TeachLab with Justin Reich

Remote Learning Guidance from State Education Agencies with Martin West

Episode Summary

This week on TeachLab, Justin Reich presents findings from a report on remote learning guidance from state education agencies (see tsl.mit.edu/covid19) in a live webinar. He is joined by Harvard University professor and member of the Massachusetts Board of Education Marty West to provide a state policy perspective.

Episode Notes

This week on TeachLab, Justin Reich presents findings from a report on remote learning guidance from state education agencies (see tsl.mit.edu/covid19). He discussed relevant background research, points of consensus among state guidance, and the most important question for schools right now: what is the purpose of schooling during a pandemic? Harvard University professor Marty West, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, joins as discussant to provide a state policy perspective. The conversation was recorded during a live webinar, the video and slide deck can be found below.


Note to the audience:

The Teaching Systems Lab and the TeachLab team would like to thank all of our audience for their patronage as we attempt to shift our production and content in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We think it is of the utmost importance to continue distributing as much content as we can, and as widely as we can, to assist those who are in need of information in these difficult times. We are working to improve the quality of our content with these new constraints and get back to a more regular scheduling. Thank you for your patience.


Resources and Links

Check out additional COVID -19 information from Teaching Systems Lab

Watch the Full Webinar on YouTube

Download the slide deck

Check out our earlier episode with NYC teacher Michael Pershan





Join our course on edX!

Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices


Produced and edited by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley

Recorded by Justin Reich

Mixed by Garrett Beazley


Follow Us On:




Episode Transcription

Justin Reich:                 Hello and welcome to TeachLab. I'm Justin Reich. This episode is part of our special COVID-19 series to support teachers and learners through the challenges of distance learning. Here at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, we just released a report called Remote Learning Guidance from State Education Agencies: A First Look. Starting in late March, places like the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education started publishing guidance for schools and districts and educators and families about what remote learning should look like. When I saw the first of these guidance documents come out, I asked everyone in the lab to drop what they were doing for a week to read guidance from all 50 states and then try to publish something synthesizing these ideas. More than anything else, we hope the report help schools and teachers steal good ideas from one another.

Justin Reich:                 This week we hosted a webinar to share that report with educators and other folks who care about virtual schooling, education in emergencies and remote learning. We had people join from all over the world and we were lucky to have Martin West join us for the conversation. Marty is a professor from Harvard University, editor-in-chief of Education Next and a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and of the National Assessment Governing Board. At some points in the presentation, you'll hear Marty and I answering some great questions from webinar participants. If you have your own questions, tweet me @bjfr and I'll do my best to answer. Thanks. And I hope you find this useful.

Justin Reich:                 Well, welcome everyone. Very grateful to have so many people take time out of their day from all over the world to be able to join us. I've seen everything from Massachusetts to Brazil to Russia to Nigeria to the West Coast. Really great to have so many of you here. My name is Justin Reich. I'm on the faculty at MIT. I run a lab called the Teaching Systems Lab where we study online learning and how schools and teachers use technology and I study how teachers learn online. We're incredibly grateful to have Marty West from Harvard with us. He's also the editor-in-chief of Education Next and he's a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education as well as the National Assessment Governing Board. Marty, can we check one more time that your sound is working as we get started? Can you say hello to folks?

Martin West:                Hello, it's great to be with you all.

Justin Reich:                 Terrific. We in our lab recently released a report about remote learning guidance from the 50 state education agencies about remote learning during periods of school closure. We started this project on March 25th. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released their guidance for schools and districts in Massachusetts. When I saw that I thought, oh, this is really interesting. And then I saw that Illinois had released some guidance at around the same time. And so I asked just about everybody in my lab to stop what they were doing for about a week between March 26 and the 31st, and to try to read as much as we could of everything that every state in the United States was putting together to try to help schools and districts figure out what remote learning should look like across all these different contexts.

Justin Reich:                 On April 1st we released this report and I'll give you some highlights from that report. Everything that we'll talk about today and from our lab is at tsl.mit.edu/covid19. And then we also took the data that we generated for this report and we put it at the link you'll see there, bit.ly/StateEdCOVID. And again, we'll make sure that we get you the link to these slides and everything else. So what we're going to talk about today is what we saw the states working on, particularly up till about April 1st in helping schools and districts try to figure out how to address the school closures, which have now closed nearly every school in the United States and many, many schools, maybe over a billion children out of school now all across the world.

Justin Reich:                 I'm going to try to talk about a few key themes over about 25 minutes. We'll talk a little bit about some background research that informed our thinking about this report. We'll identify some points of consensus that we saw over and over again across all 50 states. We'll talk about some opportunities that we saw for a second wave of research, of guidance that might come out from states to help support educators. And then we'll talk about the one area where we saw some kind of policy divergence and try to get at this question of what really is the purpose of schools during a pandemic. I'll try to do that in about 25 minutes and then turn it over to Marty West for about 10 minutes to offer some challenges or some rebuttals or some questions or some predictions and his own thoughts. During that time we'll try to scoop up all the questions that you ask and identify some of them to pursue during Q&A. And we already have a couple coming in, which is terrific.

Justin Reich:                 I want to start with sort of four ideas that have really shaped our thinking about this period of remote learning. And one of the most important is the existing research and the existing work of schools that are already operating at a distance in the United States. Many schools have some sort of virtual schools and if you were to summarize their operations, they are primarily coached homeschools. So the schools that we already have that are operating at a distance, what they look like is they take curriculum materials and they put some of them on computers, but they print them out in books and workbooks and other kinds of printed things and they mail them to families. And then for the most part, students with their families asynchronously make their way through those materials, checking in periodically with virtual school teachers for feedback, for some individual coaching, for some coaching, not only of the student but of the parent as well.

