Voices in Education

How COVID-19 Laid Bare the Strengths and Weaknesses of Schools
Early in the pandemic it became clear that students from high-income families were doing much better with remote schooling than students from low-income families. Schools in wealthy communities could successfully launch live instruction online because their students already had access to computers, the internet, and parents who could oversee instruction while working from home. However, in low-income communities, many—often most—families lacked devices, reliable internet connections, and parents whose employers allowed them to work remotely. The digital divide was, in fact, very real.

But wealth was not the only factor that determined whether educators responded rapidly and effectively to the sudden and dramatic demands of school closings. The largely untold story is about how features of a school’s organization had far-reaching effects on what it could do for its students. In schools where teachers were used to working in isolation, they were largely on their own to decide what and how to teach. They lacked easy access to their colleagues’ knowledge, skills and advice as they faced difficult questions: What should I teach (review old material, introduce new material)? How should I teach (live or asynchronously)? What technology platform should I use? How can I meet the needs of students who rely on one-to-one support for their learning? How should I track and assess students’ participation and progress? In schools that were essentially collections of classrooms, teachers were left on their own to sink or swim, and too many struggled and sank.

In schools where teachers were accustomed to collaborating regularly on well-established teams, they swiftly moved their meetings online and continued to deliberate together as they made difficult decisions based on their best collective knowledge and judgment. In the end, those teachers could accomplish more, with greater confidence, than if they were on their own. And when teachers worked together, their students could count on having a coherent learning experience. It’s notable that such organizational strength and success was not confined to high-income schools.

In Where Teachers Thrive, published less than a year before the pandemic, I describe how the successful low-income schools I studied relied on teacher teams (organized by grade-level, subject, or student cluster) to coordinate their instruction and monitor their students’ progress and well-being as they moved from class to class or grade to grade. These teams’ efforts were grounded in an important purpose, which the teachers understood and shared. Team members spent their time together learning more about their work and their students. Teachers widely valued their teams, which one principal called their “first line of defense”—a truth that took on new meaning in March 2020.

When states suddenly closed schools last spring, some were well-prepared to respond, while others were ill-equipped and defenseless. In well-organized schools teachers could quickly regroup to assess and address the challenges they faced, then move ahead with confidence to serve their students. By contrast, in compartmentalized schools, where professional norms of self-reliance and autonomy prevailed, teachers were on their own and students often paid the price.

Last spring, I followed the experiences of teachers and administrators in one high-poverty school district, where every school served a low-income neighborhood. COVID-19 rates were among the highest in the state and few families had the resources to meet the demands of online schooling. Joining forces with the district, the city’s mayor provided funds for every family to have a Chromebook while local businesses assisted in creating hot spots for internet access. With guidance from central office administrators, the teachers and administrators spent two weeks preparing for remote instruction. All schools faced similar challenges, but some fared much better than others. Wealth did not make the difference; school organization did.

In schools where teachers were used to working alone, they continued to do so. They created work packets with assignments for students to complete. They sometimes convened their classes virtually so that students could see each other, but unexpected challenges were daunting and they continued to hope that things would soon return to normal.

For example, one middle school teacher said, “I have pretty free rein over my curriculum and autonomy in the choices of the books I teach and what I’m doing with kids.” But during the first few weeks of remote learning he felt unmoored: “I didn’t know who was in charge of anything, really.” So he made his own decisions: “I post four lessons that are usually connected somehow on Sunday night, and they’re due by Friday...I’m mostly sticking with the curriculum that I had planned this spring, but I’m doing it much slower, so really, we’re only doing about 25% of the curriculum that I had planned...I’d say 25% of my kids are just kind of MIA and [they] would prefer it that way.”

At another secondary school that was not organized for collaboration, a teacher said, “So it’s been chaotic and we’ve been trying to just do the best we can. I don’t think there is anything similar about any of the classes in this school right now. Admin has been giving us guidelines, the state has been giving us guidelines, and we’re kind of floundering in the water, trying to do whatever we can.”

Meanwhile, schools that already had teacher teams up and running pivoted from in-person to online instruction. As teachers continued to meet and deliberate regularly, no one was expected, or allowed, to go it alone. At another middle school, teachers moved their regular team meetings online, where they explored options and reached agreements about how they would teach, what a daily class should look like and how much homework to assign. One teacher said they’d been trained on all the available technology platforms before deciding which to use. Their principal had purchased three internet domain names—one for each grade. When students logged on to their grade-level site, they were greeted by their teachers, who had posted photos and recorded welcomes. Every student was expected to attend three live classes each morning at 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00, where their math, ELA, and science teachers presented short lessons and then convened small groups for tutoring. In the afternoon, students participated in a live fitness class and chose one other option: music, counseling, tutoring or an enrichment exercise. One teacher explained that the teams continued to meet throughout the spring, “so we can be sure that everything runs smoothly.”

A newly appointed principal saw an opportunity to make unexpected progress in promoting collaboration at her failing elementary school. She said that “If you were to walk into any classroom this year, you would see drastically different instruction from one to another within the same grade level. The student was not [considered] first for many years within this building.” She had encountered resistance over several months as she tried “to build a system of teams focused on what the kids need to learn in this grade level, how we deliver that instruction, and what we do for the kiddos who have some unfinished learning.” Fortunately, though, the disruption caused by the school’s closing had increased teachers’ need for support from their peers: “It’s been so challenging to reach all of our learners. People have really had to rely on one another and become a team in way more dramatic ways than I would’ve been able to get them to be before the pandemic.” She reflected with some pleasure, “And so that’s the silver lining through all of this. Who would have thought?”

This story is unfinished, but its moral is already clear: Schools can serve their students far better if teachers collaborate regularly. What is true during normal, predictable circumstances becomes even truer in the dynamic, unpredictable environment educators face today. As school buildings gradually reopen, close, and reopen again, teachers must adopt and adapt untested approaches to “hybrid” instruction. In doing so, they need more than ever to rely on their colleagues and their school’s internal organization to support their work and ensure their students’ success.

About the Author: Susan Moore Johnson is the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she served as academic dean from 1993 to 1999. She is the author of Where Teachers Thrive (Harvard Education Press, 2019).