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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Different Leadership for a Different Time

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Instructional Strategies
Social-emotional learning
Different Leadership for a Different Time
What started as a three-week shutdown of schools and then morphed into 18 months of disrupted education has now created a generation of kids who will feel the impact of unfinished learning and, for some, heightened trauma. A true return to "normal" may be a decade or more away as school districts adjust to a lingering new reality. The lives and education of students have been fundamentally altered, and the job of school and district leaders must change, too.
COVID-19's lasting impact includes millions of students who fell further behind academically, millions more who feel disengaged and disinterested in school, and educators who are stressed, burned out, and unfortunately leaving the profession. These three challenges existed even before the pandemic. When masks finally go away, these challenges will remain. This new reality calls not just for new priorities for school and district leaders, but also a new role for leaders.
Based on my work with schools, I believe leaders can make three specific shifts to better serve the students of the COVID generation: (1) embrace best practices for supporting students who struggle academically; (2) focus SEL efforts on more impactful relationship building and mental health counseling; and (3) seek staff in unconventional ways. Let's briefly unpack each of these shifts.

Using Best Practices for Students Who Struggle

The difference between and a riddle and an enigma is that a riddle has an answer. How to catch kids up academically, fortunately, is a riddle. Well-proven best practices show the way. Before the pandemic, schools in a district I led, Arlington, Massachusetts (and many others I consulted with), closed achievement gaps by 40 points on state year-end assessments. Some regularly saw kids gain one and a half years' worth of academic growth in a year. If all schools could match these results, the pandemic-related learning losses could be recouped in a few years. While these high-growth schools differ in size, demographics, and geography, they all embraced three core tenets.
The first is focusing on high quality, rigorous, grade-level core instruction. It might seem reasonable that 8th graders who missed much of 7th grade should be retaught 7th grade content. Best-practice schools know otherwise. Focusing mostly on below-grade-level material just keeps kids below grade level. Yes, core instruction must include scaffolding of prior skills and be supplemented by intervention (more on this in a moment). But we can't substitute remediation for high-quality core instruction.
Focusing on core instruction also means ensuring all students are present during core reading and math. Far too many students who struggle get pulled out of critical core instruction to get speech and language help, small-group, paraprofessional-led support, or to work with a special educator in a resource room. While all these efforts are important, they can't come at the expense of core reading and math instruction. Such interventions should be in addition to, not instead of, core instruction.
One sizable district I worked with in Illinois, for example, supercharged its commitment to core instruction by mandating that no student could be pulled from core elementary reading and math. The district leaders supported this decision by reviewing all students' schedules and having a scheduling guru available to help principals, special educators, and related service providers ensure they could honor the policy.

The difference between a riddle and an enigma is that a riddle has an answer. How to catch kids up academically is a riddle.

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The second tenet is providing extra time to learn what wasn't mastered in prior years. It will take time to teach and learn all that was missed or misunderstood during nearly two years of interrupted school and to address the gaps that existed for many kids pre-pandemic. The learning gaps are large, so the time commitment must be as well. I believe schools should provide at least 30 extra minutes a day for struggling readers at the elementary level and 45 minutes a day for secondary students struggling in math.
Before the pandemic, I met with a group of secondary math-intervention teachers who had an extra 50 minutes a day, 180 days a year—on top of one daily period of core instruction—to help kids catch up. Their top complaint was that it was hard to address all the learning gaps in just one extra period a day! Imagine trying to do this just during the core math period. It's impossible to teach this year's math and fill in prior gaps in just one period a day.
In the pursuit of equity, this extra time should ideally be provided during the normal school day, not before or after school. Otherwise, students who lack transportation or must work or look after siblings will be left behind. The time needed for such extra-time intervention can be found in nearly every school. Common strategies include:
  • At elementary schools, embed social studies into the ELA block by reading and writing about the grade-level social studies standards.
  • At the middle school level, delay the start of foreign languages by a year or two.
  • In high school, have freshman delay taking a subject that just needs three years for graduation. (For example, if only three science credits are needed, have some kids take an extra math class as 9th graders instead of a science class. They'll do much better in science starting in 10th grade.)
The final tenet of best-practice instruction is perhaps the most critical: both core instruction and help provided in extra-time must be delivered by teachers well-versed and well-trained in the content. Kids who struggle to read must be taught by staff trained in teaching reading. Kids who struggle with math need teachers who know math well. Intervention teachers need two or three ways to present a topic during the extra-time intervention and must be able to customize instruction on the fly. This takes a deep understanding of the subject.
Remember, kids who struggle have often been taught a skill or topic once and didn't master it. If extra-time intervention is just a repeat of the first serving of the material, it's unlikely to be more impactful the second time.