Justin Reich:                 There is no expectation, particularly for the youngest students that students should be able to do this by themselves. On the contrary, there is an expectation that there'll be a full time parent or caregiver certainly through K6 often through the eighth grade for students who have challenges with motivation or executive function all the way through high school. There's an expectation of the way these virtual schools operate, is that the school is providing support to the student and to the family for those students to be able to learn. Much of that happens asynchronously. In one survey, virtual school teachers said they spend about six hours a week in synchronous instruction with classes of students. And then really the best virtual school teachers that I've talked to say that most of their time is spent reaching out individually to students and families, especially those who are struggling, especially those who are not showing up or not connecting and trying to bring them back in.

Justin Reich:                 If you threw dart at the United States in the middle of February and walked into the nearest classroom of where that dart landed on a map, and you walked in that classroom, the most likely thing you would see is oral direct instruction from a teacher to a whole class of students. What distance schools do looks very different from that. It's not the case in many places that we're shifting to have teachers now teach students at a distance. Particularly for our youngest students, we're asking our K-12 teachers to add a distance, train parents to homeschool their children.

Justin Reich:                 I was thinking today that it's a little bit like asking grocery stores to become greenhouses. Like it still has to do with food and there's still sun and there's still light and it's connected, but it's really a pretty different kind of thing. It's less different in high school perhaps, where as soon as students become more independent, maybe it looks more like what happens at school. But I think this coached homeschool model can give us some insights about what it is that schools are trying to accomplish during periods of remote learning and school closure.

Justin Reich:                 A second thing that's been going in the back of our heads quite a bit is that many people find online schooling quite challenging. There was one community college educator who wrote a paper talking about an online penalty, that students who struggle in school in particular find it challenging to transition from on-campus learning to distance learning to online learning. The students who have low prior achievement in the United States, there's some studies that show that ethnic and racial minorities students with low SES, younger students, find it challenging to move in formal courses from on-campus settings to online settings.

Justin Reich:                 That there are some students, particularly those with high prior achievement who do really well in school who typically do fine online. There's some people, particularly those with really strong self-regulated learning skills and conditions that allow for self-regulated learning. But one way that you could frame this is that all of the students that we expect to be hit hardest by a pandemic, to have the most issues with food insecurity, with housing insecurity, with healthcare issues, with the challenges of recession, those are the students in the best of times that we might expect would find it challenging to shift to online learning.

Justin Reich:                 Those two ideas about virtual schools and about online schooling frame some of the challenging. Here are two things that I think give us some cause for optimism. Lots of people... this is a little bit paradoxical. Lots of people do do quite well learning online. Most of you, I imagine, listening in on this conversation can think of a time that there was something that you really cared about and you were able to pick up your phone or hop in with a group or hop online and learn something about that topic and figure out how to fix your lawnmower or to make a new recipe or to beat a level in a video game or something like that. And there are researchers who have pursued teens and adolescents who do this kind of interest driven peer connected learning.

Justin Reich:                 Maybe you know colleagues at UC Irvine called the Connected Learning. They found that teens, even those who don't have great connections to the internet, using mobile phones and things like that can do incredible works of engineering, of writing, of computer programming, of art. The fulcrum seems to be that when interest and motivation is high, online learning can provide all these resources and all these peer connections. When interest and motivation is low, many people find it really difficult without the support of peers and of teachers to be able to press through. So that duality is something that we've thought about quite a bit.

Justin Reich:                 And then another thing which I think inspires us and makes us think that the work that educators around the world are doing right now is so incredibly important, is the research on education in emergencies. So from refugee crises, from other kinds of settings, there's some good suggestive evidence that schooling during emergencies can be a protective factor for supporting youth resilience in crisis. It can help create schedules and routines. It can provide intellectual stimulation, it can build connections with peers and trusted adults. So the work that schools do, even when academic progress is really challenging, the work that schools do as a kind of bolstering of wellbeing can be very, very important.

Justin Reich:                 So with those sort of four ideas in mind, we went and we read across the state guidance from the 50 state education agencies and we read through what kinds of things were they suggesting or instructing or coaching schools and districts to work on. And we found lots of areas of consensus. Reading across all of these documents in many places we saw people agreed about a lot of issues. Virtually every state very clear that the health and wellbeing of students is a priority. As West Virginia said, feeding students is our number one priority. Virtually every state had commentary about equity being a central principle for organizing decision making. That we have to think about people who are food insecure, who are housing insecure, people who don't have good connections to the internet, people who don't have access to devices, that these are key issues.

Justin Reich:                 Many states posted some kind of encouragement that it's really important for educators to provide a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. In the United States, we have laws and regulations that make it clear that students with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate public education and an acknowledgement that this was going to be quite challenging to accomplish at a distance but it had to be one of the goals that we considered to be central. Many states were quite concerned about the digital divide, about limited access to devices and to broadband internet and talking about the importance of creating non-digital remote options. If there aren't enough devices or bandwidth in a household, how can we continue to support learning in these contexts.

Justin Reich:                 And then this was sort of a little bit harder to code for or to label or identify reliably, but certainly a strong theme of policy flexibility and what the Kansas State Department of Education and other department of education called grace. Recognizing that these are extraordinary times and we need to provide policy flexibility to be able to help folks address these issues. I'm seeing that in the chat people are posting about the different kinds of ways that schools and districts are addressing this theme. Billy Donagen saying Austin having a hundred buses throughout underserved communities as WiFi hubs. And I would encourage you to keep posting those kinds of ideas and links to them as we go along because I think a lot of people will find great ideas along with questions that way.

