two leaders pose on the playground

Keeping Learning on Track Amid Shutdowns

12/31/2021

Written by Novid Parsi

Keeping Learning on Track Amid Shutdowns

How Leading Educators Supported Chicago Public Schools During Pandemic Teaching

This case study originally appeared in the 2021 Lloyd A. Fry Foundation Annual Report. We have re-published it as originally written with the foundation’s permission. Photography by Roark Johnson.

A Chicago teacher of third-grade math saw her students struggling with multiplication. “There was this refrain: ‘My students can’t multiply, so I have to repeat the lessons again,’” recalls LeAnita Garner, who, as Instructional Leadership Coach for Leading Educators, worked closely with the teacher during the 2020-21 school year. “The students were getting frustrated because they recognized it was the same assignment over and over again.”

Addressing Unfinished Learning

In bimonthly meetings, Garner helped the teacher determine what her students had missed in the previous year during the pandemic-related school shutdowns, and how to embed that missed learning into what the students needed to learn in the current year. So rather than spending large chunks of the third grade repeating the second grade, the students stayed on track.

This experience is not unique. Once students fall behind, many teachers understandably attempt to reteach missed learning from the previous grade. But as a result, those students keep falling even further behind. And the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. With the shift to virtual education, Garner says, “a lot of teachers talked about kids checking out.”

A national education nonprofit founded a decade ago, Leading Educators supports educators in helping students learn what they missed in their previous grade and, at the same time, learn what they need in their current grade—so they can advance to the next grade.

With a focus in Chicago on kindergarten through eighth grade, Leading Educators continually works to achieve equitable education: affirming all students’ ability to learn while ensuring they have access to grade-appropriate education. “We challenge school and teacher leaders to think about what equitable instruction looks like and to deepen teachers’ beliefs in students’ capabilities,” says Heather LaLuzerne, Senior Director of Networks, Leading Educators.

Typically, Leading Educators’ coaches meet in person regularly with small groups of school leaders and teachers, who in turn support other educators in their schools. With Leading Educators’ guidance, teams of teachers discuss their lessons and classes on at least a biweekly basis; school and teacher leaders observe classrooms and convene quarterly. It’s this kind of frequent, focused professional development that, too often, educators do not get once they’re on the job.

Adjusting to changing circumstances

But the 2020–21 school year was far from typical. Like the schools, Leading Educators suddenly had to inhabit a virtual world. Instead of its usual team-based approach, the organization offered remote individual coaching to teachers, as well as whole-group virtual sessions for school leaders and teachers. With a specific focus on math, Leading Educators helped educators transition to remote and asynchronous teaching while still keeping their attention on grade-level instruction.

The organization informed educators of online resources such as digital whiteboards that promote interactive instruction, in addition to techniques such as virtual polls and chat functions that elicit real-time responses from all students, not just the most vocal ones. Leading Educators’ coaches also observed classrooms via video and provided teachers with feedback.

Crucially, as Garner’s experience demonstrated, Leading Educators helped teachers sidestep the trap of remedial education and instead provide grade-appropriate learning so that kids didn’t lag further behind. This challenge preceded the pandemic and became even more difficult during it, as many math teachers defaulted to procedural teaching, such as rote memorization. Leading Educators instead promoted conceptual learning, so students could truly comprehend math concepts and apply them in various contexts. “We worked with teachers to teach at grade level and not spend an entire year remediating content from the previous year,” says Claudine Andrews, Director of Math Content, Leading Educators.

At Frederic Chopin Elementary School, two middle school math teachers and their students benefited greatly from the support of Leading Educators, according to Frederick Williams, Principal. “Leading Educators helped not only with active instruction but also with the big picture and teachers’ reflections on how they teach,” Williams says. As a school leader, Williams benefited from the partnership, too: “Leading Educators gave me a place to talk with other principals and hear what they’re doing and share best practices.”

Anastasia Hildner, Instructional Support Leader for one of CPS’s 17 school networks, worked with Leading Educators for the first time in 2020–21. Alongside a Leading Educators coach, Hildner met biweekly with a middle school math teacher, assisting her in identifying what she and her students most needed. For example, Hildner and the Leading Educators coach advised the teacher to have students work in a variety of combinations—small groups, pairs, and solo—to acknowledge that different students learn differently. “We wanted to think outside of the box in a virtual setting,” Hildner says.

Looking Forward

As much as Leading Educators got school leaders and teachers to think and teach outside boxes, it also recognized that “overall, it’s really hard to instruct virtually,” LaLuzerne says. Still, she notes, Leading Educators found that many of its teachers spent most of the school year on grade-appropriate standards—not the previous grade’s content. Leading Educators is working closely with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to expand its impact more widely through the district. 

Next year, it will help implement a new CPS curriculum called Skyline. This curriculum aims to ensure that all CPS students receive engaging, grade-appropriate instruction. Skyline is designed so students see themselves and their communities in the curriculum and become more actively engaged in their own learning. And Skyline gives teachers tools to keep students on track with grade-level instruction.