Reaching families where they are

I had the pleasure of presenting to and facilitating a discussion with Special Education Directors from Mississippi yesterday. While we discussed ways that COVID-19 has altered their work, we touched on the positives and practices that they hope can be retained in the post-pandemic world (increased 1:1 technology, scenario planning for individual students, ability to hold IEP meetings virtually as an option, etc). We also discussed the barriers that schools, districts, and the families they serve are experiencing. When prompted for an example, a Director noted that with the high rates of unemployment and loss of wage assistance benefits, his families are struggling to get food on the table and afford basic necessities. As a result, gas for the car is a luxury and the families struggle to get to the school or district buildings to sign legal forms needed for their children to receive supports. Once aware of this need, staff started going out to the families at their homes to obtain signatures. While a seemingly small step, this is the type of practice that enables students to receive the supports they need as quickly as possible, while also providing a moment of much needed human interaction between school staff and families. To combat absenteeism, we’ve seen the increase of home visits in districts small and large as well. In lieu of regular and frequent interaction at the school building, meeting students and families where they are is necessary and provides immediate and longer-term benefits.

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Training Bias Requires Comprehensive Approach

As many who implement trainings in the field would guess, research has found that removing teacher bias is not an easy or quick fix in our schools. A recent summary of the research from EdWeek writes:

“Several large-scale analyses of research on implicit-bias training suggest it more often changes short-term knowledge about the vocabulary of diversity than long-term changes in behavior. Several specific common strategies—such as thinking positive thoughts about stereotyped groups, meditating or making decisions more “slowly” to avoid stereotypes, or simply being aware of the possibility of implicit biases while making decisions—have all so far failed to show benefits that last even a day or two.

In some cases, diversity and anti-bias training can paradoxically lead to more stereotyping, if participants come to think of biases as common and uncontrollable, and can lead white participants to feel threatened without yielding benefits for participants of color. Rather, evidence suggests staff training can be helpful, but only as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes identifying specific problems and strategies to address structures that perpetuate bias in a school system.” (Sarah Sparks, Nov. 17, 2020)

Implementing broad mind shifts requires extensive and ongoing work, not only at the school and classroom level, but throughout the district, to the state, and even to other agencies and organizations that collaborate or connect to schools and the students.

While some districts may be tempted to “check the box” and hold a 1 or 2 hour professional development series on bias or equity, it is not enough to reverse decades of beliefs as well as institutionalized policies and practices. Truly addressing bias in the education system requires a coordinated effort of intensive professional development (especially those which target discrete skills (i.e. classroom management techniques, self-regulation, increasing empathy), creating a safe environment to allow uncomfortable conversations and self-realizations, implementation of regular monitoring of indicators tied to the desired behaviors/ changes/ actions, and review and revision of broader systemic policies and practices (such as disciplinary practices, intervention referrals, advanced coursework eligibility processes, etc).

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New Resource! Tools for Success in Disruptions: Immediate Recovery and an Opportunity for Change

For the last 6 months, I’ve been part of the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) and tasked with supporting education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). We just released a number of resources, described in more detail below. Not only do I hope that these resources are useful to practitioners in the field who are doing the hard work of figuring out how to safely educate students across the country, I also recognize that working on this collection (in particular the overview guide, Tools for Success in Disruptions: Immediate Recovery and an Opportunity for Change) has been one of the most challenging projects in my professional life. My colleagues have been, and continue to be, incredibly supportive as I’ve bounced a baby to sleep, nursed, shoved teething toy after teething toy into a mouth, and managed both a 3.5 year old and an infant (now 10 months!) through our conference calls and team meetings. I did much of this work during precious rest/nap times and in the evenings sitting on the stairs, while patrolling the toddler’s millionth bedtime aversion tactic, and precious hours when my husband took time off so I could get a few hours on the clock. While challenging, it was great to get my hands and brain into a project that I hope adds value to the field during this current crisis, and future disruptions to come. Kudos to all the working parents out there trying to figure out how to maintain careers while parenting in this crazy time. 