Justin Reich:                 I want to dwell on two of these points of consensus. One had to do with, how should we provision non-digital remote learning? And I think there are three big categories of things that we saw. One were packets. So printing worksheets, putting them in envelopes. This is a picture from the Worcester Public Schools, and trying to mail them or deliver them to every family in the district so that there's some kind of printed learning materials for people who may have uneven access to the internet. A strength of packets and worksheets is that they're very familiar and people know what they are. A limitation of them is I think many students and educators would describe them as kind of a low motivation, low engagement learning modality. Pretty hard without the teacher and peers around you and some structure to make worksheets work. Not for everyone but for a lot of students.

Justin Reich:                 A second strategy that we saw emerging in a number of states and I think we've seen more of this now. There was a recent article on this in the Washington Post where there's partnerships with public broadcasting. Arkansas stood out to us as a state doing a lot of really great things, but this was one of them. They have partnered with public broadcasting so that there's 90 minute bands of public television programming. They do grades 3-5 for 90 minutes. They do grades K-2 for the next 90 minutes. They do programming related to grade 6-8 the next 90 minutes.

Justin Reich:                 So families that don't have access to the internet but do have a television know that there's a period of every day that they can take their kids, they can sit them down in front of the television, they can help their other kids at other grade levels with schoolwork or with homework or they can get some things done or get a breather or those kinds of things. There's lots of good research about the efficacy of our best educational programming. I personally think it's kind of a golden age of children's television programming right now and I think this is a strategy that can help reach a lot of students in the United States.

Justin Reich:                 A third theme that we saw was around family projects around trying to ask the question, what are homes really well equipped to teach? So I saw one article recently that I was interviewed in from the Arctic Sounder, which is the newspaper of the North slope of Alaska. Way, way up. If you think you're living in a disconnected area, this is a very disconnected part of the United States. The reporter said, talking to teachers, she heard a lot of folks say this is a good time to learn to cook, a good time to learn to bake, to sew, to bead, to repair a snow machine, to think about what are the... even as we have a hard time schools connecting with families, what are all the things that families can do at home? Because homes are rich sites of learning but often that learning can be different than school.

Justin Reich:                 One thing you might do is if your state or your school or district hasn't thought through these sets of ideas, we can point you particularly in the report to places that have some good examples of this kind of work. Not all these things need to be built from the ground up. We can borrow and steal from our neighbors good ideas that are developing one place and trying to spread them to others. That's really the core idea that we hope the report can support.

Justin Reich:                 Flexibility and grace. A core theme, particularly around graduation and grading policies. Lots of policy guidance at schools and districts should do whatever they can to hold seniors harmless and to try to have as many of them be able to graduate either by waving graduation requirements or modifying them, say a thing that we used to do with a state test. Maybe you can do it with a local test or a local demonstration of competency. A number of different places thinking about grading policies, thinking about how might we use pass/fail grading? How might we use credit/no credit grading, credit recovery, other kinds of approaches. A few states have started releasing guidance from their state higher education systems so that sophomores and juniors and seniors: 10, 11, 12th graders can know what kinds of expectations colleges will have from them and from their transcripts during this period of time.

Justin Reich:                 I think I'll pass on this one just to keep moving. One place that we saw an opportunity for sort of a second wave of guidance was around vulnerable populations. In the United States there are federal law and regulatory protections both for students with disabilities and for English language learners. We saw in the first wave of guidance more attention to students with disabilities and less attention to English language learners, and particularly sort of examples and exemplars of approaches to make things accessible to English language learners. So states now are thinking, about what's the next wave of work and support that we can do? I hope people will continue to dig in to creative ways that we can support vulnerable populations.

Justin Reich:                 Mississippi had small bits of guidance about students in foster care and students in detention or incarcerated settings. Minnesota I think had some good language about connecting with tribal leaders in America's tribal reservations and thinking about schools that are on tribal lands and sort of jurisdictional partnerships there. I think some of the most vulnerable students that we have in schools right now are students who are in incarcerated settings that can really be at risk of health concerns from COVID-19. So I hope that if states don't have some of these considerations in their initial guidance, they can start scanning around, finding other states that are doing great things and sharing them and getting them out there.

Justin Reich:                 One other point that I wanted to make about vulnerable populations, I'll have to... Oh, but I think in this second wave of guidance, part of what I think educators would find valuable, this is a little bit editorializing, but the first way of guidance, especially around students with disabilities had sort of long lists of links to apps or resources that might potentially help make material more accessible.

Justin Reich:                 I think in the next wave of guidance what a lot of educators would find helpful would be something like, here are the 10 most common challenges that we find with meeting students' individual education plans or meeting students' 504 plans. And here's how one creative educator or one creative district has come up with a pretty creative low tech solution to solving that. So I think sort of a specific examples and exemplars of particular approaches and instances might be more helpful at this point. There are lots of lists of links to resources that are out there. I think examples would be the next wave of things that that would be helpful.

Justin Reich:                 There was one area of policy divergence that we found. When we really say disagreement, just different perspectives for states. And I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here, but I think it's a good opportunity to think about potentially different approaches. Some states looked at the fourth quarter where they knew they're going to be closed and they said our goal is to make forward progress in standards aligned curriculum. So here's some language from the Virginia Department of Education.

