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Confronting the Challenges of Restarting School

Insights from 11 urban districts on developing a nimble, collaborative, and equity-focused plan for an unprecedented year

July 21, 2020
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As co-directors of the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), a longtime collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Business School, John J-H Kim and I were excited about putting on our annual summer institute this July. We had an amazing set of 12 large urban school district teams lined up for what was going to be an intense and productive week, grappling with some of their biggest challenges and fueled by all we know about best practices in management, organizations, and innovation aimed at high performance.

What we did, however, was entirely different. We postponed our week-long residential institute when it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t allow it and instead invited large urban school districts from across the nation to participate in a virtual community of practice focused on one common challenge: restarting schools. Representing more than 1.1 million schoolchildren, the 11 districts and 240 leaders who joined us gave us a view into the tremendous challenges our nation’s school districts currently face, and what it will take to overcome them. 

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Representing more than 1.1 million schoolchildren, the 11 districts and 240 leaders who joined us gave us a view into the tremendous challenges our nation’s school districts currently face, and what it will take to overcome them.

What Districts Need 

To prepare, we checked in with superintendents, pored over existing district plans, stayed abreast of school district news, and read the guidance that has emerged from the health organizations, the think tanks, the states, and the education nonprofits. The information swirling around the heads of our district leaders must be overwhelming in its sheer volume, disconcerting in its ambiguity, and daunting in its many calls to action. We became certain that what school districts needed most from us was a chance to talk to each other. They needed ideas, encouragement, support, collaboration, and affirmation, because these district leaders, like all civic leaders, are facing the challenge of a lifetime.

Here are a few insights, thoughts, and ideas that came from our sessions that might be useful during this time of uncertainty, unprecedented challenge, and much-needed leadership: 

Form Non-Hierarchical Teams, Focusing on Key Areas

We know that a team working together can produce more and provide better-quality results than an individual acting alone, and there is no doubt that reopening schools cannot be solved by the senior leaders in an organization in isolation; they need knowledge and insight from people on the ground.

Based on a new framework by John J-H Kim and Kathleen Choi, "Successfully Restarting Schools in Fall 2020 in the Face of COVID-19," we encouraged participating school districts to reorganize themselves into non-hierarchical teams focused on key workstreams (i.e. instruction, operations, stakeholder engagement, and resource allocation) and consisting of individuals intimately familiar with the details of the work, so as to spark ideation and innovation. We suggested that each district form a steering committee — led by the superintendent, and with representation from those directly impacted by the problems the district would be facing — to ensure coherence of the entire plan and address equity issues, while keeping public health concerns at the forefront. We learned from our districts that working remotely makes teaming especially challenging, so intentionality in team formulation, team leadership, cross functionality, and information flow is essential

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We suggested that districts be transparent about the process for building their plan and reemphasize the need to be fluid and nimble, which would mean potentially having to pivot quickly and embrace another approach.

Articulate a Vision for Success — and Guiding Principles

With difficult decisions and trade-offs ahead that could produce conflict and be challenged by evolving constraints, districts need to formulate a clear vision of success for reopening, while articulating a set of guiding principles that will help them weigh options.  

Using Kim and Choi's framework as a guide, we encouraged districts to be explicit about the values driving the plan and to articulate their aspirations for the fall. We suggested that districts be transparent about the process for building their plan and reemphasize the need to be fluid and nimble, which could mean potentially having to pivot quickly and embrace another approach. A high-level timeline for staff, students, and families should be part of the vision. We asked them to get clear on the actionable guiding principles that would help them make important trade-off decisions. Districts are facing tough trade-offs in every realm — and some of these decisions risk producing unnecessary conflict between the needs of children and their teachers. But one group cannot be forfeited for another. Districts need to be clear on what the upper and lower boundaries are, what is “good” given the circumstances, and what principles district leaders should never compromise when making their toughest decisions.

Strive for Coherence Across the District

In PELP, we have always insisted on the development of a coherent district strategy, and that seemed especially important now. All of the elements of a school district, even when re-imagined, must work together in an integrated way to support the strategy for restarting schools — from operations to instruction to stakeholder engagement to resource allocation.

