“Remote learning” as a response to the coronavirus pandemic did not, for the most part, go well. Dozens of surveys and several analyses of school and district websites show that it took the majority of schools multiple weeks to stand up any type of online instruction. Challenges abounded even once they did. Millions of families didn’t have high-speed Internet access or devices suitable for learning. Teachers were unfamiliar with online learning platforms and on average provided instruction just two hours a day. Many students were simply lost, not logging in and unreachable by educators. Parents reported that their children learned less than normal during the crisis.
Some schools, however, did much better.
That is one clear conclusion from an analysis I just completed for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, examining the response of leading charter-school networks to the pandemic, based on interviews with network executives, principals, teachers, and parents as well as broader research. These networks shifted nimbly and effectively to remote learning. All were up and running with online instruction within days of the mid-March shutdowns; together, they distributed tens of thousands of devices and Internet hotspots; they offered a robust mix of live and recorded instruction which led to high levels of student engagement; and their teachers and leaders, though exhausted, embraced the chance to innovate like they hadn’t in years. It wasn’t perfect—even these exceptional organizations struggled with parts of the challenge—but there’s much to applaud in what they did.
Charter school networks in this analysis
|Charter school network||Geography
|Number of students|
|Achievement First||Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island||K–12||37||13,940|
|DSST Public Schools||Colorado (Denver)||6–12||15||6,354|
|Rocketship Public Schools||California, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C.||TK*–5||20||9,706|
|Success Academy||New York City||K–12||45||18,285|
|Uncommon Schools||Massachusetts (Boston), New Jersey (Camden and Newark), and New York (New York City, Rochester, and Troy)||K–12||54||20,300|
*TK refers to transitional kindergarten, a school grade that serves as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten.
Now that it is clear remote learning will continue well into the 2020-21 school year in much of the country, what lessons might other schools take from the large charter networks? What did they actually do that allowed them to maintain quality teaching and learning? In some respects, they were the same things that many other schools in the district, charter, and private school sectors did in the response to the crisis, such as swiftly getting technology into students’ hands, and feeding families on a regular basis.
But three actions these networks took that were critical to their success appear far less common in most other schools around the country. They:
- Reached out to individual students and families on a regular basis.
- Re-created the structure of the regular school day.
- Used a team approach to teaching and instruction, centered around a common curriculum.
1: Reach out to individual students and families on a regular basis
A strong finding from the interviews was the central importance of regularly reaching out to students and families, including providing social and emotional support. This came up in nearly every interview. Most networks had an advisor or counselor system operating before and during the pandemic. Those systems enabled the schools to check in on student and family needs, provide emotional support, and gather feedback on how remote learning was going among their pupils. The networks reached out thoughtfully and systematically to individual students and parents—and persevered until nearly all were in regular touch.
Success Academy teachers contacted every student twice daily. The focus was on having conversations about reading and math: discussing what students were reading and talking through their approaches to math—are they imagining the problem accurately, and how did they select a strategy and why. Director of Literacy and History at Success Academy, Jessica Sie, told 50Can.org’s Marc Porter Magee:
…for our youngest learners, so much of what we do is in-person and thinking about the read-alouds and the science and the reading instruction in small groups… you could just picture walking into a first-grade classroom, right? You have a group of kids on the floor reading. You have some students on a mat, and they’re working together. And so taking that into a digital environment was definitely a challenge. The way that we approached it was to give really clear guidance. We sent parents frequent communication with daily updates about the simple clear learning plans for their kids….For us, that meant: what are you reading each day, reading the books at home or using great online platforms like Tumblebooks and EPIC; doing some writing about the book you’ve read. So really simple…doing some science instructions….And then for math, what are a few problems that are aligned with the unit? And then we just checked in with parents through phone calls.
Rocketship provided a template for teacher check-ins with students and families. It included asking about how they are doing, whether they have been eating and sleeping well, what they are liking most about their socio-emotional learning lessons, and what they will work on today. The network had a Care Corps and regular virtual “cafecitos,” coffee meetings, with principals and parents. The Vice President of Schools at Rocketship, Maricela Guerrero, said, “We build really strong relationships with our families and with our teams via staff huddles, regular parent coffees with principals, emailing inspiration and updates, and being transparent with our community. Connections and relationships really matter.” At Uncommon Schools, teachers had a ten- to twenty-minute check-in with students or parents weekly to check on student wellbeing, identify family needs, and provide feedback or answer questions about student work.