Justin Reich:                 Virginia said, "Look at what you usually teach in the last of the year." In America, schools typically end in late May or June. "Find the most important content in that material and try to make progress teaching that to students." And I think the underlying rationale there is the more students who can learn the more standards-aligned material now, the smaller the gaps will be in the fall. And so, there were a number of states that we thought had guidance that was sort of aligned with this. Texas described it as making school at home, making forward progress in standards-aligned materials.

Justin Reich:                 There were other states that took more of an enrichment, skills review, home-based learning kind of approach. New Mexico was one state that released some early guidance that I thought clarified this approach well and it basically says there are real limits to what we can do to bring school into home. And there's a risk that if we try to make schooling happen at home, then we're as likely to generate frustration with students and teachers and parents as we are progress and learning. So instead of trying to do school at home, let's try to think about what are the best kinds of learning experiences that homes are well equipped to support and use this time to do that. Think about what it is that families are particularly well-equipped to teach and to help support their students in doing and make that happen.

Justin Reich:                 Now, there was nothing that we read that was dogmatic about these two perspectives. Massachusetts was a state that emphasized enrichment and skills review, but it also said, "Look, in a lot of high schools, it may be very appropriate if you can do it in equitable ways to keep moving forward with your courses." And Virginia in its guidance says, "We'll try to make forward progress. But if you're not, think about what you're missing and how you're going to make that up later." Nebraska was one state which said, "We think districts should consider starting with enrichment and then shifting more towards forward progress as things get more stable."

Justin Reich:                 My hunches is that oftentimes in education it's more important to get one system right than it is to pick the one right system. So I would imagine that what we'll see is some examples and exemplars of really successful approaches in states and schools that are aligned with either of these or combinations of them and probably some cautionary tales as well. But I think one thing that states can do is they're looking to other states for guidance as to say, who seems to be sort of aligned with our philosophy to how to approach remote learning, and think about those states that we can form consortia with or borrow materials from or those kinds of things.

Justin Reich:                 I think another thing that is evoked by this sort of divergence is what is the purpose of schooling during a pandemic? What is it that we're trying to accomplish? I hope that in all of the flurry of activity that educators, teachers, support staff, schools, administrators, states are doing right now to make something happen, I think it's good to pause in that work and say, "What is it that we're trying to accomplish? What is the purpose of schooling in a pandemic?" And from our answers to that question, can we help gain alignment on what it is that we're trying to accomplish?

Justin Reich:                 On March 13th I did an interview with a great New York City teacher named Michael Pershan. I said to Michael, who is one of the earliest teachers in the United States to pivot to distance learning. I said, "Michael, I think you should really focus... You're not going to be able to do everything that you did before, so focus on the most important material." And he said, "Justin, I think that's half right. I think I should focus on things that are important, but I also have to figure out what is achievable at a distance. I think there's some things that we do in the mathematics curriculum that are really well aligned that I can imagine myself doing at a distance. And there are other things that seem much harder to do if I'm not right there with a whiteboard shoulder to shoulder with my students."

Justin Reich:                 That makes me think of this kind of two by two, what's important and what's achievable? Obviously things that are high importance and high achievable, those are desirable things that we really want to work on. And in the middle we have all these trade offs where we've got to think about, there may be some things that are really important to us but are just hard to do at a distance and we also want to be careful potentially of things that are maybe easiest to do with a difference but not the things that are most closely aligned with our values.

Justin Reich:                 I think I'll pass on this too so I can turn it over. Let me just say a few final thoughts and then turn it over to Marty. We have some guidance and some recommendations in the paper. Here's a slightly different twist on those things. One is I think there's a ton of great work happening in the United States, happening around the world and I hope folks will borrow liberally from those good ideas, particularly sort of concrete examples of the most common thorniest problems and clever solutions to those problems.

Justin Reich:                 I hope that everyone tackling this challenge recognizes the constraints and challenges of home-based schooling, particularly this challenge of having K-12 teachers training parents to run homeschools during a pandemic. I mean, the more I sort of say that idea out loud to myself, it just strikes me as a really substantial challenge and certainly one that I think educators all across the United States, across the world they're going to step up and meet. But I think if we're realistic about what that challenge looks like, that'll help us meet it appropriately.

Justin Reich:                 My penultimate story will be that when I was in college, I used to run a search and rescue group in the State of Virginia called the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue Group. Kids and elderly people with dementia would get lost in the woods and I would organize these teams to go find them. I learned about the system called the incident command system, which was developed in the American West to fight forest fires. One theme of the incident command system is that when things become difficult, when emergencies arise, one of the first things to do is to assign a couple of people to think about and plan for the future. So in moments that feel like an all hands on deck kind of moment, it can often be good to design them as most hands on deck.

Justin Reich:                 So when we ran searches and did search and rescue work, right when we got on scene, we would take two smart people and we would put them in the church basement and say, "Don't worry about what's going on right now. Imagine what this is going to look like in 24 hours. Imagine what this is going to look like in a week." And I think that kind of medium to longterm planning now, it seems like a cost of resources, but I think it can pay dividends in the future. One of the things that I think would be helpful right now is to start to get some sort of straw men sacrificial drafts of what should school look like when we get back. What are a couple of models that are floating out there so that schools and districts and states can start gravitating towards a couple of those models and we can begin planning backwards and saying, "Okay, we know we want to emphasize this in the fall. So maybe actually we can do a little bit less of that right now or build toward that in creative way right now."

