May 7, 2021
After the housing recession of 2008, reports abounded about how many schools chose to spend federal stimulus dollars on purchasing “tech”—laptops, iPads, SmartBoards, and the like—that weren’t well used or quickly became obsolete. There is no doubt that up-to-date hardware and software are necessary for schools to function, especially in remote and hybrid contexts. But, on their own, they are unlikely to positively impact students’ learning experiences or trajectories without the human talent to effectively leverage them.
The 2020 and 2021 federal COVID relief investments are the largest single investments in public elementary and secondary schools in recent history (see graphic below for more details), and schools have wide discretion in spending the funds. And, as in 2008, we’re seeing product vendors directly pitch states and districts to adopt discrete tools to improve teaching and learning, from a kit to help students with “academic recovery” in science to an electronic platform to track instruction and student learning. There could be some value to adopting some of these tools. But to ensure this historic investment leads to historic-level changes and outcomes, states and districts need to think bigger and longer-term. And that means investing in and transforming their approach to the “front line” of public PreK-12 education: educators.
Think about it: hospitals that invest in medical equipment must also have nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff that are adept at knowing when and how to operate them in order to save patients’ lives. The same is true for schools. The lesson for states and districts is that in addition to focusing stimulus funds on things like student data platforms, they must seize this opportunity to focus on building and sustaining the educator talent in our schools.
Why? For decades, educators and advocates for students have bemoaned the fact that teaching and school staffing approaches haven’t changed much since the move from one-room schoolhouses to multi-classroom schools. Teachers still tend to lead a classroom on their own, with little input and support from others, even if they are brand new to the profession (often referred to as the “sink or swim” approach to onboarding). Many sink, and even those that succeed may still look back with remorse on the quality of instruction they delivered to students that first year in the classroom. Teachers are generally afforded little time to collaborate, share ideas, and learn from each other, and are often dissatisfied with the opportunities for professional learning their schools do provide. Many schools lack full-time school psychologists, counselors, or nurses, or have too few on staff to adequately serve all students, leaving teachers to pick up the slack, in addition to planning, instructing, grading, connecting with students, communicating with families, etc. Meanwhile, school principals roles have also expanded, and most struggle to manage the myriad responsibilities they hold without burning out.
Add in the relatively low pay that educators earn relative to other professions with similar education requirements and level of responsibility, and it’s not surprising that working in these roles has become less desirable. The result? Many schools—particularly those serving the students with the greatest needs—struggled to attract and retain high-quality educator talent even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are likely to struggle even more in its aftermath as more educators burn out.
This is the moment for states and districts to think big about how to address these issues, and strengthen and diversify the educator workforce for the long-term instead of clutching at short-term fixes.
One of the best ways states and districts can do this is to rethink how we staff schools. Here are eight synergistic approaches to doing this:
- Ensure that every teacher and school principal new to the profession has the paid opportunity to work alongside an effective mentor teacher for a full school year before being asked to lead a classroom or school on their own
⇨ For examples of ways to sustainably fund these efforts, see these resources from Prepared to Teach and Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture.
- Provide educators in their second and third years with more intensive professional development opportunities that are relevant to their subject, grade level, and schools.
⇨ For examples of best practices in teacher induction and mentoring, see this resource from the New Teacher Center, and evidence on outcomes from the Institute of Education Sciences.
- Identify teachers with the skills and abilities to lead other teachers, both novice and more experienced, and reduce their teaching workload so they can regularly observe classrooms, review students’ personal and academic progress with their teachers, and help provide feedback and opportunities for professional growth.
⇨ For examples of programs currently taking this approach, see Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture, and National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s TAP.
- Hire (or rehire) paraprofessionals to help reduce the work burden on teachers and to provide more flexibility in teachers’ schedules to plan, collaborate, co-teach with, and visit classrooms of other educators. Paraprofessionals can help teachers more easily differentiate instruction, and are also more likely to mirror students’ race/ethnicity and speak students’ native languages, and provide a promising pipeline of more racially and linguistically diverse new teachers.
⇨ For more on the approaches and benefits to incorporating paraprofessionals, see here and here.
- Ensure sufficient numbers of full-time school psychologists, counselors and nurses, so students’ needs are comprehensively supported, and teachers can primarily focus on instruction (although it’s still important teachers build meaningful, trusting relationships with students). While these staff have always been necessary to meet the full needs of students, they will be particularly necessary in the wake of COVID-19. Assigning a staff member to each student focused on “coordinating” their various academic, physical, emotional, and mental health needs has also been shown to boost student success.
⇨ For further resources on the benefits of school counselors and nurses, and recommended staffing levels, see here and here. For details on how to ensure communication and coordination around supporting students’ holistic needs, see the BARR Center’s model.
- Providing funding and a roadmap for hiring a new COVID-19 mitigation manager in schools to lead the infection prevention and control team so that school leaders aren’t the primary individual responsible for securing sufficient cleaning and wellness supplies, and staying on top of developing, implementing, and enforcing health and safety protocols. The job description should also include provision of general administrative support to the school principal outside of COVID-related matters.
⇨ For evidence on and examples of how having staff focused on handling non-instructional school administration issues can allow principals to better focus on teaching and learning, see here.
- Train principals on distributing leadership responsibilities so they can fully harness the potential of their new cadre of staff—teacher leaders, nurses, school counselors, and COVID-19 mitigation managers.
⇨ For more details, see Hanover Research’s report on best practices and the Ohio Department of Education’s list of resources for building distributed leadership skills and structures.
- Hiring enough principal supervisors to ensure none have too heavy of a caseload to adequately focus on high-impact uses of their time, such as visiting schools and coaching principals on how to support learning recovery.
⇨ For more on appropriate principal supervisor job descriptions and caseloads, see this interview with New Leaders and this report from the Wallace Foundation.
Some might say these efforts won’t be sustainable once federal stimulus funding is no longer available. But the best thing about investments in human capital is that—unlike supplies which immediately depreciate in value from the moment purchased—their value should increase over time and even save money, through reduced educator attrition, improved effectiveness, and diminished need to leverage “outside experts” for professional learning because the experts will already be working inside schools. And, of course the most important long-term value will be to the students themselves, who are more likely to learn and thrive in schools that holistically support them to fulfill their potential.
But if states and districts think small, the return on investment over the long run will be minimal, limiting federal investments moving forward, as well as opportunities for current and future students, and our nation as a whole. Now that states and districts have the information they need to make the right choices, it’s time for them to do so.
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