“We spent a lot of money on retention bonuses and ‘please stay’ payments,” one district leader said in the report. “You might as well burn that money because it didn’t bear out. People left anyway. People took their checks and walked. But at the time, everybody was doing it, so we had to as well.”

‘All hands on deck’ to improve instruction

So, what’s the solution?

While school and district leaders can adjust their approach to professional development and be more intentional about offering feedback to and supporting teachers, districts need help, the report says.

Federal policymakers can help by allowing Title I funds to be used to support tutoring. State lawmakers can ensure school systems have the autonomy to increase student learning time as necessary, the report says.

Colleges should anticipate that many students will have additional needs and ensure teacher prep programs help teacher candidates to identify learning gaps and develop and deliver differentiated instruction.

Local advocacy groups can also recruit and train parents and community members to tutor students, the report says.

“I do think that it’s critical that we not just leave this up to districts,” Lake said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, and we’re not acting like it is. So hopefully this report will help people see that and take action.”

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