Justin Reich:                 And then I would especially just say to our colleagues in state education agencies and the US Department of Education, be really vocal and public with the challenges that you're facing right now. I think there are a lot of education researchers whose projects have been sidelined. People are busy with their kids and with other things, but actually I think there's a lot of bandwidth to take on the thorniest challenges that are out there. And so, I hope folks will be really open about addressing them. Good. We've got some great questions that I'll look through, but I'll turn it over to Marty for 10 minutes or whatever length of time he would like to be able to react and offer some questions or suggestions or challenges of his own. So thank you.

Martin West:                Great. Thank you Justin for fascinating presentation. It's certainly daunting to think of the challenges facing our school systems right now. As a discussant, my role is to offer my reaction to the publication that we've just heard presented. I have two dominant reactions before I go on to share some thoughts of my own on the situation that we're facing. The first is my reaction as a researcher, and that's one of awe at the sheer pace with which this report was put together; a week from the first publication of state remote learning guidance to issuing this report. Justin, you may be too young as an academic yet to know that, but that's not how academic research is supposed to work.

Martin West:                The second reaction that I have is more in my capacity as a state school board member. And that's of extraordinary gratitude because this type of publication is exceptionally useful to us in real time right now, especially in uncertain times. If these times or anything, it's uncertain, it's very helpful to have a sense of what others are doing. And that's the case even if we don't know right now exactly what the right way forward is. Even when we don't have consensus best practices, it's useful to see what others are thinking about so that we can begin to think about what considerations we may be missing in our own state, what our blindspots are. So Justin, all in gratitude, that's my dominant reactions.

Martin West:                Let me take just a few minutes then to put the Massachusetts guidance on remote learning that was the focus of this report in context because I think it's important to note that in Massachusetts, and I assume also in the other 50 states, that the guidance documents on remote learning that Justin and his team analyzed are really only one part of how state school systems are responding to the pandemic. In Massachusetts, their governor announced the closure of schools on March 16th to be closed the morning of March 17th. And in the first several days after that closure, we as a state department of education supported districts, first of all, is setting up more than 1200 feeding centers throughout the state in order to focus on the urgent need of keeping students who rely on schools for their nutrition adequately nourished.

Martin West:                We began issuing guidance on urgent but less instructional topics like how and whether districts should continue to pay their hourly staff even if they weren't directly involved in delivering instruction as would have been the case. We strongly recommended and clarified that they should continue to do that in part because of the economic role that we thought school districts play in our communities. And third, we put together a working group to begin gathering data and developing strategies to address the technology needs that we knew would come into play as soon as we began to get instruction up and running.

Martin West:                So that was some of the preliminary work that led up to the issuance of the remote learning guidance on March 26th. That was issued in tandem with our governor's order that schools remained closed through May 4th. In announcing that closure, the governor set the tone by emphasizing this was not a vacation that we expected learning to continue, but I think it is important to note that the assumption at the time when we were drafting that guidance was that there would be a closure for a month. We weren't necessarily planning on the closure lasting beyond May 4th. And I think I'm going to return back to that in a moment because I think it helps explain some of the decisions that we made. We were proud in Massachusetts. We made it a priority to actually engage stakeholders in developing the remote learning guidance.

Martin West:                Ours was issued not just by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but with sign off from the superintendent's association, the school committees, the teachers unions, the PTA, the charter schools association. And so, we thought it was important that the entire education community in the state speak with one voice. We made it clear that what we were offering was a set of recommendations, not requirements. That of course is consistent with the strong tradition of local control that we have in Massachusetts that many states also share.

Martin West:                And then the third thing we wanted to make clear right away is that remote learning is not synonymous with online learning. This is something that Justin touched upon in his remarks but we thought it was critically important given some of the technology barriers in some urban communities in particular. But also concerns about the role of screen time and its potential consequences. So what we did recommend was that school districts offer families structured schedules that lasted approximately half the regular school day. We acknowledged that schools would have to make different decisions based on circumstances about the right approach to grading.

Martin West:                We did say that educators should make contact with students multiple times per week. That students, even if assignments weren't graded in a traditional way, should be receiving feedback on them. Justin highlighted this as I think the one area of divergence. He said across the states, Massachusetts was a state that initially at least recommended a focus on review of prior concepts and enrichment going deeper in applying them as opposed to the introduction of new content. So we recommended that would be the focus, but I don't want to overdo this divide between the two approaches. I think it's right that you see states making different decisions with respect to the emphasis. But if you look at what we said in Massachusetts, we immediately made exceptions and noted that in particular at the high school level that it may be important to continue to introduce new concepts.

Martin West:                And I think another thing that's important to keep in mind was that this guidance was again based on the premise of a closure through May 4th. And as we begin to contemplate what seems like the likely prospect of a longer closure, we're thinking about a change in that approach. But the approach initially was based on, yes, equity considerations, wanting to make sure that if we were introducing new content, everyone would be able to access it. But also this more pragmatic question of what could we do in short order. And I really like Justin's framework of what's achievable and important. And so it was as much to that consideration as the equity consideration that led to that initial emphasis.

Martin West:                That's a bit about the guidance. How about what comes next? Well, as I just suggested, we do expect to be updating this guidance most likely in the next week. One of the ways Justin suggested would be a useful plan to be offering much more in the way of concrete examples of successful approaches to challenges in areas like special education, but also more broadly. And as I just suggested, we are going to recommend that schools start to introduce some new content with a focus on foundational standards, power standards, as we refer to them in the state sometimes, as well as standards where we think that would be reasonable to be delivered at a distance.

