Leaders Must Design COVID-19 Recovery Programs to Be ‘READI’ for the Highest Need Schools

Teen student wearing headphones works on laptop.

By Lisa Lachlan-Haché, EdD, and Etai Mizrav
May 11, 2020

Although equity has been top of mind for many educators for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequities like never before. So how do education leaders focus their efforts to address equity in the midst of this pandemic?

The new focus on equity requires leaders to look closely at the initiatives and programs they are implementing and ask themselves: Does this program reduce achievement gaps or contribute to them?

As content experts on the teacher workforce for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center), we push leaders to ask this tough question because, often, state and district programs target the needs of all schools, all teachers, all students—when, in fact, they are designed in a way that doesn’t cater to schools of greater need. As a result, the schools, teachers, and students who need the supports the most may not be served by the programs that the state or district has designed.

In our new brief for the GTL Center, The READI Framework: Closing Gaps by Addressing the Needs of Underserved Schools, we highlight the fact that despite decades of education reform intended to close achievement gaps, states and districts continue to struggle to improve outcomes in their lowest performing schools. One key challenge with education reform initiatives is that underserved schools often have fewer resources and less capacity to rigorously implement improvement strategies such as new teacher mentoring and induction supports, teacher leadership programs, or grow-your-own teacher pipeline initiatives. These inequities will continue to gain a foothold through the pandemic and, as a result, the districts and schools that most need support programs will continue to be the ones that are least likely to adopt and implement them successfully—a phenomenon that we call the “needs paradox.”

Throughout our years of supporting states and districts in designing programs for school improvement, we consistently see high-need schools dropping out of or never engaging in well-intentioned district and state programs because of challenges such as time constraints or stresses related to accountability pressures, working conditions, and staff turnover—challenges well documented throughout the literature (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Goldhaber, Lavery, & Theobald, 2015; Goldhaber, Quince, & Theobald, 2016; Isenberg et al., 2016; Sass, Hannaway, Xu, Figlio, & Feng, 2012).

This lack of engagement often leads states or districts to label those high-need schools as having a lack of “readiness,” at which point their teams move to the next pressing concern. And look, we understand. District and state leaders have a lot of pressures and often more work than any one person or team can handle. But if education leaders want to make an impact, especially as we face this pandemic, we must stop overlooking our high-need schools. Unless we intentionally tailor programs with them in mind, we are likely developing programs that have the unintended and contrary effect of widening achievement gaps, as higher performing, higher capacity schools—rather than schools that most need such programs—adopt and implement the programs created.

The needs paradox is, and will be, especially exacerbated during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. The learning loss, potential physical and emotional trauma, and general hardship will disproportionally hit students who are already struggling, including students with disabilities who rely on their schools more than anyone else, English learners for whom schools can be a place for linguistic and cultural integration, and generally students from underserved communities, including students in rural schools, that were struggling even before the crisis began. Schools that serve these students will experience significant challenges and be even less prepared to succeed in traditional education programs. Teachers in these schools will face a new challenge of instructing a classroom of students who had very different experiences during the months of the crisis, with more students who are now at greater risk of disengaging and falling behind. If leaders design recovery efforts without considering the unique needs and circumstances of these schools and teachers, we will see continued widening of gaps.

So let’s flip the narrative of “readiness” to take the onus off of high-need schools and take the lead in creating programs that are designed to succeed in the highest-need settings.

Let’s make readiness our responsibility as leaders of these programs. Are we ready to meet the needs of our highest need schools, teachers, and students? Education leaders can use the READI framework to think through the following:

  • Resource deficiencies: How can programs tailor supports to address the limited financial and time resources of underserved schools while leveraging the unique strengths of participating schools?
  • Educator supports: How can programs provide the supports needed by novice, ineffective, or underprepared teachers to engage more effectively in their work?
  • Accountability requirements: How can program design align with current accountability and school improvement requirements to streamline efforts?
  • Disparities in working conditions: How can our programs counteract disparities in working conditions that have disproportionately affected teachers in underserved schools for decades?
  • Implementation capacity of staff: How can we create and persistently engage in supports and capacity-building services to construct sustainability plans for school and district teams that are consistently stretched thin?

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is leading by example, boosting special education and low-enrollment schools with an additional $125 million. The funding will also go toward nurses and social workers desperately needed during this pandemic. CPS is also building out programs designed to support teacher retention in their highest need schools. Through Region 9’s work with CPS, we are engaging with programs across the district to support programs in high-need schools with data and analysis that will help them refine programs, counteract disparities in working conditions, and build educator supports for novice, ineffective, and underprepared teachers that serve in high-need settings. We hope this work continues to build on the great work already in place within CPS and make their programs READI for addressing the greater needs created by the pandemic.

We hope you’ll join us in flipping the READIness paradigm. Here are some next steps to consider:

  • Explore using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to support underserved students not only in their access to technology, but also with additional time and resources to address the COVID-19 learning slide. This could include time for summer school, tutoring, or additional opportunities for connection with other important adults in the school community, such as instructional coaches, English learner specialists, nurses, and social workers.
  • Reflect on the support your leadership team is providing teachers now that working conditions in underserved schools have shifted dramatically. Consistently commend your teachers for rising to this unprecedented challenge with recognition, rewards, and opportunities to support one another.
  • Think through the additional training needed for teachers in underserved schools to teach in both remote settings and in-person classrooms. As we step into the next phases of the pandemic, these teachers may need additional training. The district leaders and vendors you already use to support distance learning and curriculum and standards work should be prepared to support your teachers as we build out next steps.

Lisa Lachlan-Haché, EdD, is a content expert for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s project with Chicago Public Schools and director of strategic partnerships for the GTL Center. Etai Mizrav is a content expert for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s project on teacher recruitment and retention with the Illinois State Board of Education and the lead for equitable access and diversifying the educator workforce at the GTL Center. For more information on their work with the GTL Center, email them at llachlan@air.org or emizrav@air.org, or check out the website at https://gtlcenter.org/readi.

Photo courtesy of Pexels/Christina Morillo.