What Teachers Want: ‘Looping,’ Grouping by Ability, and Digital Devices, Survey Says

By Sarah Schwartz — May 28, 2020 5 min read
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Teachers are worried about the learning gaps that students may have at the beginning of next school year, and they support non-traditional options to try to get students back on track, such as grouping students by competency level rather than age, or “looping” students to the next grade with the same teacher.

They’re also concerned about health and safety if buildings open up again in the fall—and they want districts to make a bigger push to get digital devices in the hands of every student if school buildings stay closed.

That’s according to a new, nationally representative survey from Educators for Excellence, a group that advocates for teacher leadership. Six hundred public school teachers responded to questions about instruction during the school shutdowns, their perspective on distance learning, and their hopes for next year in a survey conducted from May 2 through May 8.

The image of instruction during the shutdowns that emerges mirrors much of the Education Week Research Center’s findings, in its periodic surveys of teachers and administrators throughout the pandemic.

By this point, as reflected in both the E4E and the Education Week surveys, the vast majority of teachers are now conducting some sort of distance learning. Of the teachers who are delivering instruction, most are using digital tools.

But though teachers are logging on for lessons, there are glaring and persistent inequities in students’ learning experiences during this time.

About a third of the teachers in the E4E survey said that 50 percent or fewer of their students participated in lessons daily. (In the latest Education Week survey, teachers said that 23 percent of their students were essentially truant—not logging in or making contact.) Teachers who work with students from low-income families say that devices, internet access, and having a quiet place to work are bigger barriers for their students than teachers who work with students from high-income families.

“We knew this crisis was having a disparate impact on historically marginalized students, but educators’ experiences show that we will need to prioritize vulnerable students as we move forward,” Sydney Morris, the co-founder and co-CEO of E4E, said in a statement.

Instructional Gaps, Safety Are Major Concerns

In late spring, though, there are still a lot of questions about what moving forward will look like—even as states start to release guidance on reopening school buildings and planning for the next academic year.

The E4E survey asked teachers what they wanted to see in districts’ plans.

When it comes to instruction next year, teachers were most concerned about students’ academic gaps and social-emotional health. But they also worry that they will be held to unrealistic expectations about how quickly they can get students back on track—45 percent said these expectations were their biggest concern about returning to the classroom, above prospective budget cuts or physical health issues.

To address learning loss, most teachers—60 percent—would prefer to include remediation within the regular school day. Fifty-six percent also supported tutoring and after school programs. Other options, like lengthening the school day or the school year, were less popular.

See also: Most Teachers Don’t Want to Extend the Next School Year, Survey Shows

Teachers also supported some less traditional ideas to address learning gaps. Fifty-eight percent said they would be in favor of grouping students by competency, rather than age, and 54 percent said they supported looping—moving students to the next grade level with the same teacher.

Some school systems are already considering looping as an option for next year. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee has suggested the strategy, as a way to minimize the academic and social-emotional effects of the shutdowns. Maryland state education department guidance for next academic year also showcases looping as an option. “Since looping takes advantage of teachers’ familiarity with students, it may be even more beneficial in the current situation because no state, and likely no local assessment data will be available to teachers,” the guidance reads.

Outside of teaching and learning, one of the highest priorities for teachers is safety. When asked what were the most important steps for districts to take when school reopens, 52 percent of teachers said health and sanitation measures, while 51 percent said creating smaller class sizes with staggered schedules.

About a quarter said that districts should allow teachers with underlying health conditions to continue distance learning until the chance of catching the virus is lower.

The results reflect the concerns that some teachers at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 have already voiced about returning to school buildings. Another poll released this week, from USA Today and Ipsos, found that 18 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed said they would likely not return to school if buildings opened without social distancing guidelines.

Teacher Layoffs?

Even as school systems start planning to reopen buildings, state leaders have warned that rolling shutdowns are a real possibility next school year.

If distance learning is going to continue in any form, teachers say, getting tech in students’ hands should be first priority.

When asked what districts should focus on in preparing for future remote instruction, 52 percent of teachers said providing students with the necessary learning tools, including digital devices. Teachers rated this as most important, above getting access to high-quality online curriculum, or receiving clear guidance about their duties in an online environment.

See also: Why Helping Families Access the Internet Is So Challenging

They also want more direction in providing special education services. Sixty-five percent of teachers in the E4E survey said that the federal government should prioritize issuing guidelines for districts to develop “temporary substitutes for the obligatory supports, even if they aren’t as effective (e.g., virtual sessions with therapists).”

Another likely outcome next year: budget cuts. What if districts start to consider teacher layoffs? Most teachers—78 percent—said that before turning to layoffs, districts should consider buyouts: offering older teachers financial incentives to retire early.

And if layoffs do occur, 64 percent of teachers said they should be based on multiple factors, rather than just seniority or performance alone.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.