Martin West:                But even more important than updating the guidance, because I think we are clear eyed about the fact that even if we and all of our school districts do as good a job as possible of responding in real time to this situation, that there are going to be serious losses in learning for students in Massachusetts and we need to be planning right now to begin remediating those. So that's thinking about the summer and reentry planning if, as we all hope, schools are able to reopen in the fall. We're just starting that process. But I think the foundation of it has to be diagnostic assessment. So we, like other states, canceled our spring assessment.

Martin West:                I'm hoping we can repurpose those resources and efforts in a different form of assessment in the fall, focus much more than the state test traditionally has on diagnosing individual weaknesses. I think that will allow us to do much more in the way of ability grouping so that we can really deal with what will be unprecedented heterogeneity in students' preparation to engage with grade level content. We need to be thinking about ways to make up instructional time, whether through summer school if the health conditions allow that or by extending school days in the fall. There are some federal stimulus funds that are coming down very flexibly and may be used for that purpose. I think we need to be thinking about creative ways of staffing to be able to reduce class size, perhaps even to engage in tutoring.

Martin West:                The likely state of the economy may mean that there are some talents available that school districts can draw in nontraditional ways and we need to make sure that they have the flexibility in order to do that. And then finally, unfortunately, we need to make sure that school districts do have a seamless plan for any closures that may occur over the course of the 2020/21 academic year. I think most projections at this point suggest that such closures on a rolling basis in response to health conditions in particular communities are very difficult to rule out and we need to make sure that we're prepared when that happens.

Martin West:                But as I think about the planning for next year, with the exception of that last item of being prepared for closures, all of the other priorities are really low tech. So while technology remote learning may be the topic of the moment, I actually think it's sort of in the spirit of getting back to basics that we need to prepare for the fall. Those are my thoughts in response to what I think is an extraordinarily useful report. I will stop now and hope that we can engage in a bit of conversation.

Justin Reich:                 Sure. Terrific, Marty. Well, thank you so much for sharing some of that background perspective from one state to talk us through the process of what the thinking looked like to get to that initial guidance. I think a thing that you emphasize that's really important is that we captured what states were doing in our report at a particular time, at a particular snapshot. We didn't capture everything that states were doing. States may have been sending home guidance through teleconferences with their superintendents that weren't recorded or through emails or other kinds of things. We got one snapshot to try to sort of highlight some key themes.

Justin Reich:                 One question that we had was about sort of either national or more state level consistency. Massachusetts is a state with a strong tradition of local control. One person said, how much consideration is there for formalizing distance learning requirement? I have two sons. One of them has to spend six hours a day in front of a computer for classes while the other checks in with a teacher once a week. One of the things that struck me is that there are times when we encourage sort of flexibility and diversity in approaches to teaching and learning.

Justin Reich:                 We say let's hold schools to similar standards of accountability, but let them get there in different kinds of ways. This seems to be sort of particularly a moment where I heard state leaders, district leaders saying, actually we would like some guidance right now so we don't get too far out of step with our neighbors just for one reason. That was one of the things that I thought was useful about Massachusetts and many other states offering some time-based guidance. There are a number of states that said, "Let's organize about half a day of schooling." That actually aligns with I think the research on homeschooling and virtual schooling that's about as many hours as many homeschool families do at the oldest level.

Justin Reich:                 It struck me that actually in many of the sample schedules that we saw, many of them include... even if there's only three hours, they include time for exercise and physical education and creative expression every day. Massachusetts had similar guidance, but many other states did as well. There are some great examples in the report from the San Antonio Independent School District that gave some ideas about exercise and the arts everyday, which seemed like they would be really valuable for young people in the midst of a pandemic and possible for them to do at home. I guess as you think about the fall, how important do you think it is for there to be this sort of continued push for more consistency versus letting schools kind of figure out what it is that they want to do to address these challenges?

Martin West:                Yeah. It's a difficult question because as I suggested, I don't think we know based on research the one right way to advise schools to respond right now. And so, part of me wants to say as a result of that uncertainty, that experimentation is what we want to encourage. At the same time, I think you're absolutely right that there is a strong desire from the field for guidance because of that same uncertainty. And I think that's why you've seen some convergence across states as states look at what each of them is saying. So I think the right compromise is to lay out some principles on things like the amount of time that should be expected.

Martin West:                The fact that there should be some interaction, presumably some modicum of synchronous interaction between individual students and teachers, my understanding of the research on online schools suggest that that is associated with more effectiveness even if we don't know what exactly the right amount is. So I think what we've tried to do is articulate some principles along those lines while then acknowledging the fact that there is going to be a need and there's value in allowing experimentation variation at the local level. And hopefully we can, as I suggested we're trying to do right now, surface some promising examples that are emerging from the field.

Justin Reich:                 That's great. I mean, I very much agree with you that we need to be thinking creatively about how we use time and resources in the fall. I had actually suggested at one point with some others that I hope that the federal government sort of includes additional stimulus funding to make it more possible for states to hire teachers. I had been hopeful that that could happen starting in the summer, but certainly for extended time in the fall. Kathy Siebold makes a comment that just adding time onto the end of the fall without quality won't make up for lost learning, it'll only add time. I had been talking with some other Massachusetts educators who said it's not clear that we need more time of children having instructional time. But actually, if we had more time for collaboration, for working together, for looking through whatever kinds of diagnostic assessments we try to do, that that could be really valuable as well.