These systems allowed for rapid reconnaissance so the networks could learn which students needed help with meals, devices, and connectivity; communicate updates to students and families; gather feedback on remote learning; and provide support to students and families.
Connecting with students and families on a regular basis—not just in groups but also one-on-one—is a charter network practice worthy of emulation. That said, several networks heard from parents early in the crisis that they felt overwhelmed, “drowning” in over-communication, leading the school teams to dial it back. So striking the right balance is important.
2: Re-create the structure of the regular school day
For decades, education technologists have envisioned a future of completely re-imagined schooling. Gone would be classrooms of twenty to thirty students and one teacher, the lockstep curriculum, “seat time” requirements, even grades. The replacement would be a new world of individualized instruction, with students learning at their own pace according to their own interests.
That model has appeal, but it is not what these charter networks did during the pandemic. Though several were already heavy users of technology, their goal this past spring was to replicate as much of their brick-and-mortar approach as they possibly could. In contrast to many traditional public schools, they strove to create and enforce a typical school day for their pupils, with a mix of live and recorded lessons as well as independent work. Most also maintained their regular approach to grading. Undergirding all this was the understanding that children need structure and routine, especially during uncertain times, along with familiar learning practices and a sense of belonging in the school community. “Part of navigating toxic stress and trauma,” noted Preston Smith, cofounder and CEO of Rocketship Public Schools, “is having consistent routines and rituals.”
How it worked in elementary school
The early grades present remote learning challenges. Younger students have limited and varying abilities to engage well with this form of instruction and require much more parent involvement. The pandemic forced tough decisions about whether these young learners should have devices, about managing screen time, and about how much time should be spent on learning at home.
At Success Academy, K-2 students received 3.75 hours of content (that is, a morning meeting, reading for ninety minutes a day, writing for thirty minutes a day, completing sixty minutes of math work a day, plus other work such as science and read-aloud) while pupils in grades 3-4 got 4.75 hours (including reading twice, math twice, writing, science, and typing). Once Success’s elementary pupils had devices, the network used live, synchronous instruction almost entirely.
Most schools offered shorter work blocks in their elementary-grades schedules. A sample day for K-1 pupils at Rocketship included: virtual assembly at 8 a.m., a phonics lesson for 20 minutes, a half-hour Zoom session with the class to discuss a book the class was reading, snack and stretch breaks, enrichment sessions, lunch, science for a half hour, math for a half hour via Zoom, painting, talking by phone to a teacher about reading, and an end-of-day virtual celebration with singing and dancing.
At Uncommon Schools, K-1 students read or were read to for 30 minutes a day, did read-alouds twice a week, completed math tasks twice a week and also mixed-practice math problem-solving twice a week, completed a writing task twice a week, and completed a “core” task twice a week. Through grade four, students submitted one reading and one math assignment to their teacher each week by Thursday at 11 a.m. Teachers held remote office hours Monday through Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m., so students could ask questions and teachers could give feedback on assignments.
How it worked in high school
Remote learning in high school introduces more complexity with schedules and subjects, more independent work, and more complicated extracurriculars.
Each day at Uncommon Schools, high school students joined their teachers online for a live lesson or accessed a 20-minute instructional video via Google Classroom for one of their core academic classes, viewed during its scheduled one-hour class period. During the remaining 40 minutes, they accessed the classwork handout via Google Classroom and completed it using guidance from the video and other resources provided to them or from the teacher who stayed online for questions. They submitted their completed work by the end of the one-hour class period. This counted as their attendance and was graded for completion and accuracy. Teachers were available via Zoom office hours during the 40 minutes following the video. Advanced Placement teachers could decide whether to assign additional work outside of the hour period. Grades were based on classwork and assessments. See Table 1 below for an illustrative high school schedule.
Table 1. Uncommon Schools general high school schedule of remote instruction
● 8:00-8:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos
● 8:20-9:00 – Students work on the classroom handout; math office hours (teachers on Zoom)
● 9:00-9:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos
● 9:20-10:00 – Students work on the classroom handout; English office hours (teachers on Zoom)
● 10:00-10:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos
● 10:20-11:00 – Students work on the classroom handout; science office hours (teachers on Zoom)
|11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.||History
● 11:00-11:20 – Students watch live or recorded instructional videos
● 11:20-12:00 – Students work on the classroom handout; history office hours (teachers on Zoom)
|12:30-2:00 p.m.||Electives (students can take multiple courses during this time)
● Schools determine their own specific schedules during this time
● Note: just Monday to Thursday (Fridays are half-day)
|2:00 p.m.||All classwork due if not submitted during class (to count as attendance and for credit)|
|2:30-4:00 p.m.||Targeted tutoring: (just Monday to Thursday; Fridays are half-day)
● Teachers reach out to provide individual or small-group support (teacher-driven)
● Other content (small-group instruction and counseling, for example) may take place during this time
Success Academy’s high school students were “in class” for eight and a half hours daily, with forty minutes for lunch. They read for an hour a day, completed an hour of English, and worked on history, math, and science for 90 minutes each. Lessons began with a videoconference to set up student expectations and learning objectives for the day. All students in the grade joined the same video call. Teachers continued to teach their daily lessons for math, science, English language arts, or history, using Google Classroom to share assignments, grade work, and give students feedback.