Now for the real purpose of the email – getting folks to use the resources! Education disruptions can be short or long, can be planned for, or can catch us off guard. As education leaders across the country grapple with how to get students and staff back in traditional or remote classrooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have the opportunity to build an education system that better meets the needs of students post-disruption. Tools for Success in Disruptions: Immediate Recovery and an Opportunity for Change guide walks state and district education leaders through a variety of operational, systemic, and teaching & learning topics and provides discussion questions that can be considered during and post a disruption. The questions are designed to probe thinking and identify current and future needs. Additional resources and tools are highlighted that users can dig into for more information and support. A disruption can create a new host of issues and problems to work through, while also creating an opportunity to build a better system for students in the future. 

The rest of the collection that I’ve highlighted in the last week on the blog includes: 

 

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New Resource: Better Together: A Coordinated Response for Principals and District Leaders

Here’s the fourth document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). This brief, Better Together: A Coordinated Response for Principals and District Leaders, highlights the important role that principals play in operating school buildings every day (with even more responsibilities during a disruption), and how districts can support them do that job.

Districts often discuss the social emotional learning (SEL) needs of their students, but it’s also important to assess the social emotional needs of staff – including building principals. These leaders are managing a school, supporting their staff and students, calming parent/family fears, while also coping with COVID’s impact on their personal lives. Regular one-on-one check-ins and peer networks, and the effective use of a district crisis response team (to lessen the overall burden on individual principals), can be effective tools in supporting principals. In addition, student SEL needs must be addressed to enable students to begin tackling academics again, especially in hard hit communities where students have experienced family loss due to illness or increased trauma during the disruption. The bottom line is that coordinated support for the leaders as everyone figures out how to operate in this new and constantly evolving environment.

There are a few pieces to this collection coming. I’ll post when they are released!

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New Resource: After Action Review Guide

Here’s the third document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). The After Action Review Guide describes the important, but often neglected, process of monitoring, reflecting, and making mid-course corrections. An After Action Review (AAR) is easy in concept – a conversation about what went well, what didn’t go well, and what can be done to get better – but this “simple” conversation is often filled with organizational silos, blaming, scapegoating, personality conflicts, and emotions. A strongly facilitated AAR focuses on the process and the systems, not the people. An AAR helps an organization and a team get stronger.

Right now, school systems (from school buildings up to the state) are barely treading water with figuring out how to keep schools running. But, in a few short weeks, it would be the perfect time to sit back and bring a team together to reflect on the “Return to School” process – what went well, what didn’t go well, and what can be done to improve. Holding an AAR in mid to late October allows a team to make mid-course corrections and start off the next semester with improved systems and structures to operate even more effectively.

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New Resource: Strategic Budgeting: Using Evidence to Mitigate the “COVID Slide” and Move Towards Improvement

Here’s the second document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). In Strategic Budgeting: Using Evidence to Mitigate the “COVID Slide” and Move Towards Improvement, my colleague Bi Vuong examines the impact of school disruptions on student learning, increased learning loss for our most vulnerable students, and the realities of impending budget shortfalls in districts and states across the country. The strategic budgeting process is presented and details ways that budgets may be shifted to better meet the needs of students and their needs (i.e. fixed or mandatory vs variable or discretionary expenses), while acknowledging that student needs must be assessed to figure out which expenses are needed. In addition, strategies to strategically allocate resources by determining impact, and then ways to make trade-off decisions are provided. Finally, the tool encourages aligning resources – from normal operating budgets and any additional disruption-related funding to make the most effective use out of all available dollars. As districts and cities begin their annual budget cycles this Fall, this work is particularly important to ensure that maximum impact is achieved while adverse consequences are limited.

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New resource: Return to School – A Toolkit for Principals

Here’s the first document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). While many school districts are back in action and offering in person, virtual, or a hybrid learning, other districts will fluctuate between the models depending upon local infection rates and cases. Returning to School: A Toolkit for Principals, In the Classroom, at Home or Both is organized around four primary sections: change, communication, collaboration, and care. The sections delve into school and classroom level practices, structures, and systems that support both staff and students (and their families). As learning modes will likely shift throughout the 2020-21 school year, it is important to continually reflect on current practices and how to best serve students and staff as we all function within the constraints of the pandemic.