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Districts should anchor their strategy to a set of instructional principles that everyone in the district can internalize. Operational concerns certainly rule the day, but the strategy has to remain tethered to a vision for teaching and learning — and pressure-tested with an eye toward coherence and equity.

Anchor Your Strategy to a Vision for Teaching and Learning

Districts should anchor their strategy to a set of instructional principles that everyone in the district can internalize, attending to students’ social emotional well-being and sense of belonging, and aimed at teaching academic content worth learning. Operational concerns certainly rule the day, but the strategy has to remain tethered to a vision for teaching and learning in the upcoming school year. From there, districts should use a set of “critical questions” to pressure-test the strategy for coherence across key dimensions of school district work. If this is the instruction we need, for example, then what behaviors do we need from people right now? Which roles and responsibilities are critical to implementing our strategy? How do we facilitate continuous learning among our educators at every level? How can we allocate our limited resources in alignment with our strategy (time, people, money, technology)? How do we gain insight from our stakeholders?

What we learned is that districts are thinking through countless implications with an eye toward coherence, but they are heavily focused on parent partnership, capacity building for teachers, and the prioritization of their most vulnerable students — all critical for the success of restarting school this fall.

With an Equity Lens, Lay the Groundwork for Systemic Change 

We also knew that districts will have to pressure-test their strategies with an eye toward equity — ensuring that all of the elements are designed so that each individual is getting what they need to thrive, with a focus on the students, staff, and families who are situated farthest from the opportunity to do so. 

Structural inequities have become more apparent because of the pandemic, but the pandemic didn’t create them; our systems did. And the movement for racial justice that is under way is shining a spotlight on it all. Districts will need to employ an “equity lens” in their planning effort so as to see the invisible systems, structures, and routines that reproduce unequal outcomes. And while we know districts cannot disassemble and create the new systems all of our children need by this fall, they can plan a coherent strategy for reopening that addresses inequities head on, whenever and wherever they can. 

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Despite shifting circumstances, districts must put their best plan into action — then monitor closely, using metrics that give them good data; gain regular insight from principals, teachers, staff, students and parents; and modify as needed.

We found that school district leaders are eager to use the opportunity for change brought on by the pandemic to set the stage for transformation in the future, as suggested in pieces like the Aspen Institute’s “Recovery and Renewal: Principles for Advancing Public Education Post-Crisis.” This conversation ignited the energy of our participants who desperately want to dismantle systems that oppress — like the stifling emphasis we’ve seen on mandated testing, isolated skills, and test prep — and build new ones that liberate, with an emphasis on student voice, deeper learning, and representation. By amplifying the instructional practices that are working for students of color, even if they are only happening in pockets of the district, and shedding those that don’t, even if they are things that were once adopted and touted district-wide, district leaders can set the stage for a better future.

Adopt a Highly Agile Approach — Prepare to Iterate

Finally, we knew that time for implementation would come swiftly and that school districts will need to adopt an agile approach based on rapid, iterative cycles of action and reflection, tightly aligned with their vision for success and their guiding principles, and also responsive to changing health conditions.  The key will be to focus on continuous improvement, collecting feedback, iterating, and improving every step of the way, as Kim and Choi's framework recommends. 

And the reality is that circumstances are shifting even as districts are on the precipice of launching their plans. We encouraged leaders to remain committed to making decisions that are tightly aligned to their vision and guiding principles, even if that means shifting key components altogether. Ultimately, districts must put their best plan into action, monitor closely using metrics that give them good data; gain regular insight from principals, teachers, staff, students and parents; and modify as needed. Making decisions in concert with communities and communicating those decisions with honesty, humility, compassion, and vulnerability will be key to building confidence and trust along the way.

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About the Author

Photo of Jennifer Perry Cheatham
Jennifer Perry Cheatham
Jennifer Cheatham is a senior lecturer on education at HGSE and the co-director of the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP). She has served as the superintendent of the Madison (Wisconsin) Metropolitan School District, chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, executive director of curriculum and instruction for San Diego City Schools, and coach and professional developer for the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (BASRC) in San Francisco. She previously led a multiyear initiative aimed at improving academic literacy for middle school students in Newark, California, where she began her career as an eighth-grade English teacher.
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