The leadership skill that will be central to healing the educational harm of the pandemic is comfort in embracing new ways to do old things.

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Nate Levenson

While it might seem common sense that content-strong teachers should be delivering instruction to strugglers, it's unfortunately not common practice. Before the pandemic, K–12 increasingly relied on paraprofessionals to provide reading support (U.S. Department of Education, 2017a), hoping that having smaller groups would offset paraprofessionals' lack of formal training. I believe this policy is one reason why nearly two-thirds of U.S. 4th grade students read below grade level nationwide (U.S. Department of Education, 2017b). At the same time, too often students with mild to moderate disabilities often received math help from special educators, most of whom lack expertise in math. Relying on less skilled, non-content-strong staff won't be any more effective now than it was in the past.

Focusing How We Offer SEL

The COVID-19 generation needs more than best-practice academic strategies. These students need strong programming for social-emotional learning—but not just any flavor of SEL. Most districts prioritized SEL before the disruption, and even more do so now. This commitment is great—but often the results are not. SEL is hard to do well because it's such a big topic, encompassing grit, empathy, compassion, self-awareness, cooperation, relationship skills, and a dozen other desirable traits.
I believe two aspects of SEL can supercharge students' recovery from the negative impact of the pandemic. The first is a significant increase in mental health counseling services available to students. Academic goals can't be achieved if students' mental health needs aren't met. Readiness to learn is now the fourth "R" of schooling. Many districts will need to double or triple the level of mental health services provided.
The district I led in Arlington, Massachusetts, tackled this challenge by shifting some 1:1 counseling to small groups when appropriate. This tripled the number of students who could be helped by existing staff. The district also augmented its own staff by dedicating a staff member to find, nurture, and manage community partners who could provide counseling services in the schools. The district invested $50,000 in this part-time coordinator, and the effort yielded the equivalent of 14 full-time counselors at no added cost.
The second aspect is letting students know they are "seen" and matter—through forming relationships with at least one adult at school. Just as the pandemic caused many adults to reassess their lives and jobs, some kids used time away from school to reassess school itself. Does it matter? some wondered. Would anyone notice or care if I didn't come back? We need to make a major push to re-engage students and convince them someone at school cares.
If you're thinking, we have advisory periods, morning meeting and restorative circles, so we are good on this front, think again. These strategies are leaving too many students disconnected. To truly build trusting relationships between students and teachers, we must:
  • Create casual small-group settings, like lunch, for authentic conversation with a teacher and a few students.
  • Pair students with staff who have similar interests for advisory and "after school clubs" (held during the school day). Relationships are often built on shared interests.
  • Get to know students beyond their schoolwork—meaning their hopes, fears, hobbies, and passions.
A mid-sized district I worked with in Minnesota reimagined relationship building between teachers and students by starting with student agency. Rather than assigning kids to an advisory class with a randomly selected teacher, they asked the students who they wanted to get to know and be known by. Teachers shared their hobbies, interests, and passions, and students selected their advisory teacher based on common interests. Advisory periods started to look more like after-school clubs, but during the day. One group discussed the "Great British Bake-Off"; another chatted about video games; and another focused on fantasy basketball. Conversations flowed easily because of shared interests. Relationships formed naturally.

Hiring in New Ways

To make the first two shifts, schools and districts must embrace a new way of finding teachers—and even of considering who to hire. The gap-closing, accelerating learning strategies I've mentioned require a lot of reading teachers, math teachers, mental health professionals, and instructional coaches. Anyone who has tried hiring staff this year knows these folks are in short supply, and the pool of qualified candidates will be tight for years. That said, there is reason for hope. The needed staff are out there, just not in the usual places. To meet the needs of the COVID-19 generation students, schools will need to augment traditional staffing with strategies like:
  • Hiring retired teachers who want to work part time.
  • Creating job-sharing arrangements for staff who want more time at home to care for children or look after aging parents.
  • Paying existing teachers extra to teach more sections or larger classes (only those who want to).
  • Inviting college students and college grads who majored in math or the sciences to be math tutors.
  • Welcoming career-switching professionals into teaching.
  • Partnering with fee-for-service, insurance-funded counselors and community-based mental health professionals.
  • Resisting the temptation to hire lower-skilled staff (possibly the hardest one to do).
Augmenting the teaching ranks with high-skilled tutors and career switchers will require HR departments to actively guide these folks through all paperwork hurdles, prepopulating the forms as much as possible. It will also likely take some dedicated staff who focuses on recruiting, onboarding and nurturing these new types of candidates.