Justin Reich:                 Another concern I have is that as people think about reallocating time and critical standards, I mean, there's a lot of lost learning right now. I would be concerned that if schools pivot too hard in the fall to just replacing that lost learning, that what will be cut is all the things that kids love most about school. Like if we say, oh, we missed a lot of these power standards. Now, some of power standards aren't things that kids love. But if we were to say, well, let's put a pause on physical education and music and the arts and extracurricular activities and really focus on reading math; we might find that we have more hours of those things, but not necessarily more effective engagement with students in schools. And certainly schools will do that with sort of varying levels of quality. But that to me seems like the kind of thing that some of what these plans for the fall might need to address.

Justin Reich:                 I mean, I also think Natasha sort of mentions this, that there's just going to be... if the first time kids really do get back together is in schools in the fall, there's going to be this sort of bottled up demand for social connection. Like part of what kids just want to do, especially teenagers I think right now, is spend a lot of time saying, "Oh my God, what did you do during all of that?" A totally natural sort of aching to be connected. So I think that's something that the teachers and school systems are going to have to balance. The sort of the national trauma of a pandemic and recession combined with this really exciting, hopefully, reunion with some learning times that are missing and then also a need to make sure that all the things that make kids love school are still there so that they're excited to come back.

Martin West:                Yeah. I think part of that Justin is why I think additional time is going to be needed. So I agree with the concerns in the comments that, look, additional time if not used well isn't going to do anything. But simple projections based on just the amount of time students are learning, based on the rate of learning growth across the year suggest that we're going to be 30% of a year, 50% of a year depending on the study you look at behind where we otherwise would be. And yes, those other functions that schools play are so important. One of the things that's coming out of this is I think a greater recognition on the part of society of the custodial function that schools play, the social function that they play in our communities. And so, we are not going to want to ignore that, but there is time that needs to be made up, so we need to be thinking creatively.

Martin West:                In Massachusetts, one of the things that our commissioner did when he was the state-appointed superintendent in Lawrence Public Schools, he used school vacations to bring together the most effective teachers in the state with the students who are furthest behind based on diagnostic assessments to have a very intensive focus on core academic subjects, these are known as acceleration academies, well documented that that was a driver of improvement in that district. So that's an example of a creative way we can find to find additional time for those students who need it most.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah, I think those concrete examples, I mean, especially a concrete example that came during a challenging period are things that we can turn to. Michelle Bailey points out that additional time will be costly, especially during a time of reduced state funding. I think those of us that care about education, that see the incredible value of schools in their custodial pastoral function, that see how an extended school day could conceivably help America get back on its feet, both by putting more people to work in schools and by giving parents more time to look for work to pick up shifts outside of school, I hope lots of educators will consider advocating for that.

Justin Reich:                 Raul Boken asks the question, who should be part of the conversation about the planning section. Who should be involved in planning conversations? And I think as in some places things stabilize, there's lots of opportunities for people to get involved in that. I think there's a real role for students to be involved in that. One of the things that I told my colleagues at MIT is, one of the first things that we should do as we transition to remote learning, although I was on teaching leave so I did not teach in MIT this semester, is think about how we partner with students.

Justin Reich:                 I've certainly been encouraging educators at all levels to keep asking people even simple questions; how is this going for you? What's working? What could be different? To have teachers ask those questions of the students. I think if administrators, school leaders, state officials ask those questions of principals and superintendents, then that'll give them the cue to do that. But I think it'd be really exciting to have groups of students working with faculty, working with educational experts, school leaders, be able to start mapping out, here are a couple of different visions of what the fall could look like. I think it'd be fun to have people from different sort of positions in the education system say like, "What should the first day of school look like? What should the first week of school look like? What will really get us in a very concrete way sort of ramped up into the future?"

Justin Reich:                 Marty, a question that I have for you was, what do you think are some of the most compelling unknowns or research questions right now that we could potentially answer? What are some things... so in our lab, a ton of our research is done in partnerships with schools and that's just not happening right now. We've been doing all kinds of innovative education technology things with math teachers in Boston, and now we're just trying to help them do remote learning and our research is kind of shaved down. What kinds of questions do you wish that people spent the next three or four months between now and the beginning of the year answering?

Martin West:                Man, it's tricky because I think obviously you want to learn about the relative efficacy of different approaches to remote learning right now, but in doing that, you hope that we'll never be in a position to have to draw on that evidence again. But I do think we need to find ways to document what it is that families are experiencing so we can begin to ask those questions about the efficacy of different approaches. So I think that's where some of my team's efforts right now are going into trying to put together nationally representative surveys of families to see how what is going on varies from place to place. I guess I'd be interested in your reaction Justin.

Justin Reich:                 I certainly agree that description is the first step. Just like concretely what is happening right now in families and with teachers. I mean, one phrase that keeps coming to mind I think often does is education researchers get the idea that education systems are loosely coupled. So what states say should happen, what schools or districts say should happen, may or may not at all be what is happening on the ground. And so, just knowing what people are up to is one great starting point. I do think that if we can find some points of divergence we could say... I'm wondering if we're going to be able to answer a question to when states really try... in places where they really try to make forward progress on standards around curriculum, how much of that was actually able to happen?

Justin Reich:                 How much of it was able to happen not just to affluent, well internet connected students, but really to the full swath of students because if we can say, "Look, in the places that they do this, this and this, they actually make some good progress." I mean, I also think that we could have some places that said, there's some places that tried to make forward progress against standards in math. And there are other places that had their kids mostly watch Peg + Cat and Odd Squad. Peg + Cat and Odd Squad were designed to support independent at-home learning. And so, even though they weren't on target, they still work better for net maintenance of learning, that new learning against standards than other things did.

