New Partnership for Leaders in Education Report Sees Opportunity for Innovation Following COVID-19 Disruption

20 January 2023

By Dave Hendrick

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved disastrous for public education in the United States, with the full impact of unfinished learning following two years of disruption only beginning to come to the surface. In early September, national test results showed steep drops in math and reading, with declines across demographics. Schools have also emerged from the worst of the pandemic with severe staffing shortages and a sharp rise in student wellbeing concerns leading many state and district leaders to consider creative solutions to rethink personnel strategy. Against this backdrop, the UVA Partnership for Leaders in Education recently released a report, “Exploring New Frontiers for K-12 Systems Transformation,” in which the organization reflects on the current crisis and explores potential paths forward.

PLE, a joint venture between the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and the UVA School of Education and Human Development, has helped transform education systems with a rigorous evidence-based approach, adapted to each community’s context, in more than 120 school districts across the country.

William Robinson, executive director of PLE, recently spoke about the new report and the organization’s recent Forum with school system leaders at UVA Darden DC Metro.

An edited transcript of that conversation follows:

Recent research has underscored the significant learning loss in school systems related to COVID-19. How would you describe the issue?

We have lost multiple decades of progress in student learning. The NAEP test, which is the most rigorous national measure of progress, demonstrates that not only have students fallen backwards at least two decades, but the learning gaps between Black and white students and economically disadvantaged students in most subjects are the highest they have been since the 1970s. The learning gaps are so dire and tragic, especially amongst traditionally marginalized children, that we have barely scratched the surface on how we need to collectively respond to this and the parallel crisis with student well-being that’s been exacerbated by COVID.

These trends are extremely relevant to PLE’s work. How do you describe what the organization does?

UVA-PLE is the only research-proven effort in the country focused on establishing system conditions ripe for change and building transformative leadership capacity to achieve that change. We inspire school systems and school leaders to advance transformational change. Leveraging incredible faculty and practitioners who’ve led successful systems change and get to know each school system’s unique context, we aim to be the leading organization in the country helping teams create environments where schools thrive while working to eliminate disparities by race and income. We do that through a combination of world-class Executive Education and in-field support adapted to the needs of school systems we serve.

The new report from PLE describes the current moment as an opportunity to in some ways reset and make meaningful changes to K-12 instruction. How do you describe the potential reinvention?

This moment calls for boldness and reimagination of how our school systems are designed. Not only is the time ripe because there is urgency in addressing student needs, but more stakeholders are open to dramatic change because more are dissatisfied with the status quo. However, the power of inertia is strong and there are longstanding inequities baked into the system. We’ve discovered leadership teams and systems that are doing inspiring things leading to measurable results for students right now. How do we learn from those efforts, explore what it will take to expand and deepen those efforts and examine what else we need to spark nationally to respond to this crisis?

The findings suggest at least four paths that should be addressed to unleash creativity: Innovative Secondary Models, Academic Acceleration, Creative Staffing and Equitable Resource Allocation. Can you give us an example of success in one of those arenas?

The staffing models in K-12 education have not changed that much in generations, despite the workforce changing tremendously. So we’re seeing long overdue rethinking of how we recruit and retain teachers and other educators that builds pipelines in the community. In Ector County, Texas, for instance, they created interconnected programs to do things to identify talent and create new pathways for them to meet their community needs. On the leadership front, they took an intentional approach to encourage the district’s strongest teachers to become teacher leaders and administrators. And when they set out to build a new pipeline for teachers, they created pathways for people outside of education to have alternate licensure. One of the most creative things that I saw was an initiative they put in place to incentivize people already engaged with the district to become teachers, whether they’re paraprofessionals or even students.

From the superintendent down, the administration in Ector County has acknowledged that staffing is both an immediate challenge and long-term opportunity, and they’ve built systems to address and capitalize on both.

Are these different approaches than the ones we see in headlines with states such as Florida trying to address its teacher shortage?