At DSST, high school pupils had morning advisory checks, literacy and language blocks, math blocks, science blocks, and social studies blocks. They also had advisory and college success lunches twice a week, Advanced Placement or make-up/remediation work with office hours, and advisory check-ins on Fridays.
As schools engage in remote learning this fall, adopting normal schedules and grading practices is something they should strongly consider. Yet these come with several challenges, as the charter networks found. One issue is determining the duration of lessons. One network started with 60-minute online lessons but quickly realized that they were too long, so it transitioned to twenty-minute lessons, followed by a corresponding assignment and optional question time with teachers. Schools need to make sure there are enough opportunities for active learning, class discussion, student feedback, and individualized attention. And they need to find the right balance between live and asynchronous learning.
3: Embrace a team approach to teaching, with a common curriculum at the center
During the crisis, many charter networks made innovative use of teaching teams—an important adaptation made easier by the relative autonomy enjoyed by charter schools. At many networks, lead planners designed network-wide lessons. Master teachers recorded video lessons to be shared network-wide. Some teachers focused on grading and providing feedback to students while others focused on checking in with families and one-on-one video calls with students to address stumbling blocks. This division of labor allowed networks to deploy teachers according to their skills, strengths, interests, and experience while also allowing those closest to the students to follow up with them in groups and individually. It also allowed flexibility for teachers with children of their own at home.
At Uncommon Schools, master teachers with the strongest student achievement results recorded video lessons that were used across the whole network in grades K-8, freeing other teachers to focus on small group facilitation via Zoom, re-teaching when necessary, grading assignments, providing feedback, conducting student and family outreach, and holding office hours. At Success Academy, a top grade-level teacher instructed 125 students in multiple live class sessions, with other teachers checking attendance, reviewing student work, providing individualized feedback, and holding virtual office hours.
At Achievement First, co-teachers met daily, handing off the Zoom microphone during live classes, monitoring different Zoom breakout rooms for smaller group work, and sharing grading responsibilities. At DSST, one teacher facilitated the online learning session while another managed the technology and focused on the chat comments, after which all teachers analyzed student work.
At Rocketship, a fifth grade STEM teacher, Abel Ibarra, noted during our interview that his co-teacher might focus on tracking attendance and progress as well as uploading materials. They co-taught live sessions. They met weekly to coordinate.
Can the practices of these high-performing charter networks be replicated?
These networks had several advantages going into the COVID-19 crisis, advantages that are challenging to replicate, particularly for district public schools. Some advantages arise from the relative autonomy that charter schools enjoy in most places, including freedom from some state rules and regulations and from the constraints of district bureaucracies and collective-bargaining agreements. Because charter schools report to nonprofit boards rather than directly to elected officials, they can often move more quickly, innovate, and respond to changing conditions.
What makes these networks particularly special, though, is not that they’re charters but that they have leveraged these advantages over the years to become exceptionally effective teaching and learning organizations. They were excellent before the pandemic, so they excelled in rising to this challenge.
Four attributes in particular served these networks well during the crisis: strong mission, values, and culture; excellent leadership (including agility in operations and decision-making); strong talent and teams; and vibrant school communities that included close relationships with families.
- Strong mission, values, and culture
During nearly every interview, network leaders, school heads, teachers, and parents referred to their organization’s mission, values, or culture as being essential to its crisis response. Network executives employed these elements to keep their community together, motivated, and focused on higher aims. Organizational culture was particularly important because it provided the human context in which everything else happened, including teaching, operations and data analysis.
Achievement First espouses these core values at its schools: lead for racial equity, strive for excellence, embrace challenge, care for the whole person, choose joy, and go further together. In its remote learning plan, Achievement First wrote that its commitment was “to channel our values into a full effort of meeting the needs of our scholars, families, and staff in a way that—when this crisis has passed—will make us PROUD of how we showed up and defined who we are.” All the core values were relevant to Achievement First’s efforts to create quality remote learning programs. “Times of crisis are when you most need your values,” said Achievement First CEO Dacia Toll.