Strategic Scheduling

These shifts can be a game changer for students, but they require school and district leaders to lead differently. Given the loss of instructional time over the last few years (which continues to this day, with quarantining kids and teacher shortages), every minute of the school day is precious. Scheduling will be of strategic importance to addressing the impact of unfinished learning. Leaders must proactively manage school, staff, and student schedules. This includes:
  • Providing elementary teachers "micro schedules" that call out in fine detail the key elements of effective core instruction, such as providing 20 minutes of phonics each day in K–2 or 10 minutes of scaffolding prior skills in each math lesson.
  • Scheduling related services in such a way that students aren't pulled from core reading and math instruction.
  • Monitoring instructional coaches' schedules to ensure that about three-fourths of their day is with teachers, and that they join PLCs each week.
  • Building middle and high school schedules that have a second "dose" of math instruction, doubling instructional time for math for those who need it.
I believe leaders should never say, "The schedule won't allow us to implement these best practices." To be clear, all leaders need to value strategic schedules as a ticket to better outcomes, but not all need to be great, or even good, schedulers. Building great schedules can be delegated to people who are skilled at it—teachers with a knack for creating schedules or even subcontractors. The key point is that valuing schedules—and considering thoughtfully what to schedule—is a key role of tomorrow's school leaders.

Embracing New Ways

Beyond technical skills like scheduling or guiding teachers on how to teach grade-level content to students with many prior knowledge gaps, the leadership skill that will be most central to healing the educational harm of the pandemic is comfort in embracing new ways of doing old things. Getting others comfortable with this will be important as well. COVID-19 changed everything. Yet it's human nature to yearn for the good old days, even if they are just a few years back and weren't actually that good for many people. Stressed teachers and anxious parents might create pressure to "get back to the way it was." School and district leaders must lead to a different, better future, not guide their schools back to the comfortable.
Changing schedules to include extra time for instruction, helping teachers plan daily scaffolding, hiring college students (possibly remotely) as tutors, making schools supportive of part-time staff or welcoming to career-switching professionals will be new, different, and possibly uncomfortable. It's also what I believe kids need.
Great leaders will personally embrace these shifts as the right thing to do, and help others do the same. They will remind their team that kids are counting on us to help repair the damage from the pandemic and remind their staff why they got into teaching (for the children). They will help energize weary folks for a long, hard, but crucially important effort.
In galvanizing a nation to embrace reaching the moon in a decade, a seemingly impossible task, John F. Kennedy (1962) said:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Addressing the impact of the pandemic will be hard. But great leaders are willing to accept such a challenge, unwilling to postpone it—and will motivate others to accept it, too.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Do you agree with Levenson's emphasis on rigorous core instruction, focused SEL, and innovative hiring as the primary strategies for school recovery? Why or why not?

➛ Has your school tried providing extended learning time for struggling students? Might any of the strategies described here for extended learning time work in your school?

➛ Consider Levenson's suggestions for "hiring creatively" and getting more educators into a school. What new hiring strategies could your school try?


Kennedy, J. F. (1962, Sept. 12). John F. Kennedy Moon Speech - Rice Stadium.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2017a). Statistics of Public Elementary and Secondary School Systems, 1980-81; (CCD), "State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary/Secondary Education," 1985–86 through 2015–16; and National Elementary & Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1972-2027.

U.S. Department of Education. (2017b). National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2017 Reading Assessment, Average Scale Scores and Percentages at Each Achievement Level for Grade 4 Reading, by All Students [TOTAL] and Jurisdiction: 2017.

End Notes

1 For a more detailed discussion of needed shifts, see my recent book Six Shifts to Improve Special Education and Other Interventions (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

Nate Levenson, a former superintendent, is president of New Solutions K12 and author, most recently, of Six Shifts to Improve Special Educations and Other Interventions (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

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