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New publication – Developing More Rigorous Options to Transform Outcomes for Kids

This recently released publication, Developing More Rigorous Options to Transform Outcomes for Kids, that Corbett Education Consulting created for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) examines a variety of options for state education agencies to consider as they develop and implement the More Rigorous Options (MROs) provision of ESSA. State examples and practical suggestions are provided for MROs including: additional state supports, innovation schools and managed partnerships, charter conversions, extraordinary authority districts, receiverships, and closure. Survey results, interviews with SEA staff and national education experts, and a literature review form the research base.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Education has not waived or adjusted the timeline or expectations of this aspect of federal ESSA law. Despite COVID-19’s chaos, the clock is still ticking for what states will do differently to support and ensure changes occur for the country’s lowest performing schools. So, SEAs need to continue developing their plans for MROs.

Kudos to my colleague Janice Garland who was steadfast in her commitment to seeing this document through.

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COVID-19 highlighting the inequities of our systems

This is a great piece with Paul Reville that I highly recommend reading. The paragraph that felt the most pressing and relevant for me is this one:

“…Parents and the general public have become more aware than at any time in my memory of the inequities in children’s lives outside of school. Suddenly we see front-page coverage about food deficits, inadequate access to health and mental health, problems with housing stability, and access to educational technology and internet. Those of us in education know these problems have existed forever. … We need to correct for these inequities in order for education to realize its ambitious goals. We need to redesign our systems of child development and education.”

This crisis gives us a profound opportunity to really rethink education. Unfortunately, we will be doing it as we are simultaneously trying to provide education in this hybrid chaotic space that is the current crisis. We must try to move along these parallel paths of solving problems and recovering, while also planning for a new normal – one that actually addresses and resolves our societal inequities in a real and lasting way.

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Ensuring Equity Work is Systemic

State Education Agencies, districts, and schools across the country are talking about equity. Researchers, think tanks, and funders are too. Equity audits, equity policies, equity officers, abound. All of this is great, but how are those systems, processes, policies, and procedures are changing due to all of this equity work? If what the adults do every day isn’t changing, is the equity discussion truly making a difference? I believe equity is the removal of systemic barriers that allows an educational system to serve each child what they need to succeed.

A recent EdWeek article on district/CMO equity officers reminded me of some of the lessons I’ve learned and observed from working with schools, districts, and states.

  1. Senior leaders, and the broader community, must decide what equity means to them and their system (school, district, or state). It’s really difficult to make progress if there isn’t a shared definition or vision of what you’re aspiring to achieve.
  2. While it’s important to name one person in charge of equity for accountability and implementation purposes, it’s crucial that the entire leadership team owns the equity work and understands each senior leaders role in making changes.
  3. Equity work must be supported by resources – resources that may include people, time, money, and programs. These may be new additional resources or may be reallocated or repurposed from existing resources. To say that you’re working on equity without providing the needed resources to make changes and implement practices is like selling fool’s gold as the real thing.
  4. Monitoring equity requires disaggregation of data – which may go beyond what the state requires according to ESSA subgroups – i.e. while a state may require data disaggregated based on poverty or special education or English Language Learner identification, schools and districts should still disaggregate data to ensure that policies and procedures don’t have adverse impacts on specific and traditionally underserved subgroups of students (i.e. African American males, Latinos, etc). This type of analysis is where we’re seeing conflicting information in many districts – the achievement gaps are closing (great!), but discipline data shows racial and gender gaps (not good) that still need to be addressed from a systemic level.

Doing equity work and doing it right is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment from leadership (chief/superintendent/principal) and elected officials (boards of education). It requires courageous conversations in communities, but those conversations only get us so far. More importantly, it requires courageous actions to truly change how the educational systems and structures serve them every day.

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