Network leaders at Uncommon Schools said their mission, “to close the achievement gap and prepare low-income students in grades K-12 to graduate from college and achieve their dreams,” was more important than ever during the crisis. One of their values is “Caring: We take care of each other. We notice when someone needs help and we lend a hand.” This animated the approach Uncommon took during the pandemic, as the network strove to support its students, parents, and teachers and maintain a school community that was in it together.
- Excellent leadership (including agility in operations and decision-making)
A great way to predict the quality of response by schools during the pandemic was their pre-existing organizational health: was the school already high-functioning with teaching, learning, vision, strategy, culture, execution, alignment, innovation, and agility? All of this, of course, is in large part a function of excellent leadership.
Many of the networks studied here have invested considerable time and resources in developing management and operational excellence and efficiency. Their pre-existing clarity and alignment around school design principles, mission, values, vision, and culture allowed them to reduce decision time dramatically. Uncommon Schools CEO Brett Peiser says the organization uses the “rapid” decisionmaking approach—recommend, approve, perform, input, decide (not necessarily in that order)—developed by management consultants at Bain. That started Uncommon’s effort on the right foot: “It was great seeing the national leadership competence and the commitment to doing this well,” noted Sean Healey, an Uncommon high school principal in Brooklyn. “It was refreshing to get a call during that week of uncertainty, amidst the frustration of not knowing. It felt good to have someone say, ‘We’re going to get going. We’re going to start with remote learning.’ There were fast cycle times.”
DSST decided to go all-in with a quality online school instead of hedging its bet and wondering if physical schools would reopen after a couple of weeks. According to CEO Bill Kurtz, “DSST is a high-trust organization. Trust is the most important commodity you have in a crisis. With trust, you can move much more quickly.” A defining element of the DSST school model is effective central management, along with the importance of excellent school leaders in creating the conditions for teacher and student success.
These networks occupy an organizational space somewhere between mom-and-pop charter schools—some of which lack in resources, economies of scale, and cutting-edge practices—and traditional school districts—some of which can be bureaucratic and slow to adapt due to frustrating layers of rules, regulations, politics, and collective-bargaining agreements. The charter networks come not only with the autonomy embedded in chartering but also with some centralization that allows them to make quick decisions and then drive those decisions across their schools.
- Strong talent and teams
All the networks had previously invested in attracting, vetting, and developing talent as well as teambuilding. These investments paid off during the crisis, in part by providing robust operational and management competence as well as teamwork.
For years, Uncommon Schools has had a robust and methodical approach to educator training and development, including two to three weeks of summer training, half a day each week devoted to professional development, an annual two-day retreat for all school leaders, an annual operations training program, home office professional development workshops, and extensive use of one-on-one coaching to drive improvement.
Achievement First principals participate in a two-year residency before leading a school. New teachers have five weeks of summer professional development. All teachers and leaders work with coaches who provide individualized feedback and support. Achievement First kept its coaching in place during the pandemic, with leaders giving feedback on Zoom instruction and engagement.
- Vibrant school community and close relationships with families
Schools are communities, not just places of learning. We saw how humanity, grace, and love rose to the surface during the pandemic. This was a top finding from the interviews: the focus on humanity and community, the giving and receiving of grace during times of struggle, and the bonds between teachers, families, and youth engaged in the shared purpose of education and the common challenge of overcoming hardship together. The charter networks had a strong sense of community among teachers and families before the pandemic. That helped them navigate the crisis.
Said Uncommon’s Healey, “Our kids are incredible and very resilient. They said, ‘Let me dive in and embrace this.’ That was grounded in relationships where the students know the teachers and staff really love them.”
In sum, these networks entered the pandemic as highly effective organizations, with clear values, excellent leadership, talented teams, a coherent curriculum, systems that support student success, and vibrant communities with close relationships. These were powerful assets in the sudden shift to remote learning.
We should do all we can to help every school take similar actions. At the same time, let us pause to acknowledge the policies that have enabled high-performing charter networks such as these to emerge. At a time when so many U.S. institutions appear to be struggling or failing to meet the moment, here are examples of organizations that are not just surviving but thriving. Surely we should want to see them replicate and grow so they can serve even more students, families, and communities that choose them.
Gregg Vanourek is co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver and the Stockholm Business School. Twitter: @gvanourek
Last updated August 25, 2020