Justin Reich:                 I mean, as someone who spent a bunch of my career studying education technology, my experience is just teachers are successful at implementing it when they have a lot of runway to get better at it. And I fully expect there will be some educators who do amazing, amazing things in all kinds of circumstances now. But I do think that if we knew something about what was working or not working as well right now, we are going to have waves of school closures next year. That seems inevitable to me. I hope it's not all of next year, especially in urban areas, potentially in rural areas with less healthcare where they can do less contact tracing or other kinds of things like that. So having some sense of what works, I mean, even what works locally would be helpful. What are some... did you have a thought on that, Marty?

Martin West:                No, I think that's right. I just think as important will be what we learned from differing approaches to remediation and re-entry or remediation upon re-entry. Because I do think one of the things we're realizing is that the shift to full on ed tech is that because of this recognition of the other roles that schools play, I don't think that's the near future.

Justin Reich:                 Yup. So what can we do in those local environments? Some of the questions that we get. When students choose not to engage in remote learning opportunities for a variety of reasons: connectivity, devices, home environment, caretaking, student comprehension, how are folks issuing grades; doing so through the lens of equity? I mean, as someone who sits in a college with a lot of undergraduates, I've been thinking about this a lot because what we use grades for in our admission is to get a sense of who would be successful at MIT and someone's performance in the midst of a pandemic doesn't necessarily let us make good inferences about how they would perform during normal times.

Justin Reich:                 I absolutely agree with something that you said before, which is just the incredible importance of feedback during this period. When students make contact with educators, that can be powerfully motivating for students. When we know how we're doing, how we're learning and how we're growing, that can make a difference. I think we're seeing some really neat models emerge in places like, I think it's Phoenix, Arizona, where they've recruited their entire district staff to try to make sure that someone touches base with all 28,000 kids every day.

Justin Reich:                 MIT actually did something very similar. We took in a bunch of volunteers to be student success coaches and we said, in a lot of our classes we have 400 students and one instructor, even if they have been in instructional teams, let's try and get everyone who's involved in the system to be able to help us connect with students. Because that's certainly one of the things that I heard from really great virtual school teachers is that a huge amount of their time is spent reaching out and connecting to people. And so, I think feedback is incredibly important. I think grades seem like a thornier issue. It seems like to some extent one of the main things we use grades for is for college enrollment and admissions. I'm seeing a bunch, I don't know if you're seeing the same thing, but I saw the University of New Hampshire, the University of California, Berkeley say, "Look, we're going to expect pass/fail grades on transcripts."

Justin Reich:                 I actually would love to see colleges very explicitly say we're adding a question or re-purposing one of our questions to say, what did you do during your time in the pandemic to take care of yourself and to take care of others? Because I think there might be.... I mean, I got an email from somebody who was dealing with one of our undergraduates who said, "Hey, look, I'm actually just going to fail or mostly drop out of my comparative media studies classes this semester because I need to homeschool my two younger siblings who are working." It's those kinds of sacrifices that I hope people think and attend to. I would love to see our older high school age students really play a role. Massachusetts is organizing this huge network of voluntary or entry-level contact tracers. High school students might be great people to be involved in that kind of work.

Martin West:                Yeah, I think there's... so it is the case that we have encouraged districts to avoid not awarding credit for students who disengage unless it's sort of a last resort. We're also acknowledging that we don't have the information to figure out exactly how best to do that. I really like your idea by the way of building a question into the college admissions process in light of that. I'm confident though that higher ed institutions will recognize that this is an unusual time.

Martin West:                So I think... I just wanted to respond a little bit to some comments in the chat that I'm seeing on the role that equity considerations, which as you say have been front and central in how CH are thinking of responding here can maybe sometimes act as a break on innovation or moving forward. And sometimes they are cited in questions of, for example, the degree to which we should be moving students forward versus reviewing. But I think, again, it's a mixture of those equity considerations and pragmatic considerations that I think for me is driving some of these decisions.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. One of the things that my colleague Tressie McMillan Cottom said around issues of equity is that the thing that schools have to make the world a more equitable place is school. That is the primary tool we have and that's been taken away now. I mean, I actually think when people think through these issues from an equity lens they often look at something and say, "Well, this thing, it's not going to be equitable if we do it that way." I think in a lot of cases, the other side also is not going to be equitable that way. That's why I think the emphasis on how do we think about everything that we can do in the fall to bring people back together.

Justin Reich:                 Marty, thanks so much for taking some time out. Thanks to everybody who joined us to share their ideas and opinion. And really to all the educators who are trying to make this work. I think those of us who are trying to make advice, we're not trying to second guess what people are doing. My hat is off and my heart is with all of the educators who are trying to make this work right now and I'm really grateful to all of you from Massachusetts, from the US, from around the world who are taking some time to think with us and talk with us about how we can do this best to serve kids.

Martin West:                Amen to that. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to participate, Justin.

Justin Reich:                 I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. Hope you enjoyed that recording. You can find links to the full webinar and slides along with our report, Remote Learning Guidance from State Education Agencies: A First Look, and other COVID-19 resources in our show notes and at tsl.mit.edu/covid19. Our special thanks to Martin West for joining us and sharing his insights and wisdom and thanks to the whole team of the Teaching Systems Lab for helping to produce the report and for their support on the webinar. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes on how educators from all walks of life are tackling distance learning during COVID-19. This episode of TeachLab was produced and edited by Amy Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe until next time.