Yes. We found that a lot of educational interventions through the years that are all about bringing outside talent into the system are not the most sustainable models. This report suggests that we not only grow pipelines internally, but also try to leverage our learning from the virtual space to bring interventions and advanced coursework to students who may not otherwise have access and to create new, outcome-focused models of summer school. If educators organize student interventions such as high-dosage tutoring in thoughtful manners aligned to student needs, there are a ton of people who have time and interest in contributing to those students’ success and could even extend the amount of time students are learning without hiring new people. And that could complement the hard work of educators in brick and mortar buildings. Doing this well though requires not just setting up students with technology and virtual teacher or tutor but intentional work to build trusting relationships with students and across adults to ensure the support seamlessly connects to student academic and mental health needs.

Leaders can more creatively consider technology solutions we see growing to ensure more students are able to access instruction from excellent teachers and that multiple adults are able to work with students across their instructional, wellness, and tutoring needs in highly coordinated manners. These type of solutions — alongside compensating teachers more — would cut down the need to bring in less qualified adults simply to have someone in a traditional assignment. Having to rely on unqualified and unprepared staff is becoming the norm in too many places, particularly those with fewer resources.

The report describes a “pause” to reconsider some current actions. How do you create the space for reinvention?

It starts with leadership. Effective leaders inspire and bring together people across silos who otherwise would not collaborate and address important problems together. In many of the cases we amplify in our report, we saw leaders tearing down old structures or creating new ones across power to truly understand the current reality and to create different paths for breakthrough change responsive to stakeholders’ needs. This kind of solution, stakeholder, and data-informed focus is more important right now than ever as school board and other education meetings are becoming polarized places where there is a vacuum of focus on what matters most.

Effective leaders make time to cultivate as many ideas as possible from diverse stakeholders. And then these leaders leverage collective learning and energy from the group to make sure there is an action orientation and clear focus areas that connects back to what they’ve learned from their stakeholders. Once focus is chosen, we strongly suggest a learning lab approach around strategies to achieve that focus. Attempting to do small changes well and then scaling them makes it easier to do courageous things, to stop things that aren’t working, and to expand what’s actually working.

There are many great case studies in the report of schools making progress amid the uncertainty. Can you give us one that stands out?

Dallas Independent School District is one. In their case, 46 out of 46 schools that they have invested in for this high dosage student intervention in summer school demonstrated student learning progress during 2021-22. And, through their P-Tech program they expanded during 2016, they have seen a tripling of students from historically underserved high schools now on concrete pathways to associate degrees, career certification and bachelor’s degrees.  It seems profound, but it’s really quite simple: if you create conditions for students to believe in themselves and see that they have opportunities they are going to grab them.

Are you optimistic about public education in the U.S.?

This is a time of greater polarization in education than we have seen in some time. However, the vast majority of educators across the country commit every day to doing right by their kids, inspiring hope and equipping their scholars for success. That commitment from teachers and administrators gives me optimism. Most educators want to shift practice to accelerate outcomes and close access gaps to meaningfully address problematic inequities. Teachers want to ensure more excellent outcomes that puts students on concrete pathways towards post-secondary opportunities meaningful to them. Those teachers need to be supported by leadership teams who are willing and able to address cracks in the system. When we can figure out how to redesign systems so they can collaborate and work differently to raise expectations and outcomes for students, we are seeing what’s possible.

While I’m optimistic, I’m not naïve. We need leaders to instill a greater sense of urgency given the outcomes of the pandemic. If leaders do not rise to the challenge, increase focus on organizing to provide high quality instruction, and reimagine things that for too long have been status quo, I worry that we will fall further backwards.

PLE held a Forum in October to build on some of the themes. What emerged from that meeting?

We learned new ideas, stories and cases that sharpen our thinking about what achieving the next frontier in K-12 transformation will look like. We are now assisting school systems with, for instance, re-imagining the experience of literacy and language learning in high school, extending learning with after-school partners and experiential practices, exploring how to ensure being a teacher is the most attractive job in their county, and expanding access to school designs that are making a difference. We will build a repository of stories that will ignite hope and ideas around the country. We hope the learning, outcomes, and repository serve as the foundation for the future of systems and school leadership development that inspires dramatically improved outcomes.

View the full report.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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