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Report Reveals the Sorry State of Public School Instruction

Findings from research conducted jointly by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education indicate unfavorable trends in the way K-12 students are being taught in American schools. A report of the study was published recently by the American School District Panel (ASDP), “a nationally representative standing panel of school district leaders.”

The report, titled Teaching recovery? Three years in, school system leaders report that the pandemic weakened instruction (Rainey et al., 2023), summarizes data from interviews completed in spring 2023 with dozens of school district leaders: superintendents, chief academic officers, human resource officers, and other central office personnel. The interviewees worked in five urban and suburban districts of various sizes.

The only positive out of five key findings was that “school system leaders reported less day-to-day chaos during the 2022-23 school year [compared with 2020-21 and 2021-22].” The other key findings were these:

  • Staff shortages and challenges associated with providing additional training to teachers made Covid-19 recovery plans difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Tutoring, extended learning time, summer school, the adoption of new curricula, and the implementation of sophisticated instructional approaches all fell victim to staffing and management hurdles.

  • Good teaching also suffered after three years of disruptions. Leaders reported that teachers were falling back on outdated and ineffective instructional practices or using curricula that lacked grade-level content and rigor.

  • School systems are centralizing instructional support and building (or rebuilding) teachers’ core skills. However, by prioritizing strong and consistent instructional techniques system-wide, system leaders have less time to devise ways to provide specialized support for students with the largest gaps in their knowledge and skills.

  • School systems that had to refocus staff on the basics of teaching instead of academic recovery may need new solutions to support students with profound needs. Administrators made frank assessments about the uneven day-to-day workings of their classrooms. (Rainey et al., 2023, p. 2)

The findings shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed public education over the past few years. In 2021, I wrote an Edjacent blog post about the so-called teacher shortage—a problem that existed well before the pandemic—and reasons people no longer want to teach.

An EducationWeek article, “Teachers’ Skills Took a Hit During the Pandemic, Too, Report Says” (Peetz, 2023) covers highlights from the 15-page ASDP report, including some choice quotes from the interviews of school district leaders. Here’s one that stood out to me:

We spent a lot of money on retention bonuses and “please stay” payments. You might as well burn that money because it didn’t bear out. People left anyway. People took their checks and walked. But at the time, everybody was doing it, so we had to as well.

Two statements from this excerpt were revealing. First, “You might as well burn that money” indicates that this district leader undervalues educators who serve on the front lines. Unlike other professions, bonuses in public education are rare. Bonuses with no strings attached are almost unheard of.

In my opinion, every individual who worked at a school for at least one of the last three years should have been given an end-of-year bonus, not as incentive to remain on the job but as a reward for their service. Unfortunately, many central office administrators believe bonuses should only be used for enticing teachers to continue toiling in less-than-favorable conditions.

The other telling statement from the quote above was, “everybody was doing it, so we had to as well.” During my three decades of public school teaching and working at the central offices of two large districts, I came to realize that numerous administrators—people who make crucial decisions affecting students and teachers—are limited in their ability to critically analyze problems and solve them creatively. In short, a lot of these people are unable to think outside the box, so they rely on “what everybody else is doing.”

Thomas R. Guskey, Ph.D. is an internationally renowned educator and award-winning author with expertise in student assessment, grading, professional learning, and educational reform. In 2017, he tweeted, “Advances in education do not come from imitation; they come from innovation!” Tom’s words stuck with me, though I suppose they would have benefited staff above my pay grade even more.

How did school districts end up with substandard leaders? In my not-so-humble opinion, the culprit is the way that many districts promote personnel to higher-paying, top-level positions. Instead of advertising these jobs and choosing the best and brightest candidates, longevity and loyalty within the system are rewarded and cronyism abounds.* This practice gives rise to inbred thinking, which lessens a district’s ability to implement new ideas and change in times of crisis (e.g., a pandemic).

If you haven’t noticed by now, I am putting the blame on leadership for the state of public education in the US. In the wake of the pandemic, most school districts simply picked up where they left off before anyone had heard of Covid-19. The ASDP report describes how that’s been working out. American education is headed in the wrong direction. A prime example of this course reversal can be found in another excerpt from the aforementioned EdWeek article:

Moving forward, the district leaders said they plan to focus on centralizing and standardizing instructional materials, rather than emphasizing teacher flexibility to meet students’ needs.

I am a charter member of Edjacent, where we believe that teacher flexibility is necessary to meet the needs of students. While “centralizing and standardizing instructional materials'' is just one method for districts to meet their current needs, these methods often compromise the needs of present and future generations of students.

As my friend and Edjacent host Meghan Raftery said after she read the ASDP report, “The cavalry is not coming. Districts will not save us. We must do it ourselves.” The Edjacent Community comprises educators and other people who care deeply about education. The name Edjacent comes from the theory of the adjacent possible, which postulates that innovation and “good ideas” develop outside of (i.e., adjacent to) traditional systems. Our vision is to create the adjacent possible for education.

Edjacent supports individuals—students, parents, educators—as well as groups and organizations who are interested in doing their part, however great or small, to improve the existing state of education. We offer community, coaching, and engaging courses and events.

If you are interested in learning how to work toward a more sustainable future for education, consider joining our community by clicking here. To receive future blog post notifications and information about courses and events, click here and scroll down to “Sign Up: Join Our Email List for Monthly Updates.” You can also book a free discovery call with one of Edjacent’s certified life coaches by scheduling an appointment here.

*In Central Offices: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Part 1 and Part 2, Meghan Raftery and I discuss this and other issues.

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